Blue Marble

How Californians Screwed Drought-Plagued California

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 12:25 PM EDT
The state's water hogs and Silicon Valley's tech shuttles benefit from the same tax exclusion.

Solving California's water crisis got a lot harder on Monday when a state appeals court struck down steeply tiered water rates in the city of San Juan Capistrano. Like many other California cities, this affluent Orange County town encourages conservation by charging customers who use small amounts of water a lower rate per gallon than customers who use larger amounts. The court ruled that the practice conflicts with Proposition 218, a ballot measure that, among other things, bars governments from charging more for a service than it costs to provide it.

In the process of thwarting taxation without voter approval, Prop. 218 stops state and local governments from addressing urgent problems, such as drought.

The drought isn't the only way Prop. 218 is hamstringing California cities. Early last year, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency announced a controversial pilot program that would allow Google buses and other tech shuttles to use public bus stops for $1 a stop. Activists, who saw the shuttles as symbols of inequality and out-of-control gentrification, wanted the agency to charge Google much more than that and use the profits to subsidize the city's chronically underfunded public transit system. But MTA officials argued that their hands were tied: Prop. 218 prevented them from charging more than the estimated $1.5 million cost of administering the program.

Prop. 218, the "Right to Vote on Taxes Act," was a constitutional amendment drafted in 1996 by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the group that led the tax revolt that swept California in the 1970s and eventually helped elect President Ronald Reagan. After 1978, when the group's signature initiative, Prop. 13, began severely limiting property tax increases, cities and counties moved to plug their budgetary holes with other types of taxes and fees. Prop 218 was designed to constrain those workarounds by requiring that any new tax be approved by voters or affected property owners. For the purposes of the act, taxes included any fees from which a government derived a profit.

Prop. 218 has been widely criticized for making it harder for cities to raise revenues, but the recent cases with water rates and tech shuttles point to another issue: the way the initiative prevents state and local governments from addressing urgent social and environmental problems. It's worth remembering that withdrawing water from California's dwindling reservoirs to feed verdant lawns is in itself a tax of sorts, and Mother Nature may not wait until the next election to revoke our ability to levy it.

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17 Everyday Items That Use a Whole Lot of Water

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 6:45 AM EDT

If you live in the West, particularly in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a 25 percent mandatory reduction in household water use, you may have started taking shorter showers. Perhaps a spiky array of cacti now dwells where your lawn used to be. Maybe you've even stopped drinking almond milk.

But even those of us who don't live in California are thinking more about how much water our lifestyles require—after all, much of the country is now in drought, and climate models project that dry spells will become more and more common all over the world in the years to come. A few years back, we crunched the numbers on the water footprints of a few common items:

 

Icon credits (via Noun Project): Microchip—Rabee Balakrishnan; Apple—Ava Rowell; Beer—Fabian Sanabria; Wine—Philippe Berthelon Bravo; Can—Blaise Sewell; Coffee—Okan Benn; OJ—Blaise Sewell; Diaper—Isabel Foo; Chicken—Ana Maria Lora Macias; Cheese—Elliott Snyder; Hamburger—Pei Wen (Winnie) Kwang; T-shirt—Sergi Delgado; Paper—Evan Udelsman; Beef—Jon Testa; Jeans—Pranav Mote;

McDonald's Franchisees: "We Will Continue to Fall and Fail"

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 7:11 PM EDT

McDonald's opened its first franchise in Des Plaines, Ill., 60 years ago today, but its franchisees aren't exactly celebrating.

"The future looks very bleak. I'm selling my McDonald's stock," one operator wrote in response to a recent survey of McDonald's franchises across the country, as quoted by Business Insider. "The morale of franchisees is at its lowest level ever."

"McDonalds' system is broken," wrote one franchisee.

"McDonalds' system is broken," another wrote, according to MarketWatch. "We will continue to fall and fail."

Is the fast-food giant having a mid-life crisis?

