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Adventure : Politics

The Day We Set the Colorado River Free

On Friday, March 28, 2014, I did something that has been impossible for most of the past 50 years and, by the time you read this, will be again. As photographer Pete McBride snapped photos of me, and two French documentary filmmakers shot footage of him, and an unidentified blue helicopter circled above, I pumped up an inflatable NRS paddleboard, dropped it onto the Colorado River below Morelos Dam, on the Mexico-Arizona border, flopped onto the board, and glided over the cool waters.

What was remarkable about this was not my less-than-graceful launch but the fact that I was launching at all. Morelos, the last of the 12 major dams on the main stem of the “American Nile,” is where you go to watch the Colorado die. Stand on Morelos and look north, toward the United States, and you see a sparkling, reed-fringed river coming at you. Look south and you see an empty channel that twists 100 miles to the sea. After a thousand straws, from Denver to Los Angeles, have sipped the Colorado dry, after 40 million people, 10 million cows, and countless heads of iceberg lettuce have had their fill, the coup de grâce is delivered here at Morelos, where the last 10 percent of the river is shunted into the Reforma Canal and piped west to the Mexicali Valley so we can all eat baby spinach in January.

{%{"video":"262561451","caption":"Pete McBride captured the amazing 2014 Colorado River Pulse Flow on film."}%}
Video by Pete McBride

Thus it has been for more than 50 years. After Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966, the Colorado River delta was left for dead. No water, no life. But an unprecedented agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, called Minute 319, changed all that. Over eight weeks, a 105,392-acre-foot pulse flow of water—about 34 billion gallons—would pour through Morelos and down the dry channel. The idea was to mimic the dynamics of the Colorado’s historical spring flood, timed to coincide with the germination of willow and cottonwood seeds. For more than a year, restoration ecologists with Arizona’s Sonoran Institute and Mexico’s leading environmental group, Pronatura, had been planting seedlings and digging channels, concentrating on the low-lying areas where the groundwater was already high enough to support clusters of cottonwoods and willows—and even a few beaver and muskrat. With a little luck, the water would make it far enough down the dry channel to reach these places. With a little more luck, there might be just enough extra water in coming years to keep some of those new seedlings alive.

It was the unlikeliest of plans: take a titanic slug of water from the most over-allocated river in North America, shoot it through some of the driest country on earth, and turn these godforsaken wastelands back into an Eden. And how anyone managed to pull it off is mystifying, because—perhaps you’ve heard—the West is as parched as Mars right now. Here in the heart of the Great Megadrought of 2014, with Lake Mead draining behind Hoover Dam like an unplugged bathtub, farmers scuffling for water like dying men in a life raft, and the Bureau of Reclamation warning Arizona and Nevada to plan on rationing by 2016, somehow $10 million worth of agua pura was being jettisoned.

{%{"quote":"Take a titanic slug of water from the most over-allocated river in North America, shoot it through some of the driest country on earth, and turn these godforsaken wastelands back into an Eden."}%}

Honestly, nobody knew if it would make it to the sea. Nobody knew what would happen. Nothing like this had ever been tried before. And while scores of scientists from all over the world had descended on the delta to measure the effects on salinity, hydrology, biology, and every other factor they could think of, we were here to take the river’s pulse in an entirely different way. We were going to float it. Dead for decades, would it now feel like a glorified irrigation canal? Or, somewhere in the middle of it all, away from the cameras and piezometers, might we still summon the spirit of the Colorado? Forget the science; we were here for a séance.

Just below the dam, at least, the river truly looked reborn. All but one of Morelos’s 20 gates were wide open, and so much water was pouring down the channel that a lake had formed around the structure. Before a handful of perplexed onlookers, our ragged flotilla of river rats carried a couple of dented aluminum canoes and two inflatable paddleboards to the shores of the instant lake. The water would be sinking into the dry sand over every mile, but for now it was all systems go.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-before-after.jpg","size":"large","caption":"A sandy stretch of riverbed 40 miles south of Morelos Dam, on the U.S.-Mexico border, in 2009, and the same stretch during the 2014 pulse flow. Click for more behind-the-scenes shots from Pete McBride.","link":"http://www.outsideonline.com/photo-galleries/outdoor-adventure/exploration/To-The-Delta-SUP-The-Colorado-River.html"}%}

I was with four men, most in their forties, who’d made the Colorado their lives. Fred Phillips, the Flagstaff, Arizona, consultant who’d put the trip together, is the Southwest’s premier restoration ecologist, the man who pioneered the art of transforming barren Colorado riverfront into lush wetlands. Pete McBride grew up on a Colorado ranch that depended on the river. Six years ago, he’d attempted to follow it 1,450 miles to the sea; the resulting book and film are unforgettable testaments to the death throes of the lifeblood of the Southwest. Osvel Hinojosa Huerta, 39, the ecologist in charge of Pronatura’s restoration projects and the region’s preeminent ornithologist, had covered every square mile of the river channel on foot doing bird surveys; he could hardly believe he was about to do it by boat. Sam Walton, a member of the family behind Walmart, had worked for years as a river guide in the Grand Canyon, as well as a hydrologist. He’d assisted Fred on several restoration projects, and the Walton Family Foundation funded some of the pulse-flow-restoration work. Sam had grown skeptical, however, of the pulse-flow strategy—he feared that too much water would simply sink into the dry riverbed, when it could have been channeled directly to restoration sites via canals—and was here to see the results for himself. As it was for all of us, the resurrected Colorado was catnip to him, whatever happened.

Our game plan had been to “start slow, then back off”—we’d be running out of river soon enough—but Sam shot down the channel on a banana-yellow Badfish paddleboard and disappeared, chasing virgin water. The rest of us stuck to the program. Pete glided in a canoe, snapping photos. Fred broke out his guitar and rattled off “The Baggage Boat Blues,” a Fred Phillips original. I paddled upstream until I was above the dam, lay flat on my back, and became maybe the first person to float under the gates since Chris McCandless slipped through here in his canoe in 1990, during one of the last floods to wet the lower Colorado, on his way to the Gulf of California and into the wilds of history. The world felt new.

Days earlier, the world had felt very old to me. Old and exhausted. I’d stood in the center of the parched riverbed and stared at the Mad Max misery of the limitrophe, the 23-mile stretch where the Colorado delineates Mexico from Arizona and where desperate men run the gauntlet to deliver themselves or drugs to the promised land. If you wanted to find a place that symbolized everything that has gone wrong in the delta, this was it. On the U.S. side, the 20-foot-high rusted fence with the halogen spotlights rising above it and Border Patrol trucks stalking the front. Next to it, the bridge in the Mexican city of San Luis Río Colorado arching over the riverbed. The guys in San Luis told me how fishing was their life back in the 1990s, when a few unusually wet years revitalized the river. Bass, carp, corvina. As teenagers they used to jump off the bridge. Kersplash. Now it’s a 35-foot plunge to the dry bed below. Bored teens on ATVs did donuts in the sand, round and round.

