All 21 youth plaintiffs in the landmark federal climate lawsuit will attend the hearing before Judge Coffin in federal district court in Oregon on Wednesday, March 9, as their attorneys argue against the effort by the U.S. government and fossil fuel industry to dismiss their constitutional case.
On this momentous day, the claims of the youth plaintiffs, as well as Dr. James Hansen representing the interests of future generations, will be challenged. The issues are crucial: When it comes to our climate, do we have fundamental constitutional rights? Does our federal government have public trust responsibilities? As with the Civil Rights Cases, this March 9 hearing presents the best opportunity for the federal judiciary to take the first step to preserve our climate-oriented constitutional rights and to safeguard youth and future generations from the severe harms caused by the government’s role in effecting climate change.
Based on the best available science, there is no question youth and our Posterity will shoulder the severe consequences of continued increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere. Yet the federal government has no effective plan to protect our future, such as no governing scientific standard to determine which projects will be permitted, how much pollution will be allowed, or why fossil fuel development will continue to be tolerated. Rather, our government continues its fossil fuel-dominated strategy to power our nation, even when that strategy inflicts irreversible damage and feasible, economical alternatives exist.
These brave youth simply ask the court to let the factual record speak for itself. They want a court order that is reasonable and realistic, while protecting their fundamental rights. Our young plaintiffs hope the court requires the federal government to promptly develop and implement a national climate recovery plan, rooted in science, to preserve our atmosphere, to stabilize our climate system for present and future generations, and to cease new fossil fuel projects (such as those geared to infrastructure and extraction) that will inflict irreversible damage. These youth ask that their fundamental constitutional rights and their futures not be subordinated to corporate dollars. They ask that our government do what is legally and morally right and scientifically sound.
Please fight with these youth plaintiffs. Tell your friends about this historic day in court, a day that will impact the futures of all of our children and grandchildren. If you haven’t already, please make a donation today to back these young leaders as they use the courts to confront the federal government and the fossil fuel industry and secure a scientifically sustainable future for all.
Last week on CBS Sunday Morning withCharles Osgood, correspondent Lee Cowan and producer Sari Aviv had a cover story about the efforts to get water to some parts of the Navajo Nation, where people live without running water.George McGraw, executive director of DigDeep, a non-profit trying to build a well there, was featured in the piece.
Building a well for the Navajo would cost upwards of $500,000. According to McGraw, since the piece aired Sunday, Aug. 16 he’s raised $550,000, with more coming in.
According to McGraw, the money raised from CBS Sunday Morning viewers will pay for a new well with additional donations used to buy fuel to a water delivery truck and build basic plumbing in some homes.
“The generosity of CBS Sunday Morning viewers will allow us to expand our work to other communities in need, until there’s no American family left there without water,” McGraw said, adding there’s still work to be done. “Smith Lake is just one community among many facing similar conditions. Almost 90,000 people on the Navajo Reservation don’t have safe, running water at home.” Here’s the story:
LEUPP, Ariz. – A lifetime of declining snowfall on the Navajo Reservation is making an already unforgiving desert landscape increasingly uninhabitable.
Snow tracked at six northeastern Arizona weather stations has plummeted by more than two-thirds on average since the 1930s, according to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Dozens of streams that flowed year-round on the reservation now dry up seasonally, and the parched springs and wells along their banks send isolated residents on long drives for store-bought water.
Local temperatures rising on average 2 degrees Celsius since the 1960s have sapped moisture. The advancing water crisis here could be a preview of the Greater Southwest’s challenges, as warming winter temperatures morph snow into rain and accelerate evaporation across the highlands.
The Salt and Verde rivers, a crucial supplier to the Phoenix area, originate in the snows that ring the reservation along the Mogollon Rim. And the Colorado River, lifeblood of the entire Southwest, starts with Rocky Mountain snows that also are fading.
“It’s just hitting the Navajo people first,” USGS geomorphologist Margaret Hiza Redsteer said.
And perhaps hardest.
As in Bolivia and other global pockets of poverty, worsening water scarcity comes down hard on those with the fewest means of adapting. The Navajo Nation’s median household income of about $20,000 is less than half Arizona’s average. The tribe’s Economic Development Division lists the unemployment rate at 42 percent and the poverty rate at 43 percent.
The drying has forced major changes on Navajos, making their lives even more difficult.
“We used to go to the river and plant corn,” said Alice McCabe, 70, a Navajo who has lived her adult life in and around Leupp. “But not anymore, because it gets dry.”
That family farming ended 30 years ago, for her and her neighbors who roasted a traditional corn variety and also used it in ceremonies.
“Now we’re just buying sweet corn from the stores (in Winslow),” McCabe said.
Likewise, she and husband, Jimmie McCabe, 73, used to retrieve water from a spring a couple of miles away from his ancestral homestead out a web of dirt roads west of Leupp. The spring dried up 15 years ago, he said. Now, though the tribe provides drinking water in Leupp, they often stock the ranch with bottled water from their 60-mile round trips to a Winslow supermarket.
