From dust bowl to California drought: a climate scientist on the lessons we still haven’t learned

From dust bowl to California drought: a climate scientist on the lessons we still haven’t learned

Maanvi Singh in San Francisco                        April 29, 2021
<span>Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


California is once again in a drought, just four years after the last dry spell decimated ecosystems, fueled megafires and left many rural communities without well water.

Droughts are a natural part of the landscape in the American west, and the region has in many ways been shaped by its history of drought. But the climate scientist Peter Gleick argues that the droughts California is facing now are different than the ones that have historically cycled through the Golden State.

Related: California is on the brink of drought – again. Is it ready?

“These are not accidental, strange dry periods,” said Gleick, the co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a global thinktank that has become a leading voice on water issues in California and around the world. “They’re increasingly the norm.”

Gleick this week spoke with the Guardian about the history of drought in the west, and the urgency of reshaping our relationship to water. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The California governor has declared a drought emergency in two counties, a few years after the state faced its last major drought from 2011-2017. Are more frequent dry periods part of a new normal?

The last drought was a wake up call to the effects of climate change. For the first time, the public began to make the connection that humans were impacting the climate and the water cycle – affecting the intensity and severity of our droughts.

Since that drought, we have learned some lessons about improving water efficiency, and reducing waste. We had serious conversations about things like getting rid of grass lawns for example. But we still haven’t learned the fundamental message: that these are not accidental, strange dry periods. They’re increasingly the norm.

We better start to assume that the sooner we put in place policies to save water, the better off we are. We don’t seem to have learned that there still is enormous untapped potential for conservation and efficiency despite our past improvements.

If the last drought helped people wake up to a worsening climate crisishow did other defining droughts reshape our understanding of water in the region?

There were the dust bowl years of the 1930s, when thousands and thousands of people were dislocated from their homes in the western US because of severe drought that decimated agriculture and triggered deadly dust storms.

After drought in the 50s, we started building big water infrastructure like dams and aqueducts in California, in part because we knew that populations were growing in the coastal areas very rapidly and that we had to expand access to water supply. That infrastructure brought enormous benefits, but it came with massive costs that we didn’t appreciate at the time. In particular, it really started to disrupt our ecology.

Following the dust bowl, probably the worst drought we experienced in California was the 1976-1977 drought, which is considered the state’s worst two-year drought on record. That drought really, really showed us, OK, we’re vulnerable to extreme dry weather, despite having built these dams and the aqueducts to help store, conserve and distribute water. It showed us that massive population and economic growth has put new pressures on our water resources. I’d say that was our first real wake up call.

Of course, climate change wasn’t a contributor to the dust bowl in the 1930s. But it seems there are some major lessons we could learn from that period about how badly designed policies can really intensify natural disaster. Back then, it was farmers’ decision to plow up millions of acres of native grassland, and plant water-intensive crops that caused the soil to erode and stirred up the deadly, devastating dust storms that we associate with that drought.

The way we’ve decided to use water in the west has a long, complicated history. Going back to the dust bowl era, until now – at least on paper – agriculture and other industries have far greater rights than anyone else. And that has put an enormous stress on our system, economically.

Sure, during the dust bowl, settlers didn’t really understand some crucial things about soil management that we now understand. And we have learned how to make more food with less water. But we never had a rethink of our system of water rights, and how much of our limited water we should be spending on agriculture versus leaving in the natural ecosystem.

Those were lessons we should have learned during the dust bowl, and, frankly we are still having to learn.

Going back to the dust bowl era, until now – at least on paper – agriculture and other industries have far greater rights than anyone else

During the last drought, we saw the death of about 163m trees, and that dead vegetation helped fuel some of the worst fires in the state’s history. Even though research has found that conditions during the last drought were actually worse than the dust bowl – a lot of people in the west who lived through it wouldn’t describe it as being so bad.

Good infrastructure has insulated a lot of Californians from really feeling the impacts of drought. In the US, most of us don’t directly experience the consequences of drought the way people in other parts of the world do.

How do you measure 100m dead trees and the risk to forest fires that could be attributed to that drought? How do you measure the death of 95% of the Chinook salmon? How do you measure the impact on poor communities who were left without water? We don’t put dollar values on these things, and so we don’t directly see or feel the impact.

I don’t want to minimize the impact of the last drought on particular farmers. But the systems that we’ve built mean that even if some fields have to fallow, we can still keep growing during drought years. Even during a severe drought I can turn the water on my tap and, you know, incredibly cheap, pure water comes out.

But that’s not the case for many disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley, who couldn’t turn on the tap and get water. They’re the ones suffering most directly from the impacts of extreme drought, but they’re largely invisible to many other Californians. And that’s not the case for our ecosystems and fisheries and forests, which are dying out.

Judge gives Corps 2nd chance to offer oil pipeline opinion

Judge gives Corps 2nd chance to offer oil pipeline opinion

Dave Kolpack                    April 27, 2021


FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge faced with a motion on whether the Dakota Access oil pipeline north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation should be shut down during an environmental review is giving the Biden administration another chance to weigh in on the issue.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg held a hearing earlier this month to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers an opportunity to explain whether oil should continue to flow during its study, after an appeals panel upheld Boasberg’s ruling that the pipeline was operating without a key federal permit. The Corps instead told the judge it wasn’t sure if it should be shut down.

The decision not to intervene came as a bitter disappointment to Standing Rock, other tribes involved in the lawsuit and environmental groups. Even the judge appeared to be taken aback when the Corps opted to shrug its shoulders.