I tried to reconcile what I saw with Aldo Leopold’s description of the Colorado River delta in A Sand County Almanac, a towering text of the conservation movement. In 1922, Leopold and his brother paddled up the mouth of the river from the Gulf of California, camping along its braided channels and “deep emerald” waters. Leopold fell hard for the place. “The river was nowhere and everywhere,” he wrote, “for he could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf. So he traveled them all, and so did we. He divided and rejoined, he twisted and turned, he meandered in awesome jungles, he all but ran in circles, he dallied with lovely groves, he got lost and was glad of it, and so were we.”

The river Leopold found was a “milk-and-honey wilderness” filled with game “too abundant to hunt,” which Leopold chalked up to the innumerable seedpods hanging in every mesquite tree. “At each bend we saw egrets standing in the pools ahead, each white statue matched by its white reflection. Fleets of cormorants drove their black prows in quest of skittering mullets; avocets, willets, and yellow-legs dozed one-legged on the bars; mallards, widgeons, and teal sprang skyward in alarm.… When a troop of egrets settled on a far green willow, they looked like a premature snowstorm.”

There are few birds here now. Few walls of mesquite and willow. A classic case of unforeseen consequences. The delta gets about two inches of rain per year. It makes Kuwait look like a rainforest. But thanks to its great benefactor, it used to be the ecological jewel of the Southwest. Fed by snowmelt from the Rockies, the Colorado would leap out of its banks each spring to green the delta countryside for miles around. At two million acres, the Colorado River delta was half the size of the Mississippi River’s lower delta and, because it was an oasis in a vast desert, probably even more vital.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-map.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium","caption":" "}%}

Of the hundreds of thousands of acres of riparian forests that once flourished on the lower Colorado, less than 2,000 acres of native willow and cottonwood remain. The rest has turned largely to tamarisk, a mangy, invasive shrub that is one of the only plants that can survive the salty sands of the modern delta. In jeopardy is the entire Pacific Flyway, that billion-bird artery stretching from Alaska to Patagonia, whose travelers must now make the 400-mile death-flap over the Sonoran Desert without food or respite.

Even today, few Americans grasp that the same river that carved Canyonlands and filled Lake Mead also kept Baja and Sonora alive. Back in the era of massive dam building, farmers and city planners were only too happy to see the wild Colorado transformed into a domesticated delivery system. Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Diego, Mexicali, and many more municipalities drink the Colorado every day.

As do you. Most of America’s winter veggies are grown in the irrigated valleys of Southern California and Arizona. Your fridge is filled with Colorado River greens. Your beef was fattened on Colorado River alfalfa. Even your milk may well be the Colorado transformed. We all nurse from the mother river.

I’d planned on misery.

I’d thought: The water won’t be that deep.

I’d thought: The water will be gross.

I’d thought: We’ll be clawing our way through tamarisk thickets. Pushing ourselves through flotsam and froth.

I was wrong on all counts.

We ripped downstream on a bona fide river. It was eight feet deep, a hundred feet wide, roiling cool and green in the desert light.

“Is this what you expected?” I asked Osvel.

“It’s better!” he said, grinning from ear to ear. Small, round, and serene, Osvel was like a Buddha in a sombrero—a quality that had endeared him to officials and foundations in two countries. In 2012, he was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and his recent celebrity has meant a lot of time on the road. When you ask Osvel how he likes his new life of meetings and press conferences, he shrugs and smiles and says, “I miss the birds.”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-sup-dam.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium", "caption":"Sam Walton paddleboarding through the open gates of the dam."}%}

Beneath me, drowned tamarisk trees waved like kelp in the current. We were flying through a forest, the paddleboards our magic carpets. I smacked into the top of the occasional tamarisk, staggering like a drunken pirate, but the river had risen right over the top of most obstacles. An hour into our journey, the river felt very alive. And this entire pulse flow was just 0.7 percent of its annual flow. We were surfing on a rounding error.

Yet this miraculous flood—deemed so important to relations between the two countries that it had elicited a morning of speechifying by everyone from the governor of Baja (“There are 260 rivers that cross international boundaries, and this is the first such event in the history of the earth”) to the U.S. deputy secretary of the interior (“In retrospect, it seems so obvious that neighbors should take care of one another”)—had taken 15 years of lobbying to bring to fruition.

{%{"quote":"I'd planned on misery. I'd thought: The water won't be that deep. I'd thought: The water will be gross. I was wrong on all counts. We ripped downstream on a bona fide river. It was eight feet deep and a hundred feet wide."}%}

On March 23, I’d stood with a crowd of 200 on the bank below Morelos Dam, gazing at the concrete monolith and waiting for the first gate to open. Beside me, Jennifer Pitt, the director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project, and Peter Culp, a Phoenix attorney and the go-to lawyer for Colorado River water issues, held their breath. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Pitt said. It was way back in 1998 when Pitt, who was already at EDF, and Culp, then a law student volunteering for the Sonoran Institute, first came up with a plan for how new water-sharing agreements could free up some flow for the delta.

For years the idea went nowhere. Mexico and the U.S. were battling over Mexico’s water supply, and by 2006 litigation was the preferred mode of communication. It took an earthquake to shake everyone into action. On Easter Sunday 2010, a 7.2-magnitude temblor destroyed much of Mexico’s canal system. The U.S. agreed to store some of Mexico’s water in Lake Mead on an emergency basis until Mexico could use it, and relations began to thaw. In November 2012, Minute 319, the latest amendment to the 1944 Water Treaty between the two countries, was signed. It allows Mexico, which has no large reservoirs of its own, to store future surplus water in Lake Mead in exchange for agreeing to share the burden of any future shortages. The U.S. agreed to invest in improvements to Mexico’s irrigation network, and part of the water saved from that was devoted to delta restoration. Mexico’s National Farmers Confederation objected to what it saw as a water grab by the U.S., and California’s Imperial Irrigation District and Los Angeles squabbled over each other’s role in the agreement, but their voices were drowned out by the deal’s environmental component, which made it a crowd-pleaser in both countries. As Pitt put it, “How could you not fix this problem? It’s so obvious. And it gets people on an emotional level. It’s just not right. Especially at the bottom of something as grand as the Colorado River.”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/butron-walton.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium", "caption":"Juan Butron and Walton on the river reborn."}%}

And with that, Gate 11 creaked open, a frothing mass of whitewater spilled out of the dam, and everybody went wild. Jennifer and Peter raised their fists in the air. Cameras clicked. Two drones whirred overhead. A sheet of water rushed over the marsh, simmering with escaping air bubbles, and licked our feet. Champagne corks popped. Jennifer doused Osvel. Osvel doused Francisco Zamora, director of the Sonoran Institute, who cried, “¡Hay agua!” And we all watched as a tendril nosed its way down the channel, hesitated in a pool, seemingly uncertain, then appeared to make up its mind as it spilled over the lip and ran downstream. If the water could make it 50 miles, it would reach the Laguna Grande restoration site, where tens of thousands of seedlings had been planted by Pronatura and the Sonoran Institute.