McDonald's has some 3,000 franchises in the United States, and 32 of them—representing 215 restaurants—took part in the latest survey by Wall Street analyst Mark Kalinowski of Janney Capital Markets. Many of them complained about poor business this year and blamed corporate executives. When asked to assess their six-month business outlook on a scale of 1 to 5, they responded grimly with an average of 1.81. Maybe that's because, according to the survey, same-store sales for franchises declined 3.7 percent in March and 4 percent in February.

Only three of the 32 franchisees said they had a "good" relationship with their franchisor, while about half described their relationship as "poor." The average score for this question was 1.48 out of 5, the lowest score since Kalinowski first started surveying the franchisees more than a decade ago.

Reuters reported that a McDonald's spokesperson responded to the survey by noting the poll size and saying that the company appreciates feedback from franchisees and has a "solid working relationship with them."

Last month, McDonald's executives invited franchisees to a "Turnaround Summit" in Las Vegas, to address its US sales decline. But the get-together didn't seem to boost anyone's spirits. "The Turnaround Summit was a farce," one franchisee wrote in the survey, as quoted by AdAge. "McDonald's Corp. has panicked and jumped the shark." Another added, "McDonald's management does not know what we want to be."

Some franchise operators slammed McDonalds' decision to raise pay by giving employees at company-owned stores $1 an hour above minimum wage. "We will be expected to do the same," one wrote, according to Nation's Restaurant News. "Watch for $5 Big Macs, etc. and Extra Value Meals in the $8 to $10 range."

Next week, McDonald's is set to report its first-quarter earnings.

These Popular Clothing Brands Are Cleaning Up Their Chinese Factories

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

It's well known that the outsourcing of clothing manufacturing to countries with low wages and weak regulations has led to exploitative labor conditions. But many foreign apparel factories also create environmental problems. The industrial processes used to make our jeans and sweatshirts require loads of water, dirty energy, and chemicals, which often get dumped into the rivers and air surrounding factories in developing countries. Almost 20 percent of the world's industrial water pollution comes from the textile industry, and China's textile factories, which produce half of the clothes bought in the United States, emit 3 billion tons of soot a year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

But a few basic (and often profitable) changes in a factory's manufacturing process can go a long way in cutting down pollution. That's the takeaway from Clean by Design, a new alliance between NRDC, major clothing brands—including Target, Levi's, Gap, and H&M—and Chinese textile manufacturing experts.

Starting in 2013, 33 mills in the cities of Guangzhou and Shaoxing participated in a pilot program that focused on improving efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of producing textiles. The results, released in a report today, are impressive. 

The 33 mills reduced coal consumption by 61,000 tons and chemical consumption by 400 tons. They saved 36 million kilowatts of electricity and 3 million tons of water (the production of one tee shirt takes about 700 gallons, or 90 pounds, of water). While mills often needed to invest in capital up front, they saw an average of $440,000 in savings per mill—a total of $14.7 million—mostly returned to them within a year.

How did they accomplish all this? Below are some of the measures that were implemented:

  • Upgrading metering systems to monitor water, steam, and electricity use (and identify waste)

  • Implementing condensation collection during the steam-heavy dying process

  • Increasing water reuse after cooling and rinsing (some clothes get rinsed as many as 8 times; the final rinses often leave behind clean water)

  • Investing in equipment for recovering heat from hot water used for dying and rinsing, and from machines

  • Stopping up steam and compressed air leakage to increase energy efficiency

  • Improving insulation on pipes, boilers, drying cylinders, dye vats, and steam valves to prevent wasted energy

The FDA Has Some Bad News About Your Kind Bars

| Tue Apr. 14, 2015 2:41 PM EDT

Depressing news for all you Kind bar fans: The popular nut and fruit snack, which bills itself as a "healthy and tasty" treat, is actually kind of not healthy at all.

According to a letter from the Food and Drug Administration to the makers of Kind, the bars "do not meet the requirements for use of the nutrient content claim 'healthy’ on a food label" under the law.