“I too am a little surprised that this is where things stand 60 days later,” Boasberg said at the hearing, referring to the three months he gave the Biden administration to catch up on proceedings. “I would have thought there would be a decision one way or another at this point.”

Boasberg said in a one sentence order filed late Monday that the Corps has until May 3 to tell him when it expects the environmental review to be completed and give “its position, if it has one,” on whether the pipeline should be shut down. The Corps said earlier it expected the review to be done by March 2022.

Attorneys for the pipeline’s Texas-based owner, Energy Transfer, have argued that shuttering the pipeline now that economic conditions are improving would cause a major financial hit to several entities, including North Dakota, and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation located in the state’s oil patch.

Attorneys for Standing Rock, which straddles the North and South Dakota border, and other tribes said in court documents that Dakota Access is exaggerating the economic losses. And no matter what the true figure is, Standing Rock said, it should not come at the expense of other tribes “especially when the law has not been followed.”

The $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile (1,886-kilometer) pipeline was the subject of months of protests in 2016 and 2017, sometimes violent, during its construction. Standing Rock continued to press legal challenges against the pipeline even after it began carrying oil from North Dakota across South Dakota and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois in June 2017.

Wells dry up, crops imperiled, farm workers in limbo as California drought grips San Joaquin Valley

Wells dry up, crops imperiled, farm workers in limbo as California drought grips San Joaquin Valley

Louis Sahagún                                  April 26, 2021
TULARE, CA - APRIL 21: A worker sets up irrigation lines to water almond tree rootstocks along Road 36 on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Tulare, CA. A deepening drought and new regulations are causing some California growers to consider an end to farming. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
A worker sets up irrigation lines to water almond tree rootstocks along Road 36 in Tulare, Calif. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)


As yet another season of drought returns to California, the mood has grown increasingly grim across the vast and fertile San Joaquin Valley.

Renowned for its bounty of dairies, row crops, grapes, almonds, pistachios and fruit trees, this agricultural heartland is still reeling from the effects of the last punishing drought, which left the region geologically depressed and mentally traumatized.

Now, as the valley braces for another dry spell of undetermined duration, some are openly questioning the future of farming here, even as legislative representatives call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a drought emergency. Many small, predominantly Latino communities also face the risk of having their wells run dry.

Drought is nothing new to California or the West, and generations of San Joaquin Valley farmers have endured many dry years over the last century. Often, they have done so by drilling more wells.

However, some growers say they are now facing a convergence of forces that is all but insurmountable — a seemingly endless loop of hot, dry weather, new environmental protections and cutbacks in water allotments.

John Guthrie pumps water from a 3,000-gallon cistern into a water trailer.


“I’m proud of our family’s history in this part of the state,” said John Guthrie, president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. “If not for that, I would seriously consider bowing out of this business.”

The cattle rancher and farm owner said his family has been working the land here for more than 150 years. However, he wonders how much longer that will continue.

Most recently, state and federal allocations of surface water were slashed to a trickle due to less snowpack in the Sierra Nevada — a move expected to force some growers to search underground for additional sources of water to keep their farms from ruin.

Even more frustrating, growers say, is a complex law passed in 2014 — during the last drought — that requires all groundwater taken from wells to match the amount of water returned to aquifers by 2040. Experts say meeting its requirements will mean taking about 1 million acres of farmland out of production statewide.

John Guthrie on his cattle ranch and farm with cattle behind him.
John Guthrie at his cattle ranch and farm, which has been in his family for 150 years. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)


“Things were tough enough without having to deal with regulations that are becoming more onerous by the day,” Guthrie said.

In recent weeks Central Valley Republicans in particular have urged Newsom to declare a statewide drought emergency, which would allow state regulators to relax water quality and environmental standards that limit deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California’s water hub. They were enraged recently when Newsom declared drought emergencies in Sonoma and Mendocino counties only.

Much of Tulare County sits atop groundwater basins that have helped farmers compensate when there was little or no available surface water. But unlimited pumping during the historic drought of 2012-16, and the 2007-09 drought before that, has set off a cascade of events that has proved disastrous.

Large farms drilled to depths of more than 1,000 feet to sustain thirsty citrus orchards and almond and pistachio groves that had drawn hedge funds and big corporations into the business.

Wheat fields in Hanford.
Wheat fields along 2nd Avenue in Hanford, Calif. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“I’m proud of our family’s history in this part of the state. If not for that, I would seriously consider bowing out of this business.”

John Guthrie, cattle rancher and president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau

An empty reservoir with John Guthrie reaching down to the ground in it.
A reservoir with no water in April due to the lack of rain on the ranch of John Guthrie in Porterville, Calif. In a normal year, the reservoir would have water all year long. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)


As farmers punched more wells into the earth, the groundwater table plummeted, drying up old wells and causing the land to sink up to 2 feet a year in some places, damaging infrastructure. Also, as groundwater levels fell, pesticides and nitrates from fertilizer and animal waste leached into the private groundwater supplies of impoverished farmworker communities in such locations as Tooleville, East Orosi and East Porterville in Tulare County and Tombstone Territory in Fresno County.

These and other rural burgs got international attention after wells that had served them for more than half a century went dry or became polluted. Unincorporated areas of Tulare County were hit particularly hard.

As a result, families were forced to forgo showers and dump a bucket of water into toilets to flush.