“For a long time there’s no snow,” he said.
The first hit
DROUGHT CHANGES RESERVATION LIFE
Eighty years of declining snowfall have changed the landcape of the Navajo Nation, with direct implications for the Navajo people. (David Wallace/The Republic)
Effects of drying
RIVERBEDS NOW SOURCE OF BLOWING DUST
The McCabes’ memories match the story that the government researcher, Hiza Redsteer, has compiled with colleagues through interviews with 73 Navajo elders. The interviews are part of a forthcoming study of the Navajos’ vulnerability to climate change.
“Used to be a lot of running water in the wash,” said 70-year-old Levi Biggambler, who was born next to Jeddito Wash on the boundary with the Hopi Reservation and still lives there.
He recalls his family’s plots of corn, watermelon and other crops that he can no longer grow.
Hiza Redsteer’s study includes one resident’s memory that Jeddito Wash flowed consistently in the 1960s and 1970s, and many families planted fields there. Another recalled that in the 1930s the soil was moist to several centimeters in depth, because of deep snows.
Data from weather stations in the reservation’s Tsezhin Tah region north of Winslow indicate that annual snowfall that averaged about 17 inches in the 1930s declined steadily to 5 inches by the 21st century, Hiza Redsteer found.
Both the interviews and historic scientific journals recall widespread planting of corn and other crops along river floodplains, Hiza Redsteer said, where today there’s not enough water. Dry riverbeds are, instead, a major source of blowing dust.
Where snow has switched to winter rain, she said, the moisture is less able to sustain streams and springs through the dry times of year. Much of it runs away or evaporates quickly instead of melting into the soil, and increasing warmth makes shrubs and grasses thirstier.
The changes on Navajo land reflect a broader trend. Scientists say a warming climate threatens snowpack and moisture throughout the Colorado River basin, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Though the snowpack decline that Hiza Redsteer tracked at six sites is stark, it’s impossible to put a number on the total century-long decline across the reservation. Numbers from a larger government network of snow stations are only available going back to the 1980s.
Data from those sites mostly demonstrate the effects of the past 15 years of drought, broken by a couple of wet winters brought on by ocean temperature shifts known as El Niño.
Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a geomorphologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, walks through sand dunes on the Navajo Nation outside of Teesto, Ariz. She says the crisis created by the drought in the Southwest “is … hitting the Navajo people first.” (Photo: David Wallace/The Republic)
Several University of Arizona researchers who authored a 2012 paper on snowpack changes in the interior West found that as temperatures crept up in recent decades, snow and its moisture content declined. This was especially true in watersheds in the vicinity of the Navajo Reservation, including the San Juan River, which joins the Colorado at Lake Powell.
That drainage’s snowpack, on its highest day of winter, has lost about 2 inches of water per decade since the study data’s starting point in 1984. It shrank while temperatures warmed by 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade. Though rain replaced some snow, overall winter precipitation also declined.
The San Juan monitoring sites experienced the Southwest’s worst declines in the study, though the Lower Colorado — including the Salt and Verde rivers that help supply metro Phoenix — also lost snow and water.
Gregg Garfin, a University of Arizona climate scientist who helped write the Southwest chapter for a 2014 National Climate Assessment, noted that his colleagues also determined the snow is melting earlier and covering the ground fewer days.
“All snow-related parameters are going in the direction of less snow,” he said in an e-mail.
The National Climate Assessment that Garfin co-authored projected a dramatic decrease in the Arizona high country’s already skimpy snowpack if greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing. Measured against the late 20th-century average, Garfin’s team predicted 12 percent of normal moisture in the snowpack by 2100.
Upstream states that contribute the bulk of the Colorado River are not expected to suffer such losses, percentage-wise, though their losses will hurt the regional water balance more. Colorado, for instance, is the river’s biggest source and is projected to lose 26 percent of its snow moisture.
“We need every drop of water that we can get from the Colorado,” Garfin said.
A new source?
ENGINEERS TURN TO DESALINATION
Robert Seaman, left, a University of Arizona chemical and environmental engineering research technician, and Seth Lawrence, a Northern Arizona University mechanical engineering undergraduate, repair a desalinization plant outside of Leupp, Ariz. (David Wallace/The Republic)
This summer the McCabes trekked from their Navajo homestead to a nearby community well, to hoist sticks atop a shade structure for their cattle milling around a trough there. The well is deep enough to draw water, but it’s tapping ancient seawater that is too salty for people — not the percolated snowmelt that once sustained people here.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, with help from University of Arizona engineering students, is working on that. They’ve assembled a solar-powered desalination plant next to the well to test a system that one day could be replicated across the reservation.
The well is clear of uranium contamination, a threat for many wells around a reservation that once hosted hundreds of unregulated uranium mines.
An array of photovoltaic panels and mirrors both pumps the water and heats it in a distilling process that recovers 95 percent of the water and dumps the rest with the salt. It’s working, but the researchers aren’t yet sure of the cost per gallon.