That was so easy, I said to Peter Culp. Just open the gates and let the water flow. Should happen every year. But Culp wondered if it would ever happen again. As part of Minute 319, EDF, the Sonoran Institute, and Pronatura had agreed to provide a 52,000-acre-foot base flow, to be delivered over five years, to keep the new trees alive. They were scrambling to purchase water rights from Mexican farmers, and they’d teamed up with the Nature Conservancy, the Redford Center, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in a Raise the River campaign to find the $10 million needed to do it. Even Will Ferrell and Kelly Slater lent a hand, shooting a mock PSA with Robert Redford in which they proposed that instead of raising the river, we should move the ocean.

But in 2017, the agreement must be renegotiated, and there is no guarantee that it will include water for the environment at all. With the Southwest projected to add another 20 million people in the next two decades and climate-change models predicting a 10 percent decline in the Colorado’s flow, finding extra water is getting harder. Frankly, the fact that it happened here in 2014 felt like a minor miracle. Right up until the moment when the first dam gate opened, I’d half expected black helicopters to swoop in and claim this precious resource for the city-state of Los Angeles.

Knowledge that this flood might never be repeated made it seem even more dreamlike as we forked into a low-lying meander and found ourselves in a lush bayou that felt more like Mississippi than Mexico. Beavers slapped their tails at us. Bees nuzzled willow flowers. Seeds rained down by the billions. Osvel cocked his ear and reeled off bird names. A flock of white-faced ibis wheeled overhead. Beads of light caught where the water surface bulged around cattail stems.

“This looks suspiciously like a green lagoon,” I said.

“I can’t believe how normal it feels,” said Pete, a look of awe on his face. “The ecological memory is so deep.” When Pete tried this journey in 2008, he’d run out of water to travel on and wound up hiking 90 miles through salt pan to reach the sea. “It was hell,” he said. “A total slog. Worst trip I’ve ever done.”

“I can’t believe how safe it feels,” Sam said. Just a few years earlier, every crime known to man took place amid the tamarisks of the limitrophe.

“We used to see miscreants every day when we were doing fieldwork,” Osvel said. “One time we were doing a bird survey, and we always carry a machete, and we came to a clearing and there were people pointing guns at us and shouting, ‘Drop the machete!’ ” They turned out to be police, which made him feel only slightly better. “They were very nervous, and seeing nervous people point guns at you is not fun.”

“This is gonna close my boating résumé on the Colorado,” Fred mused. “I’ve done it all except for this stretch. The culmination of the past ten years.” Fred has floppy hair, fluid eyes, and a mischievous smile that hints of the rebellious teenager he was 25 years ago (twice thrown in the clink). Once, during a Native American ceremony, he’d been taken by intense visions in which he saw himself flying through a lush corridor of cottonwoods and willows as light emanated from his chest. It informed his career. “I try to keep myself open to the spiritual aspect of this work, instead of making it all about salinity and hydrology,” he said.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-fisherman.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium", "caption":"A fisherman hauls in his catch just hours after the river reached San Luis."}%}

I think of Fred as a restoration shaman. Straight out of college, he spent six years living with the Mojave and Navajo Indians along the lower Colorado in Arizona and reviving hundreds of acres of wetlands. I’ve walked and paddled through chirping, trilling marshes that began as visions in Fred’s head. While other restoration projects resemble tree farms, Fred’s are like epic Japanese gardens, waving banks of willows and wildflowers shot through with water and paths. Although he isn’t involved with any of the Minute 319 restoration projects, his sites are where the NGOs take potential donors and government officials to inspire them. As Osvel put it to me, “Fred is always one step ahead.”

By late afternoon, we’d already covered 20 river miles, and the cottonwoods disappeared. Billions of tiny copepods, having lain dormant as eggs for a decade or more, had hatched and were feasting on algae along the water’s fringe. High, sandy banks—perhaps 100,000 years’ worth of powdered canyon—bracketed the flow. Beyond them, a khaki nothingness. The occasional image of a drowned cactus rippled up at us like something out of a Dalí painting. We saw no one.

No one, that is, until we rounded a bend at dusk and heard the throb of ranchero music. The sleepy city of San Luis Río Colorado had awakened. The water had arrived the day before; the party was ongoing. Kids splashed and giggled in the shallows. Dozens of trucks lined the banks, speakers blasting. An ice cream truck and a coconut seller were doing brisk business on the beach beneath the bridge. An optimist with a net waded chest-deep through the water, sweeping it around him. The French filmmakers, who were working on a two-hour documentary for their People of the River series, were waiting for us.

As we paddled into town, five caballeros on horseback galloped through the water beside us, kicking spray behind them. They were experts in charreria, Mexican horse dancing, and they put on an impromptu show for the cheering crowd. Dogs barked. Children screamed. One horse sent the French cameraman sprawling to the ground. An old man with a cane wobbled on the water’s edge, snapping shots with his smartphone.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-cowboy.jpg","size":"large","caption":"Cowboy horse dancers join the party in San Luis Río Colorado."}%}

Sam was sitting cross-legged on his paddleboard, smiling. “I think I underestimated the social impact,” he said. “This is aligning more than just river channels.”

The optimist strode grinning out of the water holding a string of carp the length of his arm. I paddled past one of the guys who used to jump off the bridge. “Happy to have the river back?” I asked.

“Of course, amigo,” he shouted back to me. “It’s our name!”

We camped in a mesquite grove previously restored by Pronatura, where Osvel’s Pronatura compadres were waiting for us with tamales, tequila, Tecate, and a mountain of carne asada so vast that it stretched all the way into breakfast. To the binational agreement we contributed three guitars and a mandolin. Juan Butron, a leathery local guy who’d been working with Pronatura and would be helping us navigate the delta’s twists and turns tomorrow, joined us in time to deliver a rousing rendition of “La Bamba” to the stars, with light coyote accompaniment.

Around the campfire, we discussed what it would take to get San Luis its river permanently. “I wish social memory was longer than it is,” Sam said, strumming absently. “Are people still going to be inspired in three years when there’s not much to show from this?” With Sam’s backing, Fred’s consulting firm had developed a concept design for the delta restoration projects that used high-tech gates and levees to capture much more of the water than the dirt channels dug in the current sites, but it had not been implemented. “There will be a lot of excuses not to go further,” he said. “But the opportunity is huge. It’ll be something to watch.”

Yes it will. Here’s the short version: In ten to twenty years, unless the drought breaks in a big way or everybody in Los Angeles starts recycling their own pee, Lake Mead will run dry, and the Southwest will have to pack up its playthings and move in with its relatives back east.

Here’s the longer version: Each year, according to the Law of the River, the century-old pillar of legal documents governing the allocation of the Colorado, Lake Mead must distribute 1.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water to Mexico, 4.4 to California, 2.8 to Arizona, and 0.3 to Nevada. It loses another 0.6 MAF to evaporation. But the reservoir receives 1.2 MAF—four Las Vegases—less than it distributes. Currently, Mead has just 12 MAF left.

Really, really bad math? Well, yes, but the original math was done during a particularly wet period in the early 20th century, when there seemed to be more than enough water to go around for the sparsely populated Southwest. Even as the Sunbelt boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, Mead’s managers avoided paying the piper, thanks to a series of wet El Niño years.