Cheers and chants of “Si se puede!” — yes, we can — rang out when Newsom visited Tombstone Territory to sign into law Senate Bill 200, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The bill set aside up to $130 million a year for safe drinking water projects.

Jovita Torres with her friend and neighbor, Rodolfo Romero, outside a house.


“The governor did his part by coming out here to listen to our problems before signing the bill. But our problems didn’t end that day,” said Jovita Torres, a resident and community activist.

“I’ve still got dirty water coming out of my tap,” she said, “and bottled water is still being delivered to our community every Friday.”

Her neighbor, Rodolfo Romero, 95, was not surprised.

“What’s happening right now,” he said with a wry smile, “involves climate changes and political forces that are too big to stop.

“The people making important decisions are elected officials and big farmers who have money and power,” he added. “We have no power. So, the way I see it, there is no way to live off our wells anymore. Those days are over.”

Rodolfo Romero near his 60-foot deep water well and pressure tank that provides water to the home.
Rodolfo Romero near his 60-foot deep water well and pressure tank that provides water to the home. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)


Leslie Martinez of the advocacy group Leadership Counsel would not go that far.

“State and county agencies are to blame,” she said, “and must be held accountable for overlooking contaminant plumes due to heavy groundwater pumping and failing to address a basic human right in disadvantaged communities to have reliable sources of clean water.

“They have treated these people like disposable labor,” she added, “which is heartbreaking and wrong, because they helped build this region’s agricultural industry.”

Seasonal droughts are typical to California’s Mediterranean climate, but the effects of global warming, due to the burning of fossil fuels, have now made it easier for the state to slip into periods of dryness, and harder for it to get out, experts say.

This trend toward more frequent and more severe droughts comes at a time of immense change in agriculture.

Irrigation sprinklers blast water along Bethel Avenue in Kingsburg.


Tulare County, one of Central California’s top agricultural producers, was named after Tulare Lake, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi. Farmers drained the lake dry in the 1930s to transform desert scrub into croplands.

The 4,839-square-mile county just west of Sequoia National Park is the domain of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, which in the 1960s boasted 5,000 members.

Since then, membership has dwindled to a record low of 1,200, the result of smaller growers selling out and consolidation as agricultural production shifts toward larger farms.

This year, with half the county enshrouded in severe drought conditions, ranchers are culling cattle herds for sale months earlier than usual, and farmers are making tough decisions about idling row crops such as lettuce and onions in order to devote precious water supplies to higher-value permanent plantings like almonds and pistachios.

This latest drought has also raised the once-unthinkable specter of croplands yielding to a new future of subdivisions, industrial parks and habitat development.

“If things continue in the direction they’re headed right now, there’s going to be lots of new open space around here and that ground will have to be used for something,” said Denise England, Tulare County Water Commission’s water resources program director.

“In the long term, I’m hopeful our economy might be replaced with something else, perhaps factories or business parks,” she said.

“American people have an important decision to make. Do they want their agricultural food grown locally, or in Mexico and China?”

Dino Giacomazzi, almond grower

Dino Giacomazzi stands in an almond tree field.
Dino Giacomazzi, a fourth-generation farmer with more than a century of family history in the Central Valley, stands in an 8-year-old almond tree field in Goshen. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)


That’s not the future that grower Dino Giacomazzi wants to see, but he concedes that change is inevitable.

In 2014, midway through the worst drought in state history, Giacomazzi closed his family’s 126-year-old dairy farm — the state’s oldest — and took up almond farming instead.

“We just didn’t see a path forward in ‘cowdom,’” he said. “We had a very old 400-acre facility in an increasingly regulated world when it comes to air, food and water, and we were facing years of low milk prices.”

Close-up of almond trees in a field.
Eight-year-old trees grow almonds in a field owned by Dino Giacomazzi in Goshen, Calif. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t a smooth transition, however.

“As it turned out … California farmers planted too many almonds and oversupplied the market,” the 52-year-old said. “Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which raised the price of getting almonds to market out of the country.”

Whiplashing weather patterns due to climate change and state groundwater regulations that are just beginning to take effect are making the future even more uncertain.

“American people have an important decision to make,” Giacomazzi said. “Do they want their agricultural food grown locally, or in Mexico and China?”

Why young people of color are leading the fight to save planet Earth

Why young people of color are leading the fight to save planet Earth

Beth Greenfield, Senior Editor                                
Youth activists on the frontlines of climate-change justice include, clockwise from top left: Kevin Patel, Amy Quichiz, Wanjiku


As we head into Earth Day 2021 — the 51st anniversary of the worldwide environmental movement, on April 22— one of the best ways to find motivation and inspiration in the fight to save our planet might be to look toward those who are leading the charge: a diverse array of youth activists who understand that the only way to see and advocate for climate-justice issues is through an intersectional lens.

That means “taking account the dimensions of gender, socioeconomic class and race that all ultimately influence how one relates to and experiences the effects of climate change,” explains Aalayna Green, 22, co-environmental education director for Black Girl Environmentalist, a “supportive community of Black girls, women and nonbinary environmentalists.” Understanding those dimensions, Green tells Yahoo Life, “ensures that any climate change activism isn’t going to be automatically catered to one type of person in society.”

