April 10, 2006

Rage Against the (Hybrid) Machine

Some California drivers are getting all steamed up that they have to share the carpool lanes with single-occupant hybrids, like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic, under a new state program.  Some of the complaints, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt.  Said one fumer in an online discussion group:  "These [drivers] barely go 65 mph and allow no one to pass them on the right... Talk about road rage!"  It's hard to feel much sympathy for someone whining about not being able to exceed the speed limit.

But I do think there's reason to be concerned that extra hybrids in the HOV lanes may be slowing down carpools & buses.  From the LA Times article:

"There's not enough excess capacity to absorb the hybrids," said James Moore, director of USC's transportation engineering program. "I think the foreseeable outcome here is that the congestion advantage we traditionally attribute to [carpool] lanes will disappear."

Promoting hybrids could help save fuel. But there's plenty of reason to believe that -- looking at overall efficiency of road transport -- filling the HOV lanes with hybrids could do more harm than good.  Seems to me that California was smart in limiting the number of hybrids allowed in the carpool lanes, and studying the effects before proceeding.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 05, 2006

A Frank Look at Chinook

For those of you following the lamentable state of the Klamath River fisheries, there's a first-rate op-ed in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. He writes:

We expect the PFMC to take the only action it can to protect the salmon: reduce harvest. After all, cutting harvest has been the major response to declining salmon runs for the past 20 years. We accept that burden year after year with the hope that some day habitat -- the Big H -- will be addressed with the same conviction that we have shown in reducing harvests.

We are not in this mess because of harvest. Our harvest management process works.

The upshot, as you can probably guess, is that the only way to ensure the salmon will persist in the Northwest is to address the thorny and issues that degrade salmon habitat. Without suitable habitat the salmon runs dry up and fishermen bear the economic brunt of decisions that were made literally and figuratively upstream from them. A fair approach would take a hard look at irrigation, dams, development, and all the other contentious problems that affect salmon habitat--"the big H." Or as Frank puts it:

Salmon recovery begins and ends with the Big H.

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April 04, 2006

California Rolls its Own Kyoto?

I don't know much about this, really, but the headline alone seems pretty auspicious:

Breakthrough plan to cut greenhouse gases
Goal is to reduce carbon dioxide 25% by 2020

Apparently, advisors to Governor Schwarzenegger--with the backing of California legislators--just came out with a 1,300 page report that details more than 50 strategies for reducing the state's climate-warming emissions.  Included among the strategies is a CO2 cap-and-trade system, similar to the European Union's carbon market. 

It's hard to overstate how huge a step that would be:  without a hard cap, any individual steps to reduce emissions might be offset by increases somewhere else in the state.  Plus, tradeable credits help ensure that the least expensive greenhouse gas reductions come first--which is the smartest way to sequence those kinds of investments, since the early steps wind up saving money in short order, which in turn helps finance deeper cuts later on.  Of course, if neighboring states don't follow suit, some major CO2 emissions -- particularly for generating electricity -- may just be pushed into a state with no such caps. Still, it's a start.

This is still just a proposal, obviously -- there's a lot of work left to be done before any of it becomes reality.  But it's definitely good news.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tidepool Editor's Pick: Comeback for the Klamath?

Klamath Three strong and informative pieces on Oregon’s battered Klamath River ran in Sunday’s papers. All of them, especially an article in the Washington Post, are worth reading.

Both the Oregonian and the San Francisco Chronicle frame their stories around the economic impacts of the Klamath situation: How the depleted and polluted river -- which the Chronicle says may be the West Coast’s sickest -- has offered up a record low of chinook this year, which could lead to a ban on fishing.

Last week, hundreds of fishermen from Santa Rosa, California to Astoria, Oregon protested the proposed ban. Oregon congressman David Wu threatened to dump smelly salmon carcasses on the steps of federal agencies in Seattle, and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski tabled an emergency summit on the situation. He plans to seek disaster aid for the fishermen if the ban goes through (and shore up support as he faces an increasingly difficult reelection fight). The economic cost for Oregon alone could total $40 million.

The Washington Post approaches the story from a hopeful angle. "For the first time in the nearly eight decades since the river was dammed, Indians and commercial fishermen, environmentalists and federal fish scientists agree that there are sound reasons to believe in the comeback of a river that once supported the third largest salmon runs on the West Coast."

Amidst the fishing commotion, as the Post explains, two decisions came down from the federal government last week that bode well for the future of the Klamath and all who depend on it. In crisis lies opportunity, as it’s said.

Finally, an interesting bit of trivia about the Klamath:

In 2002, the Post reports, Karl Rove was instrumental in making sure the river irrigated drought-stricken crops, which led to low flows, which led to massive fish kills, disease and low spawning, which means less chinook for everyone now.

Former Tidepool publisher Seth Zuckerman provides useful insight into the Klamath’s woes here.