The piper came calling in 2000, when the worst drought in 1,200 years settled onto the Southwest. Worse, research into the deep archeological record revealed that the wet decades of the 20th century were the anomaly and the dry years of the 21st were closer to the norm. Since 2001, Mead has been dropping 13 to 14 feet each year. It is now below 1,100 feet, with a 120-foot-high white bathtub ring to show just how far it has fallen.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-birds-eye.jpg","size":"medium","align":"right","caption":"The Colorado moves south, forming a lake downstream of Morelos Dam. The canal at left typically diverts the flow west to the Mexicali Valley."}%}

When Mead hits 1,075 feet, which should be in either 2016 or 2017, automatic rationing begins. Farmers in Arizona will begin to be cut off. At 1,050 feet, which looms for 2020, Vegas loses its current water intake, Arizona’s farmers go under, and Hoover Dam stops being able to generate hydroelectric power. “All of those agricultural districts receive federally subsidized power,” Peter Culp had pointed out to me as we’d watched water pour out of Morelos Dam. “Suddenly, you have the ag districts trying to buy power on the market at five times the price.” When the reservoir drops to 1,000 feet, somewhere around 2025, Phoenix is toast, Vegas loses its new intake, and farming becomes impossible in great swaths of the Southwest. “In the meantime,” according to Culp, “you’ve got a bunch of banks and bond markets saying, You know, that Vegas-Phoenix real estate market doesn’t look like such a great investment. The last time they concluded that, it tanked the world economy.” Which is why Culp suspects emergency measures would kick in before then. “There’s no way you can let Mead hit 1,000. It would be so horribly stupid.”

Slowing Mead’s downfall would require suspending the Law of the River, which dictates that Southern California will remain unscathed as its neighbors collapse—something Culp finds unlikely. “It’s not credible that Arizona and Vegas would be entirely cut off before California is affected. Can you imagine the feds standing by and allowing that to happen?” Instead, picture a wildly unpopular federal water czar declaring a state of emergency and parceling out Southern California’s water to keep Phoenix and Vegas on an IV drip. Picture the mother of all lawsuits creeping across the Mojave dunes.

That’s the doomsday scenario. And who doesn’t love the clarifying tonic of impending doom? Y2K. Peak oil. Now the coming megadrought. Dry riverbeds and white bathtub rings seize headlines. Sam wishes there was less focus on scare stories and more on smart water solutions—ways to shepherd the West through its day of reckoning to a green future of thriving cities, hyperefficient agriculture, and a Colorado delta teeming with life. It turns out that, even at the lower-flow levels projected for the Colorado, we have enough water to do all those things, if—and this is a big if, an if as vast as a Sonoran Desert horizon—we get smart. Really smart. Children of Dune smart.

For example, while Phoenix uses 165 gallons of water per person per day, Tucson uses just 128. One difference? Phoenix still favors a lush-lawn look, whereas Tucson embraced its desert identity decades ago. Lawns out, cactuses in. All new homes are required to have gray-water systems that reuse water for irrigation. The city offers rebates for low-flush toilets and rain collectors. And 10 percent of the city’s water is reclaimed from the sewer system, treated, and used for irrigation.

That still can’t touch Vegas, where every drop of water that goes down a drain or toilet is treated and pumped back into Lake Mead. (Vegas really does drink its own pee.) The only water lost is what’s used for irrigation, and even that has plunged since the city banned new front lawns and began paying people to replace existing ones with desert vegetation. Water use in Vegas has dropped by a third. Los Angeles is also now paying people $2 per square foot to remove their lawns.

Every city in the Southwest will need to get aboard the Vegas bandwagon. And they can. Australia already has. Cities there, which have been dealing with crippling aridity longer than we have, use just over half the water per person of their American counterparts. If Southern California alone were to adopt Australian rules concerning outdoor watering and low-flow fixtures, it would save 1.3 MAF of water per year—more than Lake Mead’s deficit.

Agriculture can save even more—though the real gains must come through you, carnivore. At least 70 percent of the water in the Colorado River basin gets used for agriculture, and most of that is used to grow livestock feed like alfalfa. This means that about five million acre-feet of the river—a third of its entire flow—gets turned into milk or hamburgers, and hamburgers are a particularly stupid thing to make out of the Colorado. Each hamburger takes about 500 gallons of water. If we each eat one fewer hamburger per year, we’ve just freed up a generous annual pulse flow for the river.

Not that the river would get it. Current “use it or lose it” water laws don’t allow farmers to sell any surplus allotment, so they end up growing as much alfalfa as they can and selling it on the global market. Peter Culp estimates that 50 billion gallons of water—1.5 pulse flows—is shipped to China each year in the form of alfalfa, and even more to Japan. An open water market would allow both cities and environmental groups to pay farmers far more than they currently make growing alfalfa. Conservation groups are working to establish one, but the effort will face years of political wrangling.

We don’t have years, so let’s get on it. Toilet to tap. Grass to cash. Beef to beans. A new generation of falafel-munching cowboys checking the drip irrigators on their olive farms. And spending their off-season floating the mighty Colorado delta.

Day two at dawn, Fred smudged us all with sage smoke and a turkey feather. “A little love for the delta,” he said, blowing smoke in my face. When I gave him the raised eyebrow, he smiled and said, “It just helps you to shed whatever you need to shed. For a long time I felt a little odd about it, like what right do I have to be doing these things? But the Navajo elder who taught me said, ‘A lot of my tribe isn’t doing it, so somebody needs to.’ ”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/fred-phillips.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium", "caption":"Ecologist Fred Phillips takes a holistic approach to river restoration."}%}

By the time we launched, it felt like we were on a vision quest of our own, traveling the Colorado’s possible futures. There were no more green lagoons. The water got browner, sandier, shallower. In places the surface was dotted with clouds of frothy brown scum. “The Mojaves call this turtle shit,” Fred said. “It used to cover the river before the dams.”

Juan spotted a mysterious backpack trapped in an eddy. He paddled over to it, reached out, then changed his mind. “Mala vibra,” he said. Bad vibe. An old-school Sonoran in his sixties, Juan canoed in his standard uniform of tight denim shirt, tight denim jeans, and dusty red cowboy boots. He eyed the paddleboards with great skepticism. “Want to try?” Sam asked. No, sir.

We saw bizarre things. Around one bend, the river was boiling furiously, like a giant vat of pasta water, as air bubbled out of the sandy bed. “There’s something I’ve never seen before,” said Fred.

“I have,” said Sam. “In flash floods.” As the water sank deep into the sand, as he had predicted, it was forcing long-buried air to the surface. He stared darkly into the bubbling cauldron. “This dry aquifer is the wild card. I’m very curious to see how the groundwater responds.” We all listened to the ominous gurgling, the sound of the river choking on sand. “I hope this river makes the sea,” Sam said, “even though it would prove me wrong.”

Sam offered Juan the paddleboard again. Juan shrugged. “Come on, try it.” OK. Juan pulled off his cowboy boots, mounted the paddleboard, and puttered downstream in tight denim shirt, tight denim jeans, and bare feet. A strange look crossed his face as he shifted his weight and gazed down at the water around him. He began singing to himself. “Esta agradable,” he murmured softly.