"Your website states, 'There’s healthy. There’s tasty. Then there’s healthy and tasty' and 'all of our snacks are pretty much the nirvana of healthful tastiness.' In addition, your webpage for the Kind Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein product states 'KIND Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein is a healthy and satisfying blend of peanuts and antioxidant-rich dark chocolate.' However, none of your products listed above meet the requirements for use of the nutrient content claim 'healthy' that are set forth in 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2)."

The FDA said the bars have too much saturated fat to justify the term "healthy," and also don't measure up to their "antioxidant-rich" claim. Bloomberg reports Kind is "moving quickly to comply" to edit its labels.

More disappointment for people who thought cheerfully labeled snacks and drinks (a la Vitamin Water) could actually make them fitter.

(h/t Bloomberg)

Marco Rubio Used to Believe in Climate Science. Now He's Running for President.

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 6:15 AM EDT

When the Florida state Legislature opened its 2007 session, Speaker Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, took the stage to lay out his priorities for the year. Near the top of his list was a focus on clean energy.

"Global warming, dependence on foreign sources of fuel, and capitalism have come together to create opportunities for us that were unimaginable just a few short years ago," he said, in a video recording unearthed by BuzzFeed. Rubio predicted that legal caps on greenhouse gas emissions were inevitable, and he argued that Florida should prepare to become "an international model of energy efficiency and independence" and the "Silicon Valley" of clean energy.

Several years later, as a junior senator offering his party's rebuttal to President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address, Rubio was singing a different tune. Solar and wind energy "should be a part of our energy portfolio," he said, but the United States should focus its efforts on extracting coal, oil, and natural gas "instead of wasting more money on so-called clean-energy companies like Solyndra." (Solyndra was a solar power company in California that failed spectacularly in 2011 after receiving a $500 million grant from the Obama administration. Republicans seized on it as a textbook case of the president's foolhardy energy agenda, but in reality the company was just badly managed.)

Rubio's comments since then have been more consistent: He argues that government policies to limit emissions are pointless in the face of rising pollution from developing countries. And, he says, such policies are certain to be "devastating" to the US economy.

He also rejects the notion that scientists are in agreement about the role humans have played in causing global warming. "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it," he told ABC News last May.

On Monday, Rubio is expected to announce his candidacy for president. Check out the video above for a look back at his thoughts on climate change.

This story has been revised.

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The Drought Is Behind California's Skyrocketing West Nile Virus Numbers

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

California's drought isn't bad news for everyone: turns out West Nile Virus has been thriving in the state's parched climate. The California Department of Public Health announced last week that in 2014 it recorded the most cases of the potentially deadly mosquito-borne illness since it first showed up in the Golden State more than a decade ago. The CDPH tallied 801 diagnoses, including 31 deaths—the most ever in California.

Another State Agency Just Banned the Words "Climate Change"

| Wed Apr. 8, 2015 3:45 PM EDT
Madison, Wisc.

The climate change language police just struck again.

Last month it was in Florida, where former staffers with the state's Department of Environmental Protection alleged that senior officials, under the direction of Gov. Rick Scott (R), had instituted an unwritten ban on using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming." Scott denied the claim.

This week's incident is much less ambiguous. Yesterday, the three-person commission that oversees a public land trust in Wisconsin voted 2-1 to block the trust's dozen public employees "from engaging in global warming or climate change work while on BCPL time."

In proposing and voting on the ban, the commission "spent 19 minutes and 29 seconds talking about talking about climate change," according to Bloomberg:

The move to ban an issue leaves staff at the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands in the unusual position of not being able to speak about how climate change might affect lands it oversees…

The Midwest warmed about 1.5F on average from 1895 to 2012. Pine, maple, birch, spruce, fir, aspen, and beech forests, which are common in the region, are likely to decline as the century progresses, according to the latest US National Climate Assessment.

The ban was proposed by newly elected State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, a Republican who ran on the unusual campaign promise to swiftly eliminate his own job. At a public meeting on Tuesday, according to Bloomberg, Adamczyk said he was disturbed to learn that the agency's director, Tia Nelson, had spent some time co-chairing a global warming task force in 2007-08 at the request of former governor Jim Doyle (D). Dealing with climate issues—even responding to emails on the subject—isn't in the agency's wheelhouse, he said. Adamczyk didn't immediately return our request for comment.

Adamczyk was joined in voting for the ban by State Attorney General Brad Schimel (R), also newly-elected. Schimel is handling Gov. Scott Walker's lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over President Barack Obama's new climate regulations. The ban was opposed by the commission's third member, Secretary of State Bob La Follette, a Democrat.

Do Your State's Hospitals Serve Big Macs?

| Mon Apr. 6, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Would you like fries with your hospital stay? If so, you're in luck: Many hospitals house fast-food restaurants. Some even offer delivery to patient rooms. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) isn't wild about this phenomenon and made this map, which shows the US hospitals with fast-food chains inside them:

Image by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

Of the 208 hospitals—most of them public—that PCRM investigated in its report, 43 had fast-food chains inside, mostly McDonald's, Wendy's, and Chick-Fil-A. PCRM staff dietitian Cameron Wells told me that some of the fast-food joints have contracts that require them to give a certain percentage of their profits to their hospitals, "meaning the more unhealthful food the restaurant sells to patients and their families, the richer the hospital gets," she said. 

Six of the fast-food-serving facilities in the report were children's hospitals. One of those, Children's Hospital of Georgia, offers delivery service from McDonald's straight to patients' beds. "Seeing this in a children's hospital—that's the most vulnerable population," Wells says. "Fast food is not going to help children get better."

For the First Time, California Is Enforcing Water Restrictions

| Wed Apr. 1, 2015 2:48 PM EDT

Today, California Governor Jerry Brown announced mandatory water restrictions for the first time in the state's history. The announcement follows a drought of more than three years, which has officials worrying that Californians may have only one year of drinking water left.

The regulations require California cities to decrease water use by 25 percent, though, crucially, only requires agricultural users to report their water use and submit drought management plans. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of California's water usage. (For more drought background, check out our past coverage on agricultural water use—almonds are the biggest suck—and municipal water use.)

From the press release:

The following is a summary of the executive order issued by the Governor today.

Save Water

For the first time in state history, the Governor has directed the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 percent. This savings amounts to approximately 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months, or nearly as much as is currently in Lake Oroville.

To save more water now, the order will also:

Replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought tolerant landscaping in partnership with local governments;
Direct the creation of a temporary, statewide consumer rebate program to replace old appliances with more water and energy efficient models; Require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to make significant cuts in water use; and
Prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used, and ban watering of ornamental grass on public street medians.

Increase Enforcement

The Governor’s order calls on local water agencies to adjust their rate structures to implement conservation pricing, recognized as an effective way to realize water reductions and discourage water waste.

Agricultural water users – which have borne much of the brunt of the drought to date, with hundreds of thousands of fallowed acres, significantly reduced water allocations and thousands of farmworkers laid off – will be required to report more water use information to state regulators, increasing the state's ability to enforce against illegal diversions and waste and unreasonable use of water under today’s order. Additionally, the Governor’s action strengthens standards for Agricultural Water Management Plans submitted by large agriculture water districts and requires small agriculture water districts to develop similar plans. These plans will help ensure that agricultural communities are prepared in case the drought extends into 2016.

Additional actions required by the order include:

Taking action against water agencies in depleted groundwater basins that have not shared data on their groundwater supplies with the state;
Updating standards for toilets and faucets and outdoor landscaping in residential communities and taking action against communities that ignore these standards; and
Making permanent monthly reporting of water usage, conservation and enforcement actions by local water suppliers.