How the purification system works
The technology that University of Arizona engineers are testing at a Navajo Reservation well uses solar energy to heat a nontoxic glycol solution, which in turn heats water for purification.
The heat vaporizes the water and increases pressure in a pipe containing thousands filter membranes arrayed like bunched-up straws. Pure water passes to the outside of the straw, but dissolved solids including salt can’t. This is the same process that orange juice suppliers use to remove water and make juice concentrate.
The resulting distilled water is mixed back with some of the source water to provide a suitable level of minerals and ions. The remaining unpurified water containing the concentrated brine is dumped into an evaporation pond.
The Bureau of Reclamation has given the university $75,000 in each of the past two years to work on the project, and will seek $150,000 next year for a parallel test of a reverse-osmosis system with the same power source, testing which is more efficient and reliable.
“This is one small component (of a regional water plan),” said Mitch Haws, the bureau’s project leader. “It this technology works, it will service about 135 households in the area.”
The goal, he said, is to perfect a system that can be replicated and turned over to the tribe’s local governments for routine operation and maintenance. He expects the remote plant to produce about 1,000 gallons of clean water daily for households and their livestock.
For now, there are still kinks. This summer Haws spent a morning trying to wrench the sun-tracking mirrors into proper alignment because blowing sand had locked up bearings in the automated system.
The water rising from this well is full of dissolved solids — essentially salt — at 1,400 parts per million. That’s double the levels in the Colorado River, and 400 parts per million above the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking standard.
But it’s just a fraction of the salt content in the ocean, about 35,000 parts per million. Haws believes solar desalination projects cleaning moderately salty water could be a major part of the Southwest’s future water security.
“We’ve dammed all the rivers that we’re going to dam,” he said. “I think desalination is the next source.”
DRY BRUSH GROWS IN FORMER FARMING CENTERS
Alice McCabe splashes water on her 3-year-old grandson, Jayden. She uses the water for her livestock. (David Wallace/The Republic)
A functioning water treatment plant would save a lot of trips to town for residents like the McCabes and their neighbors near a seasonally parched stretch of the Little Colorado River.
“Tell them to hurry,” Alice McCabe said as they continued their journey to the well.
Her nephew, 53-year-old Raymond Stayne, lives at the dry homestead. He sometimes drives 80 miles to Oak Creek Canyon, south of Flagstaff, for spring water, because he believes it makes the best coffee. Sometimes, though, he just drinks from the salty well, “If I don’t have anything. If I’m dying of thirst.”
Tens of thousands of Navajos lack safe drinking water in or near their homes. They include more than 50,000 who haul from unregulated, potentially contaminated sources, according to tribal water officials.
The tribe may yet be awarded a needed slice of the Colorado River, as other tribes have through federal negotiations. But the river is a shrinking resource with no guarantee that even currently binding allocations will hold up in a future with vastly more Southwesterners.
Federal projections, thought conservative by many scientists, predict a river flowing about a tenth behind its historic pace by midcentury.
At Tolani Lake, northeast of Leupp, a flat that once routinely collected water streaming off a mesa is now a dry playa. It was a corn farming center in the 1970s, Hiza Redsteer said, but now grows only dry brush.
That brush and various invasive plants are sucking up more water as the cold season shrinks, she said. At nearly 5,000 feet elevation, the area experienced high temperatures in the 60s last January.
“When that happens,” researcher Hiza Redsteer said, “plants aren’t dormant in winter anymore.”
She believes the drying land and resulting difficulty raising livestock is forcing young Navajos to seek jobs elsewhere. The overall tribal population grew slightly between 2000 and 2010, but the U.S. Census found that the reservation population declined nearly 4 percent, to 174,000.
Ann-Marie Chischilly grew up on the reservation in Shonto, Ariz., and now is saddened when she returns from Flagstaff to the drought-stricken village. Medicinal plants that her grandparents taught her about no longer grow there.
“That little community used to be an oasis with lush yards and gardens,” she said. Now, “When it’s just a little bit windy, the dust is just unlivable.”
Chischilly directs the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. She fears that continued drought will force more to truck their water as wells dry.
The tribe, she said, must plan for “surviving what could be a difficult time in our history.”
Read Part 1: What can Peru tell us about the future of Arizona’s water supply?
Read Part 2: Already a luxury, water gets more scarce for the poor
Read Part 4: Early snowmelt on the Rockies threatens Arizona’s water supply
7/2011 Draft Water Resource Development Strategy for the Navajo Nation by Navajo Nation Department of Water…“>7/2011 Draft Water Resource Development Strategy for the Navajo Nation, Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources
Excerpt: The lack of infrastructure, the lack of economic development, and the sustained poverty are closely connected. Throughout the arid southwest, and especially on the Navajo Nation, a reliable water supply is essential for jump-starting and sustaining economic development. The Navajo Nation has identified economic development growth centers throughout the reservation. These economic development centers represent large population bases, which have the potential to benefit from an economy of scale in infrastructure development. Accordingly the Navajo Nation will focus resources in these locations to stimulate economic growth.