In late afternoon, I asked Juan if he wanted back in the canoe. He shook me off.

We knew we were running out of river when the channel flattened and we found ourselves paddling in a foot of brown, tamarisk-clogged water. Osvel and I were in a canoe up front, and as we cleared a stand of tamarisk we saw a ten-foot-high wall of sand stretching across the channel—a road crossing installed by some farmer who never expected the river to be wet again. I looked up at the wall and thought, This is how it ends.

{%{"quote":"Was the grand experiment worth it? Do we let the river go back to its slumber? Or do we raise it again? Having seen it wet and dry, having watched the dam open and close, I understand more than ever that it is simply a choice we get to make."}%}

But then we saw two figures standing on the berm. It was Peter Culp and Jennifer Pitt, who’d been chasing the leading lobe of the river for days by jeep through farmers’ barren fields. After spotting the dam from the air, the NGOs had sweet-talked a local excavator into digging an emergency trough through the berm. It was still too high for the water, but not by much. Osvel and I canoed through the last few inches, pushing our paddles against the sandy bottom, until our bow ground to a stop. We’d run the river dry.

The others arrived behind us. “Keep it going!” they shouted. We attacked the trough with our paddles, shoveling it down to the water’s level. Peter and Jennifer joined in. For 15 years they had written reports, filed briefings, raised funds, and bended ears to get the water this far. Now they were digging with their bare hands to get it a few feet farther.

At 6:24 p.m., as the shadows of tamarisks lengthened across the red-tinged sands, the first trickle escaped the trough and dropped into the empty channel on the far side. We cheered. Soon the water was building on itself, picking up speed, scouring the sandy walls of the road. Through the night it rose, and we rode the mini-rapids on our paddleboards again and again, occasionally knocked sideways by a calving chunk of road. Pronatura had brought Fred’s truck down from Morelos to haul our gear back, and we spent the night by the river, sleeping in the sand.

We had come 32 miles. That meant there were another 68 or so to reach the sea, some of them very dry. The water would make just a few more miles the next day, and the day after that, creeping on through the saline lands. A week later, it would fill the backwaters of Laguna Grande, where 100,000 trees are now sprouting, and it would touch places—and people—that never thought they’d see water again.

Having no more river to travel, we returned to our lives. Fred to Arizona, Sam and Pete to Colorado, me to Vermont. Osvel and Juan to Pronatura’s bird counts and flow monitoring. Sam gave Juan his paddleboard, scrawling “Por Juan del Rio” on the yellow deck.

A few days later, they began reducing the flow out of Morelos, and the river slowed even more. So I was surprised when I received a note from Pete. He and Sam had returned to the delta. “I have to make the sea,” Pete wrote. “Kind of reaching mission stage at this point.” With Juan divining the way on his Badfish, they took it in 20-mile chunks, waiting for the water to fill each reach. It wasn’t pretty. “Complete warfare,” Pete wrote. “Chopping, pleading the boards through dead and living cattail and mesquite jungles. It will go down as the most beautiful and one of the hardest paddles in this kid’s book.” They battled mosquitoes and 107-degree temperatures; they floated over swimming coral snakes and under endangered clapper rails. Toward the end, they had to paddle commando on their bellies in the dark to hide from malditos—narco bandits who work the empty lower delta—but on May 5, they hit the high-tide line of the gulf and kissed salt water.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/co-river-group.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium", "caption":"From left: McBride, Butron, Walton, Hinojosa, Jacobsen, and Phillips at journey's end."}%}

Thus the séance ended. On May 21, the gates of Morelos Dam groaned closed, and the last of the water snaked into the dust. San Luis Río Colorado went back to being the city on the sandbox.

Was the grand experiment worth it? To Sam, that depends on what happens next. “One pulse does not a living system make, but it does remind us that it is alive,” he wrote. Knowing that, do we let the river go back to its slumber, or do we raise it again? Annually? Permanently? Having seen the limitrophe wet and dry, having watched the dam open and close, I now understand more than ever that, at some level, it is simply a choice we get to make, and I have to believe that for anyone, Mexican or American, who got a taste of the delta in the spring of 2014, it’s an easy call. We’d found the bucking, ecstatic Colorado of old, right where we’d left it, romping through its old playgrounds like an oversize kid. For a few electric miles, it was in its element, and so were we. It tumbled into a hundred green lagoons, traveling them all, and so did we. It divided and rejoined, twisted and turned, meandered in awesome jungles, got lost and was glad of it, and so were we. It turned down long-forgotten paths, trying to find a graceful way forward, and so did we.

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Why Cycling’s Hour Record Matters

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s governing body, recently announced that it’s changed the rules for the Hour Record—an event that pits a cyclist against the clock to see how far he can ride in 60 minutes.

Previously riders attempting to beat the record had to do so on bikes without any aerodynamic benefits, which ruled out shaped tubes, deep section rims, drop handlebars, and anything resembling a modern time trial position. Because of these limitations, Eddy Merckx’s 1972 record of 49.431km (30.715 miles) was long considered the mark to beat.

Under the new rules, any attempt at the hour record moving forward will be bound by the regulations that apply to endurance track bikes (including equipment and position) in place at the time of the ride. That means modern TT positioning and aerodynamics will now be fair game, and it moves the benchmark up to the 2005 record of Czech rider Ondrej Sosenka, who rode 49.7 kilometers (30.882 miles).

Though this all may sound like eye-glazing esoterica, the decision has some interesting, broad-based implications for the cycling world.

{%{"quote":"Right now, the UCI—and professional cycling in general—could use some expansive thinking to rescue the sport from the doping morass."}%}

First of all, it’s important to remember that not too long ago the hour record was a prestigious accomplishment that appealed to fans in much the same way as the quest for the four-minute mile did in the 1950s.

The ping-pong record trading of the ‘90s between Graham Obree and Chris Boardman, as told in the biopic The Flying Scotsman, captivated the public—even people outside the bike-racing niche. The record gained so much cachet that even some of the biggest names in the peloton, including Tony Rominger and Miguel Indurain, tried their hands at it.

That period culminated with Boardman’s 56.375-kilometer record in 1996. But the UCI cut the heyday short when it amended the rules to disallow records set during the period because the organization felt technology—including unorthodox aerodynamics such as Obree’s superman position—was making for an uneven playing field.

The move away from the anachronistic 1972 standard—as well as the simple act of explicitly clarifying the rules at all—should help reignite interest among the top pros. And with all the bad press cycling’s had in recent years, that’s a good thing. Wouldn’t it be great to see some of the most respected names in the sport battling it out for the honors? An Obree-Boardman-style rivalry could help reignite some interest in road cycling as a whole among the public.

Before the rule change, several riders—including time trial world champions Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin—had talked about taking a run at the record. Cancellara is reported to have put his plans on hold since the ruling, presumably because Trek had been developing gear for him based on the old standards. Meanwhile, Tour de France champ Bradley Wiggins sounds more interested than ever in giving it a go

But the import of the rule change reaches beyond the hour record. The UCI has come under fire for all sorts of ineptitude and malfeasance in recent years, and it is widely considered too stodgy and dogmatic regarding equipment. Hopefully, this move on the hour record signals that the organization, under the direction of its new president, Brian Cookson, is ready to move into the future. 

“This new rule is part of the modernisation (sic) of the UCI Equipment Regulation,” said Brian Cookson in the news about the changes to the hour record. “Today there is a general consensus that equipment used in competition must be allowed to benefit from technological evolution where pertinent. This kind of evolution is positive for cycling generally and for the hour record in particular.”

That’s refreshing talk, and there have been other promising signals in this vein, including word that the UCI is considering the legalization of disc brakes in professional racing.

I’ve also heard rumors in recent months that there could soon be changes coming to the minimum weight for race bikes (currently set at 6.8 kilograms, or 14.99 pounds). Many have criticized this 14-year-old standard because it means professionals are constrained to equipment that is inferior to that of many recreational riders. Just imagine if the general public drove nicer cars than F1 drivers or piloted finer boats than America’s Cup sailors.

Of course no equipment regulation is all that important. But the fact that the UCI is thinking about these things hopefully signals that it’s in the process of much-needed reform, both in terms of equipment and beyond. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” And right now, the UCI—and professional cycling in general—could use some expansive thinking to rescue the sport from the doping morass.

In the meantime, I just hope we see a few top pros throw their legs over an hour attempt. It might be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing an in-form Cancellara race against Eddy Merckx at his prime. Let the betting and conjecture begin.

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On the Road with the Great March for Climate Action

Last week I took my five-year-old daughter on her first activist march. It was day one of summer vacation in Santa Fe, and the whole season stretched languorously in front of us. What better way to celebrate her newfound freedom than by trekking 15 miles along the backroads of northern New Mexico with the Great March for Climate Action

I'd first heard of the Great March a few days earlier, when it had come through Santa Fe on its way north to Colorado. Founded by Ed Fallon, a former state legislator from Iowa, the march is comprised of "climate patriots" who are walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to inspire action to solve the climate crisis. Since leaving L.A. on March 1, they've averaged about 15 miles a day, camping in parks and parking lots along the way—a 3,000-mile, eight month journey that's slated to end in Washington on November 1.

Earlier in May, I'd spent four days walking along the northern California coast with my sister, a sort of slow-motion ultra that had left me obsessed with traveling by foot. The climate marchers were doing exactly that, only on a grand scale, coast to coast, to raise awareness for a grave and urgent global cause. It was such an audaciously simple and seductive mission that for half a second, I fantasized about going the distance with them, along the spine of the southern Rockies, across the heartland, all the way to Washington. 

Then I snapped back to reality. I have two young daughters, a husband, a puppy, and a job at home in Santa Fe. Walking for six months was out of the question, but I could walk for a day, or maybe two. I imagined trekking short sections with a band of selfless climate pilgrims, hopscotching around the country all summer to meet them. But first things first. Before I could join them, I had to find them.

I tracked them down on a Sunday evening in Santa Fe at their camp in a baseball field a few blocks from my house, their cluster of tents and vehicles barely visible in the late May dusk. A bright-eyed, 60-something official named Izzy greeted me warmly and explained that a core group of 30 or so have been walking since L.A.—a handful are "spirit walkers," who hope to walk every single step—but plenty of people march for a few days or weeks, and I was welcome to tag along. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/youngest-marchers_fe.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium"}%}

Which is how Pippa and I found ourselves, along with our friend Blair and her three-year-old daughter, Grace, in the parking lot of the Santuario de Chimayo, shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning. It was a modest encampment: Half a dozen nylon tents were pitched along the edges of the church's gravel lot. Duffle bags lay where they'd been tossed on a black tarp. The chalkboard on the back of the kitchen truck advertised lentils and rice; under the scrawled heading, "Leftovers," nothing was written. Two older women bent over a plastic basin, washing the breakfast dishes. At least three people were brushing their teeth, or their hair. Except for a couple of gear trucks and the odd Prius, it could have been just another morning on a group camping trip. 

Freshly showered in shorts and sneakers, with two blonde girls in tow, Blair and I stood out like, well, two moms at their first activist march. Izzy found us right away, and a 50-ish woman named Judy motioned for us to join the morning meeting. The sky was patched with morning clouds, and the campers gathered in a loose circle, bundled in down jackets and nylon pants that sagged a little at the knees, smelling like fresh air and the physical exertion that comes from walking 15 miles and sleeping outside everyday for the past six weeks. 

The group's acting mayor, Miriam, 71, motioned for us all to hold hands for announcements. Someone said that they were mailing a letter to the President. A bearded coordinator named Jimmy urged everyone to show up for a rally in Taos on Saturday night; there would be an optional field trip to see the earth ships, if anyone was interested. Sarah, on the logistics team, briefed us on our route: We would walk north out of the village of Chimayo toward Truchas, 15 miles into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, along the rural byway known as the High Road to Taos. After Blair and I and the girls were introduced to the group and greeted with smiles and prayer hands all around, Miriam led us in song, a plaintive chant imploring us to not kill the earth.

In my fervor to join the March, I'd blithely assumed we would walk the whole way, and I'd brought a borrowed BOB off-road stroller as backup for when Pippa got tired. Blair had brought one for Grace, too, but at the last minute, as we were donning reflective safety vests and the marchers were shouldering their hand-written signs, we decided to take only one, for Grace; Pippa could ride on the front if need be. I'd also assumed that we'd be strolling quiet country roads, and possibly trails. I'd heard that before they reached Santa Fe, the marchers had been met by local Native American tribal members and escorted cross-country on sacred pueblo lands. I pictured us bent over maps, plotting a remote path through the wilds of New Mexico.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/march-signs_fe.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium"}%}

Instead, we were walking up the pencil-wide shoulder of Country Road 98 during Chimayo's morning rush hour. Cars and pickups whizzed by, some arcing wide to give us room, others nearly clipping us. I clutched tightly to Pippa's hand. The marchers seemed unfazed: They'd already walked 1,000 miles on roads just like this, through gritty L.A. fumes and sleet and hail and blizzards and deluges and dust storms ("I've stopped calling it climate change and now just call it climate strange!" Izzy declared when I first met him). They strung out along the white line, waving their signs jollily and flashing peace signs at the drivers. A middle-aged woman named Kat from Homer, Alaska, called out in broken Spanish to an elderly Hispanic couple who sat on the portal of their old adobe watching us pass, expressionless.

There was so much going on it was hard to focus on the walking. I thought about what Judy, who had joined in Payson, Arizona, and was going as far as Denver, had told me in the parking lot when I asked her if she loved marching: "It's more complicated than that."

Indeed, even with the traffic and the effort required to keep Pippa moving forward in a somewhat straight line and Grace entertained in the stroller, I could see that the walking was the easy part. Harder by far was coexisting outside with a disparate group of people for eight months while trying to rally around a common cause. Of the three dozen walkers, nearly all were nearing or over 50, semi-retired or empty-nesters. Three or four were under 25, including a woman in a long skirt who was doing the whole march in silence (except for singing). Then there was Mac, 24, a spirit walker who had just graduated from the University of Michigan and was marching—or rather hobbling—barefoot. "Walking is not just about the activism," he told us. "I believe that I'm connecting to the earth and transforming myself, and through that, others will be inspired to transform, too."