Historically, the environmental movement has been a very white one — at least on its face, due in part to a “long-running perception that people of color don’t care about the environment, or don’t have the skills and academic backgrounds for these jobs,” environmentalist Dorceta Taylor, a Yale School for the Environment professor, said in a 2014 interview. That perception “has been debunked for just as long,” according to Taylor, whose landmark 2014 report “The State of Diversity in Environmental Institutions: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations, and Government Agencies,” and a more recent update, called for action on the issue. (See just a tiny sampling of pioneering BIPOC environmental activists in the interactive XR, below.)

Just this week, Taylor and a slew of other environmental experts and a diverse array of young activists came together for the fourth annual New Horizons in Conservation Conference, presented by Yale, to discuss the status of equity and inclusion within the field of conservation. “The media tends to focus attention on climate activism on young white activists in the U.S. and Europe,” Taylor tells Yahoo Life vie email, but the conference “demonstrates that young students of color are engaged in climate activism and are interested in being a part of the solution… Many speakers drove the point home that the climate movement, conservation, and the broader environmental movement cannot be successful if white leaders, policymakers, practitioners do not collaborate with communities and activists of color.”

The event has served to highlight the new force of activists, expanding the understanding of who is affected by climate change and who is actively fighting against it.

“I think BIPOC youth, and youth in general, are leading the movement now,” says James Munn, an environmental organizer since 1990 and now the national campaign director for Greenpeace, which just released a new report, “Fossil Fuel Racism,” elucidating how fossil fuels disproportionately harm Black, brown, indigenous and poor communities. “I don’t think that was necessarily true before,” Munn tells Yahoo Life, “although not because there weren’t Black or indigenous POC youth involved in local fights, but because there was a huge separation between mainstream organizations and the local efforts.”

He adds, “We live in a white supremacist society, and organizations mirror the society they’re in. Hopefully, now we’re mirroring the changes that are happening in society.” That would make sense, he says, when taking into account today’s biggest issues and who they most affect.

“When you look at the current existential crises for humanity, you have racial injustice, inequality — with some making billions throughout the pandemic while many are struggling to just have enough food — and climate change,” Munn says. “And we have BIPOC youth often at the intersection of all three…so they can speak to all of it in a way that others couldn’t speak to it in the past.” And just being young, he adds, is an asset for these activists. “They feel invincible, and you need that to go against Trump or Bezos or Chevron, Exxon, and go, ‘OK, they have a lot of power, but we’re going to outlast and outthink them. We can do it.'”

To mark Earth Day this year, Yahoo Life is amplifying those voices by profiling just a handful of the ever-growing force of bright young activists who are approaching climate justice from an intersectional perspective. In our series of profiles, you’ll meet Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist; Kevin Patel, founder and executive director of One Up Action; Amy Quichiz, founder of Veggie Mijas; Nyaruout Nguany, co-founder of Maine Environmental Changemakers Network; Vic Barrett, a campaigner with Alliance for Climate Education; and Xiya Bastida, founder of Re-Earth.

“I think the youth movement is the most inclusive and diverse it has been,” Batista, 18, told Yahoo Life about Gen Z’s approach to climate-justice activism. “Re-Earth Initiative, for example, has activists in over 15 times zones, we translate our information to over six different languages. Our board includes people from almost every continent and we operate in a non-hierarchical way that actually listens to the whole body when it comes to what we’re going to do… In our own youth organizations, we’re modeling the world we want to see.”

Recycling in the U.S. Is Failing, But These 7 Cities Are Doing Things Right

Recycling in the U.S. Is Failing, But These 7 Cities Are Doing Things Right

Recycling in the U.S. Is Failing, But These 7 Cities Are Doing Things Right
Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd / DigitalVision / Getty Images.


The recycling industry in America is broken. With unsellable scrap materials and already-burgeoning landfills, many consider the entire industry confusing and complex, at best, and a lost cause, at worst. Nevertheless, some local governments are trying to address program shortfalls with various policies.

Over the last 20 years, as more and more scrap materials were diverted from landfills, recycling rates increased, RTS reported. Still, several factors have complicated and even stalled serious progress. First, the U.S. recycling program is less-than ideal. The single-stream system means that consumers put all recyclables (and anything else they hope can be recycled) into one bin. This has created “imperfect recycling habits” and general consumer confusion about what is and isn’t recyclable. It’s easier on the consumer, but the result has been a contamination rate of about one-fourth of U.S. recyclables, Columbia’s State of the Planet reported.

The mixed-stream of materials in residential bins is subsequently trucked to a waste management facility, where it is cleaned, separated and processed into saleable bales of plastic, aluminum, paper and cardboard. These are the actual products that recycling facilities sell to other countries or to companies for processing into eventual new products, a Miami recycling facility representative told EcoWatch. The more contamination that a batch of recyclables has, the harder and more expensive it is to clean. Higher contamination rates result in a lower price for the product. At some point, it becomes more economical to landfill contaminated batches of recyclables rather than clean them.

In 2018, China threw a wrench in the U.S.’s already-precarious system when it decided to stop accepting most recyclables from the rest of the world. The goods were often too contaminated for proper recycling and would end up in landfills, oceans or polluting the countryside. The U.S. had previously shipped over half of its plastics and paper recyclables to China, and loss of this market meant that recycling facilities had nowhere to sell the increasing amounts of recyclable trash being created daily.

Having been so reliant on the Chinese market and without a federal recycling program, this forced recycling facilities to give cities and municipalities two choices: pay more for recyclables to be processed or send them to the trash, The Atlantic and State of the Planet reported.

In the years since, some states and cities have tried to regulate and legislate their way towards a third option: waste management policies that could work.