P.S. - Tidepool.org is Northwest Environment Watch's daily online news service. Sign up here.

Posted by Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Montana to Insurers: Cover The Pill

Late last week, Montana required that any insurance plan that covers prescription drugs generally may not exclude coverage for prescription contraceptives such as birth control pills. The Helena Independent Record reports.

 That’s big news because couples whose insurance covers contraceptives are more likely to choose the most effective forms (which tend to be expensive): pills, for example, rather than condoms alone. And better contraception means fewer unintended pregnancies and abortions. It also means that more children will be born wanted.

Among Cascadian states, California and Washington already require equal treatment for prescription contraceptives: California, by law; Washington, by ruling of the state Insurance Commissioner. In Montana, the action came in a binding legal opinion issued by the state’s Attorney General. Excluding contraceptives from prescription drug plans is sex discrimination, AG Mike McGrath concluded. The rule has the force of law unless it’s overturned by the legislature or a state court. The legislature is unlikely to do so: the state senate approved a bill to ensure equal coverage for contraceptives last fall, although the state house did not join them. It’s unlikely, therefore, that both houses would pass a law that reversed the AG’s ruling.

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March 06, 2006

Searching for Salmon in the Wrong Places

Troller_1  OK, let’s consider just how absurd this predicament is. People are terrestrial creatures. We like to eat salmon, which spend most of their lives in the ocean. Fortunately, salmon have a habit -- nay, an instinct -- of returning to fresh water to spawn. They do this every year. Used to be, people would wait for them in rivers and estuaries, and catch them there, close to home.

But then -- perhaps to jump the queue and get ahead of the crowd unfurling its nets in rivers and bays -- some fishermen started to troll for salmon in the offshore waters. The salmon still had every intention of swimming into our rivers where they are easier to catch. But instead, trollers began baiting their gear and enticing salmon to take their hooks at sea.

As long as salmon runs are abundant, this impatient practice can be written off as one of those idiosyncrasies of our species, yet another method we have devised to needlessly burn diesel fuel. "Technology is needed not to beat the fish, but to beat other fishermen," wrote Richard Manning in Salmon Nation. "The fish would still come back... if we would wait."

But when certain stocks of salmon start to weaken, this reliance on ocean trolling shows its weakness as well. This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is weighing its options in the face of a predicted low run of Klamath River chinook. Biologists estimate that 29,000 salmon would make it to the mouth of the Klamath in the absence of any fishing -- already well below the 35,000 minimum that fisheries managers have set as an annual goal to reach the spawning grounds.

At sea, those scarce Klamath-bound fish mingle with other chinook headed for rivers with more abundant runs -- such as the Sacramento, where runs have rebuilt over the last decade. Regulators fear that trollers would hook Klamath fish among their catch, a chinook that would be indistinguishable on deck from a fish headed for the Sacramento, Eel, or Rogue river.

So the council is entertaining a proposal to nix this year’s salmon fishing season along 700 miles of coastline, from Point Sur, near Monterey, California, north into Oregon. Their dilemma has set off a round of finger-pointing, with trollers blaming water diversions from the Klamath for the salmon’s woes on that river, and hence for the possible closure of the fishery. No doubt, in the long term, the water regime on the Klamath needs to change.

But in the meantime, maybe we should change how we fish. Ocean trolling is inherently indiscriminate. As long as some salmon populations are less robust than others, either some stocks will be overfished or many will go under-caught. Instead, if fishing boats sought salmon at the mouths of the rivers they’re returning to, there’d be a much smaller risk of catching a fish from any other run. In California, commercial fishing inside the Golden Gate, at the mouth of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River, has been illegal since 1957. The present situation might offer a reason to move forward by turning back the clock half a century.

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January 23, 2006

Green Saves Green

A couple of new studies have found that California can meet its ambitious 2010 goals for reducing climate-warming emissions at no net cost to consumers.  And, even better, meeting the even more stringent 2020 goals could actually save consumers money:

"It's basically a very good news story," said Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, an environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C. "We found you could do this very cheaply."

Now, I haven't looked at the studies--and I might not really be able to judge their quality even if I had.  By their nature, studies like this tend to be speculative: they show what could happen, but not necessarily what will.

Still, this seems extremely plausible to me.  Despite a period of relatively high oil and gas prices, energy is still pretty cheap relative to our incomes.  And as a general rule, cheap energy means wasted energy. Consumers tend to demand very short payback periods for energy efficiency investments--usually, just a couple of years at most.  While most businesses would be ecstatic to take advantage of such fast rates of return, most households, apparently, aren't run to the same fianancial standards.  Which means that there's still a lot of very cost-effective energy efficiency investments out there--things that could easily pay back any initial investment in short order.  That's as true in the transportation sector as in the home:  we already know, for example, how to boost vehicle efficiency without compromising safety.