But what about the activism? When I asked Kimberly, a masseuse from Des Moines with salt-and-pepper hair, what message they were hoping to convey through the March, she explained that their mission statement was still a work in progress. "It's about water and energy and solar," she said, "and the Keystone Pipeline. We're working on our vision as a group." 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/march-barefoot_fe.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium"}%}

The logistics of organizing such a massive undertaking are tricky, too. When they showed up in LA for the start of the Great March, on March 1, Miriam explained, "there was hardly any infrastructure set up. There were no dishes or pots. We had to do everything from the beginning." The original plan had envisioned a thousand full-time marchers, but so far on any given day, there have been less than 50. (Many marchers come and go, walking for weeks or months and leaving for just as long to tend to things at home; they hope to recruit more en route, starting in Denver in June.) The March adheres to the principles of non-violence and is self-governed through an elected city council, mayor, and judicial board. Early on, the marchers implemented once-a-week rest days to catch up on the real lives they left behind, but they were so busy doing laundry and sending emails and fundraising (each full-time marcher committed to raising $20 per day to cover food and expenses) that they started calling them "stay days." 

A mile from the Santuario, the March turned north onto busier NM 76, the High Road, threading through farm fields and horse pastures and past ramshackle adobe art studios. Pippa had taken to straddling the front of the stroller rather than walking, which was a relief—the cars were coming faster, and the shoulder had narrowed—but made for awkward pushing. Under the weight of both girls, the BOB lurched and swerved in the soft gravel like a fully-loaded shopping cart with a bad wheel.

Our fellow walkers were unfailingly optimistic. "You're the youngest marchers we've ever had!" they exclaimed cheerfully to the girls, as they took turns helping Blair and me maneuver the stroller up a long hill. One of the marchers, Bob, had volunteered to drive the sag wagon, Kimberly's Prius, that morning, and he kept pulling over to direct us safely along dodgy sections through the blind curves. Drivers honked and slowed to wave or give us the thumbs up; others ignored us altogether.

Our girls rose to the occasion of their first environmental march. Pippa gamely hopped in and out of the BOB, feeding Grace bits of Larabar, listening patiently while the marchers talked about climate change, and complaining only a little: "When are we going to get to the trail, Mama?"

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/march-truck_fe.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium"}%}

We were still ten miles from the nearest trail, a dirt forest road that that would spare us from Highway 76, when Blair and I decided to pull the plug. Grace had begun to clamor to get out of the stroller, but the High Road was still far too busy for her to toddle safely, and Bob graciously offered to shuttle us back the Santuario in the Prius. We shook hands, hugged the marchers goodbye, and wished them luck. It was just after 10 am. We'd walked three miles of the Great March for Climate Action, one-one-thousandth of the way across the country.

Driving back to Santa Fe, I tried to make sense of the morning. Part of me was inexplicably glad to go home, to not have to walk en masse to Washington and sleep in parking lots and eat lentils from the back of a truck. But the other half of me knew we'd only just nicked the surface of the Great March. Like any adventure, it always takes a few days to find your place—outside and in the group. "It's a constant discovery," Judy told me. "You're wondering where you fit in." It's changing—we all are—all the time. 

For nearly everyone I talked to, the reality of marching was so different from the fantasy. Not better or worse, just different. "Before the March, I'd been afraid of sleeping outside," Kimberly explained as we walked. "Now I can't imagine not." Earlier Judy told me, "there's a timelessness to living outside that most of us never get to experience." And for 18-year-old named Bernise, who's taking a year off college to walk, the March "is so much more amazing than I ever expected." I've spend the last couple of years running ultra-distance trail races, and marching three miles for a cause with young children felt harder than running 50.

I asked Pippa what she thought of being part of one of the largest cross-country marches in history. "It was cool," she said automatically—high praise from a kindergartener. But then she was quiet for a while, and I could tell she was thinking. "They're still walking," she marveled. "And they'll still be walking at Halloween."

Years from now, long after the March is over, our children—these very girls—will inherit the problems of a warming, changing world, and it will be their crisis to solve. Had Blair and I and our daughters made a difference by walking that day? Will we turn off the lights and stop ordering our lattes to go in paper cups? Think twice about driving, and ride our bikes instead? Meet the March in Omaha after all? For the sake of our daughters, and their daughters, I really, really hope so.

But probably, it's more complicated than that. 

For more information about how to meet up with the March or donate, go to climatemarch.org. Full-timer marchers and part-time walkers are always welcome; see the route and schedule online.

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Why Obama's New Regs Scare Big Coal

The Obama Administration just revealed its much-anticipated plan to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. The collective goal of the regulations, which each state will set its own course toward meeting, is to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 30 percent below those levels by 2030.

In terms of Obama's Presidential legacy, it's a big, audacious goal. If the regulations withstand the lawsuits that are sure to come, this will also be a major win for clean air and environmental health—especially for communities surrounding presently coal-powered plants. Will it, alone, reverse or even stop climate change? Not a chance. Regardless, it is a crux move and it will have ripple effects.

Climate and Coal—Can They Get Along?

Topping the to-do list, in terms of avoiding catastrophe, is to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. Some studies show we are on track for a 4-degree rise. Carbon-based energy (across sectors) is the main driver of climate change (the negative effects of which we are already feeling) and so it would follow that reducing carbon emissions is the strongest tool for avoiding calamity.

Yet, as Ezra Klein wrote on Vox, political will today to fight climate change is actually weaker now than in 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain proposed an economic tool for reducing carbon emissions (cap-and-trade) that was "far more aggressive than the power-plant rules the Obama administration is announcing today."

Plus, China assumed America's long-held title of world's largest polluter back in 2007.

On the other hand, our move to cap carbon emissions—as well as China's efforts to do the same—should lend momentum toward making binding international treaty agreements, focused on global emissions reductions.

"Internationally, it's incredibly important that the U.S. take explicit steps to limit emissions," says K.C. Golden, senior policy advisor for Climate Solutions, a clean-energy advocacy group. "That is what the rest of the world needs to hear."

He also notes that some states, including those in the Pacific Northwest where Climate Solutions is based, will not only meet, but far exceed, the new emissions goals, to be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Nowhere does this [new ruling] stretch the bounds of what is possible or economically feasible" in terms of cutting U.S. carbon emissions, he says, "but it's a big signal from the world's biggest historic carbon emitter."

The (Energy) Hunger Games

Despite China's efforts to cap carbon emissions, Asia's booming economies and population growth mean the region will remain a major consumer of fossil fuels in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the U.S. energy sector, which is already increasingly reliant on natural gas, is going to have to significantly reduce its use of coal to meet the EPA's carbon limits. All of this means coal companies are eager to find new customers in Asia.