Here are some of the innovative local recycling policies:

1. San Francisco

According to the EPA, the West Coast city diverts 80 percent of its waste from landfills – the highest rate of any major U.S. city. A city ordinance requires both residents and companies to separate their waste into three streams – blue for mixed recyclables, green for compostables (including food scraps, food soiled paper and yard waste) and black for trash intended for the landfill. The system helps to protect the integrity of recyclables and allows for the diversion of 80 percent of food waste into compost for local farmers and wineries.

San Francisco also enacted a variety of aggressive regulations to support its goal of zero waste by 2020, including bans on single-use plastic checkout bags and polystyrene to-go food containersconstruction debris recovery requirements, mandatory recycling and composting at all events in the city, and a government-private industry partnership with the city’s waste removal company, Recology, to ensure that the latter will remain profitable while it gets the city to its zero waste goal, reported the EPA and Busted Cubicle.

2. Los Angeles

As of 2019, California’s other major city recycled almost 80 percent of its waste, Busted Cubicle reported. LA went from voting against recycling in the early 1960’s to having a goal of recycling 90 percent of waste by 2025 and 97 percent by 2030, RTS reported. Compelled by statewide goals for waste recovery and mandates for recycling, LA used related state grants to build up its recycling infrastructure and better public education surrounding recycling.

In a public-private partnership, the city collects curbside collection and transports it to private recycling facilities. Sub-programs include requiring restaurants to compost their scraps and giving companies tax breaks based on the amount they recycle, Busted Cubicle reported. The report estimated that the local recycling industry added $1.2 billion annually to LA’s economy.

3. Seattle

According to RTS and Busted Cubicle, forward-thinking Seattle adopted a mandatory food scrap recycling program in 2009, a zero-waste policy in 2010 and a mandatory commercial recycling program in 2013. In particular, the city hopes to eliminate landfilling and incineration of trash.

As of 2017, Seattle recycled 56.9 percent of its waste, with a goal to reach 72 percent by 2025. A three-year phase-in program for mandatory recycling allowed for better education of residents and creation of processes for effective enforcement, Busted Cubicle reported. Individuals are incentivized to reduce waste because, while recycling is collected for free, residents pay a per-bag fee for regular garbage, The New York Times reported. Individuals are further motivated to reduce waste because smaller trash cans incur a lower monthly rate for disposal. Penalties and even fines are levied against non-compliant residents. Private companies hired by the city to process trash are similarly “handsomely compensated” when they send less to landfills.

4. Boise

According to the city, 98 percent of Boise residents recycle, a credit to their extensive educational programs, Busted Cubicle reported. When China’s recycling ban disrupted the city’s recycling, Boise came back with an innovative recycling initiative for previously non-recyclable plastic films.

In partnership with Hefty® brand bags and Renewlogy, a company that converts plastics into diesel fuel, Boise encouraged residents to collect their plastic films in orange bags provided to them by the city, RTS reported. The lightweight plastics, which include grocery store bags, food packaging and even candy wrappers, are bagged and put into normal blue recycling bins for pickup. At local processing centers, they are sent to Renewlogy in Salt Lake City for conversion into a diesel fuel that has 75 percent lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels at one-third the cost, Busted Cubicle reported.

5. San Jose

Just south of San Francisco, the Bay Area hub committed to 75 percent waste diversion by 2013, zero waste by 2022 and zero landfill or incinerator waste diversion by 2040, Busted Cubicle reported. A three-way partnership for commercial waste management between the city and two private companies has been critical to San Jose’s success.

Republic collects recyclables and organics from more than 8,000 businesses in the city. It processes the former and sends the latter to Zero Waste Energy Development Company for processing into energy or compost, the news report said. Residential curbside recycling continues to improve through various sub-programs including street sweeping, curbside junk pickup and cleanup events.

6. Denver

Colorado’s capital city currently has a low diversion rate – 22 percent as of 2017 with a modest goal of 34 percent by 2020 – but it has an advantage in housing Alpine Waste & Recycling. This cutting-edge waste management company uses technology to simplify single-stream recycling even further. Rather than asking customers to correctly figure out what is recyclable, Alpine finds ways to increase what types of items can be recycled in Denver.

The company has paved the way in new processes to recycle materials that traditionally were confusing or impossible to recycle, including paper coffee cups, juice and milk cartons, styrofoam and large, rigid plastics, Busted Cubicle reported. Their new facility employs state-of-the-art technology to quickly process many tons of waste per hour.

7. New York City

As recently as January 2020, The New York Times reported on “7 Reasons Recycling Isn’t Working In New York City.” The metropolitan “lagged’ behind other major cities, only recycling around one-fifth of its trash, The Times reported. Reasons included lack of recycling and composting bins, political reluctance and fiscal challenges to implementing additional recycling policies and the local culture built around hyper-consumerism, Amazon deliveries and takeout food.

Despite these shortcomings, the big apple makes this list because of a new proposed bill hoping to force manufacturers to pick up the tab for recycling paper, plastic, glass and metal. The extended producer responsibility (E.P.R.) bill would compel manufacturers to pay for the end-waste their products produce, another New York Times article reported. This could incentivize companies to create more sustainable packaging and products to lower fees. The municipality could use collected fees to offset recycling expenses. Proponents could also write in an anti-price gouging provision to ensure manufacturers don’t pass the new costs onto consumers. The profits from such a program would be infused back into New York’s struggling recycling programs, with the goal of upgrading technology and even creating more jobs, The Times reported.

While ambitious and innovative, many of these local programs are still far from reaching their lofty goals. As they work to become sustainable and profitable, the global market for high-quality recycled materials is actually growing, State of the Planet reported.

For the U.S. to take advantage of this, domestic recycling processes must be reformed, the news report emphasized. Whether through better technology at facilities like in Denver and Boise, innovative public-private partnerships like in the three California cities or in precedent-setting legislation like in New York, cities must lead the way in order to modernize and save the U.S. domestic recycling industry.

Tiffany Duong is an avid ocean advocate. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and is an Al Gore Climate Reality Leader and student member of The Explorer’s Club.

She spent years as a renewable energy lawyer in L.A. before moving to the Amazon to conduct conservation fieldwork (and revamp her life). She eventually landed in the Florida Keys as a scientific scuba diver and field reporter and writes about the oceans, climate, and the environment from her slice of paradise.

In Romania, ‘modern slaves’ burn noxious trash for a living

In Romania, ‘modern slaves’ burn noxious trash for a living

Stephen McGrath                                  April 22, 2021


Vidra, Romania (AP) — In the trash-strewn slums of Sintesti, less than 10 miles from Romania’s capital, Mihai Bratu scrapes a dangerous living for his Roma family amid the foul reek of burning plastic that cloys the air day and night.

Like many in this community, for him illegally setting fire to whatever he can find that contains metal — from computers to tires to electrical cables — seems like his only means of survival.

“We’re selling it to people who buy metal, we are poor people … we have to work hard for a week or two to get one kilogram of metal,” 34-year-old Bratu, perched on an old wooden cart, told The Associated Press. “We are struggling to feed our kids … The rich people have the villas, look at the rich people’s palaces.”

You don’t have to look far.

The main road that runs through Sintesti, a largely Roma village in the Vidra commune, is lined with ornate, semi-constructed villas and dotted with shiny SUVs. Behind lurk the parts where Bravu and his young children live, a social black hole with no sanitation or running water. The two worlds are strongly connected.

For Octavian Berceanu, the new head of Romania’s National Environmental Guard, the government environmental protection agency, the pollution from the illegal fires that burn here almost ceaselessly was so bad that he started regular raids in the community — where he says “mafia structures” lord it over “modern slaves.”

“This is a kind of slavery, because the people living here have no opportunity for school, to get a job in the city, which is very close, they don’t have infrastructure like an official power grid, water, roads — and that is destroying their perspective on life,” Berceanu told The Associated Press during a police-escorted tour in April.

The slums of Sintesti, like Roma communities elsewhere, have long been ignored by authorities. They’re made up of makeshift homes, where unofficially rigged electricity cables hug the ground and run over a sea of trash.

“For too many years, they were allowed in some way to do this dirty job,” Berceanu said. “Nobody came here in the past.. to see what’s happening.”

On one day in April during a patrol of the local area, authorities seized a van loaded with 5,000 kilograms of illegal copper, worth as much as 40,000 euros ($48,000). That’s just a small cog in the local illegal metal recycling industry and highlights the staggering revenue it can bring to the wealthy homeowners.

But on top of the considerable social ills, according to the environment chief, the fires can significantly hike pollution in Bucharest, potentially by as much as 20-30%, at times pushing air quality to dangerous levels.

“The smoke particulates are taken by the wind 10 miles, it’s like rain over Bucharest and it’s destroying the quality of the air in the capital. It’s one hundred times more dangerous than wood-fire particles — there are a lot of toxic components,” Berceanu said.

During a late afternoon patrol of Sintesti, AP journalists joined Berceanu and four police officers as they homed in on an acrid cloud of smoke rising above the hotchpotch dwellings. A raucous scene broke out until a hunched-over elderly lady could be persuaded to douse the fire with water — exposing the valuable metal remnants.

“If the local authorities are not applying the law, of course people — whatever their ethnic origin — are encouraged to continue doing what they are doing,” said Gelu Duminica, a sociologist and executive director of the Impreuna Agency, a Roma-focused non-governmental organization.

Focusing on pollution from the Roma community, Duminica says, instead of on big industry or the more than 1 million cars in the densely populated capital of 2 million, is “scapegoating” and part of a political “branding campaign.”

“Everywhere in the world, the poorest are exploiting the marginal resources in order to survive. We have a chain of causes: low education, low infrastructure, low development … a lot of things are low,” Duminica said

“The rich Roma are controlling the poor Roma, but the rich Roma are controlled by others. If you look at who is leading and who is controlling things, it’s more than likely you’ll have huge surprises. Let’s not treat it as an ethnic issue,” he said.

In the future, the environment chief hopes surveillance drones with pollution sensors and infrared cameras can help paint a clearer picture of how the networks operate.

“We’re working against organized crime and it’s very hard,” he said. “If we solve this problem here, very close to Bucharest, we can solve any kind of problem similar to this all around the country.”

For local resident Floria, who refused to give a surname but said she was 40-something, a lack of official documents, education, and options leave her and her community with no alternatives.

“We don’t want to do this. Why don’t they give us jobs like (communist dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu used to, they would come with buses, with cars, and take us to town to work,” she told The Associated Press. “Gypsies are seen as the worst people no matter where we go or what we do.”

Mihai Bratu blames local authorities for the plight of his community, for the lack of roads, the lack of action.

“The mayor doesn’t help us!” he exclaims, as a small boy shifts building materials from Bratu’s horse cart to the muddy yard next door.

“What do we have? What can we have? Some little house? — whatever God granted us.”

Pesticides disrupt our hormones for generations

Pesticides disrupt our hormones for generations – even women whose grandmothers were exposed to the chemical have higher risks of obesity and breast cancer, scientists say

Julia Naftulin                      April 19, 2021
DDT spray toxic chemicals
An aerosol can, loaded with DDT, Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, is used here against flies. (AP Photo) AP

  • A new study found women whose grandmothers had DDT exposure are more likely to be obese and have early periods.
  • DDT was a widely used insecticide that’s been banned in the US since 1972.
  • Early onset periods are a risk factor for breast cancer and heart conditions.

There’s evidence that DDT, a pesticide previously used to kill insects like mosquitoes, is still wreaking havoc on human health four decades since the government banned it.

In 1972, Congress banned DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Since then, evidence has emerged – first in wildlife and then in humans – that the pesticide left an enduring mark on health.

According to a study published April 14 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the granddaughters of people who were exposed to DDT while pregnant are more likely to be obese, have early-onset periods, breast cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

To study the effects of DDT, researchers at UC Davis and the Public Health Institute in Oakland used archived blood samples from 15,000 women who were pregnant when DDT was still used. The researchers then worked with these women’s daughters and granddaughters, collecting their blood samples to see how DDT impacted them before they were born.

Researchers found that women in their 20s and 30s with grandmothers who were exposed to DDT are between two and three times more likely to be obese and two times more likely to have their periods start earlier than usual – around the age of 11.

Early-onset menstruation can lead to other health conditions later in life, like breast cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes, according to the study authors.

“Even though we banned that stuff more than 40 years ago, people now walking the Earth – the granddaughters of those who were pregnant – were exposed,” Barbara Cohn told the LA Times. Cohn is director of the Public Health Institute’s Child Health and Development Studies, the institution that researched the 15,000 women who gave blood samples decades ago.

‘Forever chemicals’ are ruining reproductive abilities and overall health

This isn’t the first study to find chemicals’ lasting impact on human health.

An October 2007 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found the daughters of pregnant women exposed to DDT were more likely to develop breast cancer. The researchers of the study also found children who had DDT exposure were five times more likely to develop breast cancer.

In addition to DDT, chemicals in plastics like water bottles are altering human reproductive abilities, Insider previously reported.

“It’s the full meaning of what a ‘forever chemical’ is – in some ways, that makes every chemical potentially ‘forever’ if it has the potential to do this,” Cohn told the LA Times.

Agriculture, human health and ecosystems at risk as Illinois’ climate is quickly changing, report shows

‘If you want a scary story:’ Agriculture, human health and ecosystems at risk as Illinois’ climate is quickly changing, report shows

Morgan Greene, Chicago Tribune                April 21, 2021


Illinois’ climate is swiftly changing,

In an extensive new report released Tuesday, the Nature Conservancy details how Illinois’ climate has transformed and looks forward to what more change might mean for the state’s agriculture, human health and already-stressed ecosystems.

“There’s a big message there that we need to be doing everything we can to prevent future climate change by mitigating our use of fossil fuels, particularly,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, and one of the lead authors of the assessment. “For those things we can’t prevent, because there’s still going to be some change, we have to adapt to be resilient.”

Even after curbing carbon emissions to meet certain bench marks, the changes in Illinois by 2100 could be stark: average annual temperatures warming 4 to 9 degrees, a month of 95-degree or higher temperatures, 3 more inches of spring rain, more flooding, and compounding health risks from heat, waterborne pathogens and diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks. Not to mention the mental strain of living through it all.

What’s happening in Illinois is part of the larger story of human activity driving a changing global climate. Last year tied for the warmest on record, according to NASA scientists. Since preindustrial times, concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have shot up, and the global average temperature has increased. The Paris Agreement aims to limit warming, preferably to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, a limit fast approaching.

Carbon emissions dropped during the pandemic, but carbon dioxide levels continued to climb.

“The climate of Illinois, like the rest of the country and the rest of the world, is changing and is changing rapidly,” Wuebbles said. “And that has serious repercussions on the people of Illinois.”

“If you want a scary story, that’s the story,” Wuebbles added. “And we need to be taking it seriously. We need to be doing something about it.”

Vulnerable communities

The health effects of climate change will depend on where you live; communities already disproportionately facing inequities, including low-income communities and communities of color, are likely to be harder hit, according to the report released Tuesday by more than 40 scientists and experts.

“The thing about climate change is that it really doesn’t leave anything untouched,” said Karen Petersen, climate change project manager at the Nature Conservancy. “It’s not just about temperature, or feeling hotter on a summer day, or having a rainier day. It’s about how those climate impacts, which we perceive as our daily weather, are going to impact how a farmer farms, or how someone deals with heat stress.”

In Illinois, increasing overall precipitation and heavier events are expected to intensify flooding.  Greater flooding risk may bring greater emotional stress, along with mold and waterborne disease. Additionally, dozens of Illinois health care facilities are located in flood plains, which may hinder access to care during floods.

According to a study referenced in the assessment that looked at flooding claims by county over a seven-year period, nearly all private insurance claims were in urban areas.

In Chicago, flooding has forced sludge into basements and unleashed swarms of sewer flies in nightmare scenarios. The burden is disproportionate, said Marcella Bondie Keenan, climate program director at the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

“You can see it on the ground in terms of neighborhoods that are being hit over and over again, places like Chatham for example,” Keenan said. “But also places like the Far Southeast Side.”