The benefits to consumers from energy effiency investments are, if anything, likely to compound.  Once you hit the payback period, energy efficiency is like a cash cow -- it just keeps saving and saving. (And saving.)  Plus, since most of California's energy from oil, gas, and coal comes from out of state, energy efficiency investments will tend to keep more of California consumers' money circulating in the local economy--which can be an effective way to boost demand for local goods and services.

All in all, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see a push to reduce global warming emissions resulting in a substantial boost to California's economy over the long term.  But we'll just have to wait and see how the state responds to the news.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 13, 2006

Prince(ss) of Tides

Since last Friday, I’m proud to announce, the venerable Cascadian news website Tidepool has been a project of NEW. Yep, we’ve completed a friendly takeover!

Since 1997, Tidepool has been highlighting the most significant news that’s shaping Cascadia. Every morning, Tidepool’s editors scan dozens of news sites and assemble the stories that will actually matter in Cascadia a few years hence—the slow news (pdf). It’s an essential service, and it’s one that thousands of Cascadians use every day.

Tidepool was seeking a new home, and its service is a natural complement for this blog and NEW’s other analyses of key trends in Cascadia. So both organizations are excited about the transfer. We think it’ll lead to big improvements all the way around—in the news digest, in the blog, and in our website.

Tidepool has long been a community asset—something kept healthy through the active support of its thousands of readers. This new phase in Tidepool’s development won’t change that fact; to the contrary, NEW will soon introduce more ways to participate in Tidepool’s evolution. If you’re not already a member of that community, please join by signing up for a free subscription.

For more information on NEW’s ownership—really, stewardship—of Tidepool, read this letter to its subscribers.

And meet the new NEW editor of Tidepool: Princess of Tides Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 05, 2006

Do Poverty Numbers Lie?

Poverty rates are higher in Mississippi than in Massachusetts. But it's easier to make ends meet in the deep south, where the staples of existence generally cost less. So which place really has worse poverty?

Among the more annoying problems with US poverty rates--and the problems are legion--is that comparisons between states can be spurious because the rates do not account for differences in the cost of living. So in an attempt to straighten things out, I did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation today to find out where poverty hits the hardest. (Assuming that median household income is a decent proxy for the cost of living, I adjusted state poverty rates by incomes. This has been done before, in lots of more complicated ways, but I wanted to figure out something specific.)

As it turns out, the worst states are still the worst--Mississippi, Washington, DC, and Texas have the highest rates of poverty by either accounting. Same for the best--New Hampshire, Minnesota, and the northeast states are the best in the nation using either method. But in the Pacific Northwest, things get interesting--and Washington is the biggest loser.

By official statistics Washington's and Oregon's poverty rates are fair to middlin' (their average 2002, 2003, and 2004 rate was 11.7) and the two states are tied for the 27th lowest rate in the US. But when you adjust for income levels, Oregon's poverty gets a teensy bit better, climbing to 24th place, while Washington drops like a rock into 37th place--slightly worse than the national average and tied with economic powerhouses like Kentucky.

California takes a page from Washington's playbook and plummets from 36th place to 48th--behind Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Idaho and Montana, meanwhile, both rise substantially in the rankings as their poverty rates are balanced out by their lower costs of living (at least as it's reflected by median income).

Now obviously, there's at least one big flaw with my little made-up methodology. By adjusting poverty by income, I'm essentially favoring states for having low incomes. Still, income is something of a proxy for the cost of living. Moreover, some of the worst effects of poverty--crime, violence, poor health, etc--may actually be the effects of income inequality in disguise. So my poverty adjustment tells us which states are most severely amplifying poverty through income inequality (cough, cough, Washington and California).

It's telling, I think, that most states' rankings don't change terribly much with my adjustment. But a few states with average poverty rates and higher incomes may have some real--and hidden--economic problems to sort out. Because problems of equity often manifest themselves in other ways, the federal numbers may not tell us even half the story about how we're really doing.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 15, 2005

Parks Instead of Parking - Literally

Parking_activismTalk about cultural creatives!

Via a blog reader, here's a nifty story about a "landscape remixing" effort in San Francisco that illustrates a point we've long made in a small, powerful way.

Between noon and two on November 16, a collective called Rebar turned one of the city's parking spaces into a small park. They fed the meter, rolled out some turf, put up a park bench and a tree, hung a sign, and encouraged people to hang out, read the paper, and enjoy the greenery that would usually be taken up by a vehicle. (Watch the slide show.)

Their aim was to:

"...transform a parking spot into a PARK(ing) space, thereby temporarily expanding the public realm and improving the quality of urban human habitat, at least until the meter ran out. By our calculations, we provided an additional 24,000 square-foot-minutes of public open space that Wednesday afternoon. "

We--and many others--have long talked about the disadvantages of devoting so much urban space to parking. Nice to see a visualization of the positive side of that coin. Is there a Rebar in Cascadia?

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack