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Trump Appointees Permit Higher Soot Emissions, Increasing Covid-19 Mortality

Reprinted with permission from DCReport.

A new Harvard study has found that long-term exposure to microscopic soot in the air appears to be associated with higher death rates from the coronavirus.

But Trump's EPA has recommended keeping the 2012 standards for microscopic soot that are linked to an estimated 45,000 deaths a year.

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The Rainbows Behind The Coronavirus Crisis

Milan is the V-8 engine of Italy’s economy. Known as an industrial and financial powerhouse, Milan is also famous for its foul air. Now the city and its region, Lombardy, have become the epicenter of Europe’s coronavirus pandemic. To stop the virus’ spread, factories, offices, restaurants and bars are closed. People are ordered to stay at home. The traffic is gone.

And the air is much cleaner. Satellites report a dramatic drop in the region’s air pollution. Since the lockdown started on March 9, the levels of nitrogen oxide in northern Italy have plunged dramatically. NO2 is a toxic gas that can cause inflammation of the body’s air passages. Clean air has been a bright spot in the region’s immense suffering.

Earlier, when China closed down its industry and told residents in the infected areas to shelter in place, the satellites noted a large drop-off in China’s air pollution. Once the virus was contained and China restarted economic activity, pollution picked up.

This is not, of course, a call to freeze the American economy until the U.S. totally wipes out the coronavirus. Business must resume at some point, though let’s pray that our political leaders have the wisdom to retain the ban on large human gatherings until this horrid microbe is under control.

This is merely a call for the world’s industrialized peoples to breathe deeply and think: Clean air is kind of nice. Smog, the kind of air pollution you see and smell, also causes lung disease. And a byproduct of cleaning the air is a lowering of planet-warming gas emissions. Climate change will remain an existential threat long after the coronavirus is tamed.

Perhaps this direct experience — easier to comprehend than the scientists’ complicated models — will build support for a faster move to clean energy. My editor, Alissa Stevens, in notoriously smoggy Los Angeles says, “Skies are clearer than we’ve ever seen.” The city was recently treated to a double rainbow over the Pacific Ocean, visible end to end. Everyone understands that.

The coronavirus has shuttered Venice, Italy. The massive waves of tourists are gone. No day-trippers. No gigantic cruise ships. The remaining Venetians have been ordered indoors.

But for some populations in Venice, social gatherings are booming. Shoals of tiny fish have returned to the canals. The daily flotilla of boats that churned up waves, making the water muddy, has been stilled. The canals are now hosting crabs and new plant life. Large water birds can be seen diving for fish, and ducks are leaving eggs.

Though tourism is Venice’s economic lifeblood, not everyone there is totally unhappy with the quiet. There’s been a growing movement in recent years to curb the city’s overwhelming tourist numbers (20 million a year!) and restore some serenity to “La Serenissima.”

Bad air can add to a virus’ death toll. Researchers in China and the U.S. looked at mortality during the earlier outbreak of the SARS virus. They found that patients in areas with heavy pollution were twice as likely to die from the virus as those living under clearer skies.

Cai Xue’en, a delegate of China’s National People’s Congress, told Bloomberg News that in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, “I think environmental protection will rank even higher for both the central and local governments.”

No, we don’t want a return to the pre-industrial age. Those who argue that an economy in deep recession, or even depression, is also bad for people’s health have a point. But reduced pollution gives us a window into what we could experience daily were the environment cleaner. Sure, that may involve economic tradeoffs, but some would be worth making for a life more in tune with the Creation.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

More California Farmland Could Vanish As Water Shortages Loom Beyond Drought

By Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee (TNS)

FIREBAUGH, Calif. — His almond trees have turned a ghostly gray, and his grapevines are shriveling.

After two years without water, Garrett Rajkovich’s farm in western Fresno County is dying. It might never be farmed again. Approximately 1,200 acres face the prospect of permanent retirement.

“This was a beautiful, thriving orchard five years ago,” Rajkovich said during a recent stroll through his almond grove.

Rajkovich’s troubles represent an extreme case, even by the standards of California’s epic drought. Unlike many farmers, he didn’t have groundwater as a backup when deliveries of surface water from the federal government dried up. But what he’s going through represents a taste of things to come.

Land retirement is coming to California agriculture. The drought will end someday, maybe even this winter, but farmers will still face long-term shortages of water. The driving force: a new state law regulating the extraction of groundwater.

The relentless groundwater pumping that has kept hundreds of farms going the past four years is coming to an end. California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, set to take effect in 2020, will limit how much groundwater can be extracted over the long haul. While details of what constitutes “sustainable” pumping are still being fleshed out, water policy experts say many farmers will gradually have their water supplies curtailed — and the nation’s leading agricultural state will farm fewer acres.

“It’s not a question of if — it’s a question of how much and where,” said Chris Scheuring, a lawyer and water expert at the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Many of the state’s farmers are already feeling long-term water problems. Westlands Water District, which serves farmers over a vast swath of land in Fresno and Kings counties, plans to retire tens of thousands of acres as part of a tentative deal with the U.S. government over issues related to drainage problems that have degraded the soil.

The new groundwater law is expected to further shrink agriculture’s presence. As many as 300,000 acres could permanently disappear from agriculture, said farm economist Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president at agricultural lender Rabobank.

That’s not a huge amount in a state with nearly 9 million irrigated acres of farmland. But it’s not trivial, either. It’s enough acres to grow the entire $1.2 billion California tomato crop. The concept is unsettling to people such as Don Cameron, a member of the state Board of Food and Agriculture and a champion of water-conservation efforts.

“It’s the topic people don’t want to talk about,” said Cameron, who raises tomatoes, pistachios and grapes in the Fresno County community of Helm.

The subject is particularly touchy in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of California’s $54 billion-a-year agricultural industry. Experts at the University of California, Davis estimated that farmers have been draining the valley’s underground water reserves by as much as 5 million acre-feet per year during the drought to help compensate for staggering shortfalls in water deliveries from the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

What’s more striking, perhaps: Even before the drought began four years ago, the valley’s aquifers were being depleted by 1 million to 2 million acre-feet per year, according to data compiled by the state Department of Water Resources. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.

Pumping has been so extensive that portions of the valley floor are literally sinking, a phenomenon known as subsidence. As land subsides, the aquifers gradually lose much of their ability to be replenished by rain.

In other words, this is a deep, systemic problem that will squeeze farmers long after the drought ends.

“When the drought is over, we’re going to be looking at places that don’t have much water in their wells,” said Ellen Hanak, an analyst at the Public Policy Institute of California. “People are doing the math and reading the writing on the wall.”

Some experts say the groundwater restrictions will be especially rough on small farms, which won’t have the financial cushion to keep going. Jim Verboon, who grows walnuts on 100 acres of land in Kings County, looks at his larger neighbors and wonders how he’ll make it.

“I don’t know if this groundwater law, the way it’s crafted, is in my best interest or in any small grower’s best interest,” said Verboon, a third-generation grower. “There’s a certain amount of land in the San Joaquin Valley that’s not going to be farmed, except in very wet years.”

Land retirement isn’t a new concept. Farmland has been disappearing in California for decades, usually giving way to urban development. An estimated 765,000 acres of irrigated farmland vanished between 2000 and 2012, about half of it in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the state Department of Conservation. That represented about 8 percent of the valley’s agricultural base.

Nonetheless, farmers get angry about land going idle, either permanently or temporarily, because of water problems.

They generally accept the idea that groundwater pumping needs to be reined in. But they argue the problem wouldn’t be nearly as bad if the Endangered Species Act were relaxed, less water were set aside for fish, and more surface water were delivered to the valley from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“We are not understood. We grow a lot of the nation’s food,” said Mark Sorensen, a raisin and blueberry grower in Caruthers and president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “I’m not sure those on the coast, in the Bay Area, Los Angeles understand that concept. The surface water is key.”

If the land-retirement process isn’t managed properly, Hanak said, the valley could be left with vast stretches of land simply going to dust. That would compound the region’s air pollution problem, already among the most severe in California, she said.

And unless some other uses are found for the land, there could be economic impacts throughout rural California. Although farm employment has held up surprisingly well in the drought, UC Davis economists say the temporary idling of 540,000 acres this year erased 10,000 farm jobs that would have been created if water were plentiful.

Take land out of production for good, and the job losses likely will mount.

“When we’re out of business, guess what? They’re not getting a paycheck here,” said Rajkovich, who employed two dozen full-time employees when his Firebaugh farm was fully active.

UC Davis farm economist Richard Howitt said the farm economy won’t collapse, however. Most growers have survived the drought and kept revenue strong by concentrating their water supplies on high-dollar crops such as almonds and pistachios.

That trend will intensify in the coming years, Howitt said. Between groundwater restrictions and climate change — which is expected to shrink the Sierra snowpack — farmers will be pressed into progressively harder choices about what to plant and how many acres to leave idle.

“We’re going to have to live within a smaller water footprint, which means we’ll have to learn to live with a smaller farming footprint,” Howitt said.

What will that look like?

Farmers hope they can keep as many acres in agriculture as possible. They’re working on projects to capture winter stormwater more effectively, and to recycle the water they put on their crops. Some believe they can cope with the groundwater legislation by fallowing more fields in dry years and minimizing the amount of land that gets permanently retired.

Not far from Rajkovich’s dying orchards, the Panoche Water and Drainage District is working on pilot projects to desalinate and reuse the water drained off its fields. The goal is to reduce dependence on groundwater.

District general manager Dennis Falaschi envisions a string of desalination plants up and down the valley. The plants might not generate enough water to produce a crop, but they could prevent someone’s almond orchards from dying of thirst.

“That can keep 300,000 acres of trees alive,” Falaschi said.

But land retirement is already a reality in some parts of the valley, where farming has given way to new uses. On West California Avenue outside Mendota, on land that used to produce tomatoes and cotton, sit a pair of solar energy farms and a medium-security federal prison.

The newest of the facilities, a 626-acre solar farm built by First Solar Inc. of Tempe, Ariz., opened in June. Made up of 750,000 photovoltaic cells, the plant has a 61-megawatt capacity and generates enough juice to light up 10,000 homes.

“You’re going to see more,” said Jose Gutierrez, a deputy general manager at Westlands Water District.

©2015 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Garrett Rajkovich is surrounded by dead Thompson seedless grape vines due to no water allotments for the Firebaugh farmer, which has resulted in permanent farmland retirement. (Randy Pench/Sacramento Bee/TNS)

New Technology Is Keeping The Air We Breathe Under An Unprecedented Level Of Scrutiny

By William Yardley, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES – Measure twice, cut once, they say. Unless you are trying to save the planet.

In that case, measure and cut constantly. Rising calls to create cleaner air and limit climate change are driving a surge in new technology for measuring air emissions and other pollutants – a data revolution that is opening new windows into the micro-mechanics of environmental damage.

The momentum for new monitoring tools is rooted in increasingly stringent regulations, including California’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions, and newly tightened federal standards and programs to monitor drought and soil contamination.

A variety of clean-tech companies have arisen to help industries meet the new requirements, but the new tools and data are also being created by academics, tinkerers and concerned citizens – just ask Volkswagen, whose deceptive efforts to skirt emissions-testing standards were discovered with the help of a small university lab in West Virginia.

Taking it all into account, the Earth is coming under an unprecedented new level of scrutiny.

For more than a year, satellites launched by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been orbiting Earth to track the global flow of carbon emissions. In Colorado, workers are using infrared cameras to find methane leaking from natural gas wells. In Boston, researchers using new measuring devices have detected “fugitive emissions” in hundreds of places across the city, including the Massachusetts State House.

Los Gatos Research in Silicon Valley now makes portable equipment for measuring greenhouse gases and other pollution that has been used on airplanes and in national forests. Piccaro, another California company, makes the machines that have been used to measure methane leaks in Boston and other cities. Other startups have created software that collects existing air quality data into apps that can advise asthmatics on areas to avoid and steer cyclists toward the least-polluted paths to work.

“There are a lot of companies picking up on this, but who is interested in the data – to me, that’s also fascinating,” said Colette Heald, an atmospheric chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’re in this moment of a huge growth in curiosity – of people trying to understand their environment. That coincides with the technology to do something more.”

The push is not limited to measuring air and emissions. Tools to sample soil, test seismic regions, monitor water quality, test ocean acidity and improve weather forecasting are all on the rise. Drought has prompted new efforts to map groundwater and stream flows across the West. In space, NASA recently began a global precipitation measurement program intended, in part, to more accurately predict extreme weather events and the availability of water.

The Obama administration has rolled out a series of regulatory changes intended either to reduce pollutants in the air people breathe or limit greenhouse gases – and sometimes both. This month, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized new rules to reduce ozone and, for the first time, required so-called fenceline testing near oil refineries to track pollutants such as benzene that may be escaping – a task that requires sensitive monitoring equipment.

Industry groups often oppose new rules because complying costs money, but these rules can also drive technological development and new industries. While older emissions-monitoring devices may occupy the footprint of a living room, equipment is being developed that is portable and more sophisticated.

“Fifteen years ago we were talking about percent – fenceline testing the percentage of a particular species in a gas,” said Chris Anthony, who oversees analytical products for the ABB Group, which has expanded its investments in air and gas monitoring in recent years, including buying Los Gatos Research in 2013. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, we started talking about parts per million. In many areas now, we’re measuring parts per billion, which is very, very low levels of trace gas in exhaust.”

Chet Wayland, the director of the air quality assessment division within the EPA’s office of air quality planning and standards, recalled a research conference the agency hosted a few years ago where he met a graduate student who showed him a hand-held, homemade device that measured air pollution. The parts appeared to cost about $50.

“It wasn’t great but it was not bad,” Wayland recalled. “I’m sitting there going, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I’m used to working in the world where these devices are $30,000 and they’re highly sophisticated, and here’s somebody who built this in a lab basically by himself. That’s when I realized that the world was changing.”

Wayland and one of his colleagues, Dan Costa, who works on air and climate issues in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, said that as more companies and individuals make affordable equipment, they need to demonstrate that their products are accurate and reliable.

“That’s one of the key issues we at the EPA are trying to focus on,” Wayland said. “When the technology is out there and everyone starts using it, the question is, how good is the data? If the data’s not high enough quality, then we’re not going to make regulatory decisions based on that.”

He added, “Where is this data going to reside in 10 years, when all these sensors are out there, and who’s going to (manage) that information? Right now it’s kind of organic so there’s no centralized place where all of this information is going.”

Two years ago, Heald, the professor at MIT, helped lead a group of students who created a campus air quality monitoring network. They launched a website where people can track gases such as ozone and carbon monoxide.

But the site also includes a disclaimer, warning that the numbers were not necessarily “regulatory grade” measurements. Costa said the EPA’s long-term vision is “this harmonization, a synthesis of the gold standard monitoring network (run by government) with the evolving sensor technology” used by citizen groups and individuals.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Kevin Dooley via Flickr