More specifically, coal producers in the Powder River Basin, a massive, shallow coal seam that spans from eastern Wyoming to southern Montana, are interested in selling more coal to Asia. To do that, however, they need transport the coal to ships, via ports they're pushing to have built along the Pacific Northwest Coast.

This would mean an influx of port jobs, but also a significant spike in already-busy railroad traffic between the Powder River Basin and three proposed ports (two in Washington and one in Oregon). Fears of a major train derailment, especially as these massive coal-laden locomotives stream along the Columbia River, and concerns over spikes in particulate air pollution from coal dust, have led to a strong opposition movement against the ports.

Opponents argue that a coal spill along the Columbia River or in the coastal waters could create an ecological nightmare, erasing economic benefits from the ports through losses to fisheries and the region's recreation economy.

Protect Our Winters, which is working to advance clean energy policy in the U.S., just released a Kickstarter-backed documentary, called Momenta, about the proposed ports. Narrated by mountaineer Conrad Anker, the film includes interviews with activist Bill McKibben, public health experts, and community stakeholders along the rail's path.

But won't Obama's decision to limit power plant emissions, and thereby put the hurt on the domestic coal industry, only lead to greater pressure to get those ports built?

Eric de Place, policy director of the Sightline Institute, an energy think tank focused on the Pacific Northwest, says Obama's move is very likely to increase the pressure on those ports, which will need a green light from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and local regulatory bodies before they're built. But he does not think that pressure will lead to regulatory bodies being any more likely to green-light the ports.

In fact, he thinks that even if the ports pass environmental muster, the overall economic health of the coal industry could be a turn-off to regulators. "I think they will be less likely to allow them, because I think there is good reason to have existential concern about these [coal] company's longevity," he says. "If I am a regulator, and I look at the coal companies' [health], their ability to get financing has gotten tougher now. If you think of it in terms of that, they are less likely to get permits," he says.

Predictably, the coal industry is unhappy with the new regulation framework, and says it will only lead to higher energy bills for Americans.

I reached out to SSA Marine, the terminal operator that wants to build one of the three proposed ports, the Gateway Pacific Terminal on Washington's far-north coast (near Bellingham), to ask if the Administration's move to cut coal use in U.S. will impact the port's prospects. The company declined to comment.

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The Mother of All Anti-Fracking Tools

In Mora County, New Mexico, a patchwork of prairie, foothills, and high peaks on the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, unemployment stands at 16 percent, county workers operate out of leaky temporary buildings, and the population density is so low—just two people per square mile—that the tiny community and its largest town, 300-person Wagon Mound, are still classified as frontier by state health officials.

In short, Mora isn’t the kind of place that comes to mind for a national showdown on fracking. But in April 2013, county commissioners took center stage in the fight by passing the Community Water Rights and Local Self-Governance Ordinance, which declared it illegal for companies to extract hydrocarbons anywhere in the county, making Mora the first in the U.S. to ban oil and gas drilling outright, on public and private land.

Not surprisingly, lawsuits soon followed. The county was sued in federal district court in Albuquerque late last year by the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) and three local property owners. In January, a second suit was filed by Shell Western, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s sixth-largest oil company.

The likely outcome? Busy lawyers. But the suits could also set a nationwide precedent by settling an interesting argument: Does a community’s right to self-governance trump the rights of corporations? The county ordinance’s basic aim is to protect the water supply in a parched region of a drought-stricken state, but it also contains a bill of rights for the environment, which argues that natural ecosystems “possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist.”

The lawsuit by Royal Dutch Shell claims that Mora County’s rule denies the company its constitutional rights, chief among them corporate personhood, which states that a business has the same rights as an individual. (The controversial Citizens United Supreme Court ruling cemented corporations’ constitutional right to free speech.)

“This ordinance denies our property interest by declaring to criminalize virtually any activity undertaken by a corporation relating to oil and gas exploration and production,” says Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell.

Some environmentalists say that’s the whole point and are eager to test it. The ordinance was drafted with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit. CELDF cofounder Thomas Linzey acknowledges that provisions in the document contradict existing laws, but he relishes the chance to defend the self-governance statute before a judge. As the case goes into litigation, tiny Mora County, which doesn’t even have a stoplight, could help usher in a series of similar laws, and CELDF is working hard to ensure that this happens. It’s a fight Big Green groups have failed to take up, says Linzey, so it’s being waged at the grassroots level.

“Environmental folks don’t seem to give a shit,” he says. “They complain that the existing laws, which are stacked against us, are the only tools we have. We say maybe you should invent some new tools, because you’re not protecting anything.”

Banning oil and gas extraction under the purview of local government isn’t new. In 2010, Pittsburgh became the first city to ban fracking, which uses high-pressure water and chemicals to release oil and gas from subterranean shale deposits. Since then, more than 400 municipalities have instituted similar resolutions. The bans have mostly come in the form of zoning changes that keep the industry outside city limits.

But gas companies don’t drill in cities; they drill in the areas around them. That’s what makes Mora County’s ordinance unique. It bans energy extraction from a huge undeveloped area, nearly 1.2 million acres of rolling prairie, piñon and ponderosa forests, and 13,000-foot peaks.

“The oil and gas industry felt like it could contain these sorts of initiatives on a city-by-city scale,” says Eric Jantz, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is defending Mora County in the suit brought by IPANM. “But once you start getting into countywide prohibitions, that’s something the oil and gas industry has bigger concerns about.”

John Olivas, the Mora County commission chairman who helped pass the ordinance, says county commissioners voted for the sweeping legislation because regulations and zoning rules—typical anti-fracking tools—are simple loopholes that the industry would one day march through. “If the price is right for these corporations,” he says, “they’re coming.”

Karin Foster, the executive director of IPANM, counters that Mora County has been commandeered by a rogue environmental group. “This community-rights ordinance appeals to uneducated people in small communities that feel like they need to fight the man,” Foster says. “I don’t think the people leading them have their interests in mind.”

Some locals agree. Mora County is 80 percent Hispanic, and many residents are suspicious of Anglo groups coming in with an agenda, be it industrial or environmental. “That’s a real missionary attitude, to come into a place and say, ‘We’re going to protect you,’ ” says Sofia Martinez, an environmental -justice activist from Wagon Mound. Martinez opposes fracking, but she wishes that the county had taken a regulatory approach, one that didn’t expose it to potentially lengthy and expensive lawsuits. (Though the county has pro bono representation, by CELDF, among others, it may have to pay damages if it loses.)

Mora County’s case is likely to take years to resolve. Any ruling will almost assuredly be appealed, moving the case to the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver. But for now, Mora has become a cause célèbre, with other counties—like San Miguel, in New Mexico, and Johnson, in Illinois—considering similar bans. Cities and counties are now even working on community ordinances outlawing things like factory farms and GMO crops.

“We’ve all heard about Mora County,” says Sandra Steingraber, one of the nation’s most outspoken anti-fracking activists and author of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Steingraber has been watching the fight all the way from upstate New York, where she’s battling at the township level. “The science is certainly on our side, and it points to the need for a nationwide ban,” Steingraber says. “Now we’ll see if the law ends up on our side.”

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