On the Southeast Side, it’s not just the basement backups, Keenan said, but also what’s being picked up along the way from industrial areas. And pollution concerns also connect to climate resiliency, Keenan said.

“Every time we make a decision around what to permit and how to develop, you’re either moving toward a climate safe future, or you’re moving further away from it,” Keenan said.

Climate change is likely to increase the total days with a dangerous heat index in Illinois and warmer weather can mean an increased risk of heat stroke. Cities including Chicago, blanketed in concrete and asphalt, also exhibit the “urban heat island effect” — warming more and staying warmer at night. If emissions rise, heat waves like the 1995 Chicago disaster that led to more than 700 deaths are expected to become more common.

Heat may also welcome some species north, including the yellow fever mosquito, which transmits dengue, and allow pests to bite for longer periods. Warmer winters may assist tick survival and mosquito population growth, leading to earlier and more circulation of West Nile virus.

Respiratory allergies and asthma attacks could be more frequently spurred by mold, pollution and pollen — which is likely to see an extended season. In Illinois, the assessment notes asthma is already high among African Americans, women and low-income communities.

“The normal that we understand now is going and is already shifting,” Petersen said. “It’s already happening.

‘A very resilient breed’

Jeff Kirwan, who serves on the board of directors for the Illinois Farm Bureau, farms corn and soybeans south of the Quad Cities in Mercer County.

Over the years, Kirwan said variability seems to have increased a bit, but it’s hard to assess. “We do seem to get more severe weather, more dynamic rainfalls, dryer spells,” Kirwan said. “The future, when you look into that crystal ball, it’s a whole bunch of uncertainty. … We don’t know. And so you just kind of adapt. And I think that’s what we’re good at, adapting to changes.”

The climate that Illinois farmers depend upon is changing, the assessment says, and farmers will be up against higher temperatures, increased soil evaporation, flash droughts — and stressed crops.

Illinois is among the top producers of soybeans and corn, which in part contribute to a more than $19 billion a year industry, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The industry employs close to a million people, but farm operators have decreased to about 75,000 from 164,000 in 1959, while average farm sizes have more than doubled with technology developments, according to the Department of Agriculture.

It’s tough to predict how Illinois crops will react to a warming climate with much uncertainty ahead, the assessment notes, but even with a longer growing season, there are some challenges farmers might face.

Increased carbon dioxide levels may benefit soybean crops in the short term, but as drought and heat intensify, elevated levels may make things worse. Corn yields are likely to be reduced by 2050 and may be particularly vulnerable to warming nighttime temperatures. Some planting zones may shift north.

With increasing precipitation, a wet spring could delay planting. In 2019, among the wettest years on record , about 1.2 million acres of corn and soybeans went unplanted, the assessment notes. Wetter weather can also cause erosion, which can make soil less resilient to extreme weather.

Nuisances — weeds, pests and disease — may also become greater problems, requiring more applications of control measures, including pesticides.

These competing forces mean adapting will be necessary, but the assessment says farmers may be able to make up for some losses through technology advances and management tweaks.

Kirwan’s farm uses cover crops — which can assist in soil erosion — and other conservation measures. Adopting those practices was part of thinking about sustainability, water quality and nutrient management, Kirwan said.

“But also because it helps us preserve our asset and our legacy,” Kirwan said. “It’s not for everybody, and you’ll get differing opinions, but I think overall we try and do the things that are best for our operations and for our families.”

There have been discussions about climate in Illinois for years in the agricultural world, Kirwan said, and he’s still optimistic, especially as technology has developed.

“Farming, we are always dealing with challenges — weather challenges, insect challenges, governmental challenges,” Kirwan said. “Nothing’s ever going to stay the same, we know that.”

Weather disasters, and the existential threats climate change poses, can affect mental health, and the assessment notes farmers may be at an especially high risk as they face increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather.

To watch weather diminish a crop can take a mental toll, Kirwan said. “We don’t like to have to watch something that we put our hard-earned work into wither away.”

Still, Kirwan said, “Farmers are a very resilient breed — if we’ve made it this far.”

‘Things can warm up very quickly’

In Illinois, the average daily temperature has increased throughout most of the state in the last century by 1 to 2 degrees.

Nighttime minimum temperatures in some parts of the state have increased at three times the rate of daytime temperatures, leading to hot summer nights without relief, and also fewer freezing evenings in winter — the season that has seen the most warming. In some parts of the state, minimum winter temperatures have warmed by more than 3 degrees.

Daytime high temperatures have been kept at bay in part by increased precipitation, which increases soil moisture. Average annual precipitation has increased by 5% to as much as 20% in pockets of the state, and there are 40% more days with 2 inches of rain or more, while in recent decades extreme droughts have become more rare.

A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, and heavier rains are likely to continue, especially in the north. But that balance may shift in coming decades, as temperatures increase and summer precipitation decreases.

“Once you dry out those soils, things can warm up very quickly,” said Jim Angel, a lead author of the report and a former state climatologist for more than three decades.

An exceptionally hot 1936 summer, with temperatures 4.5 degrees above a 30-year average, could become the norm.

And more extreme weather may become more likely — more exceptionally warm days, more intense rains and longer dry spells.

The assessment’s lower scenario model predicting the effects of climate change depends on a rapid retreat from fossil fuels and lower emissions overall, while in a higher scenario model, emissions continue to steeply rise.

Wuebbles, a former White House expert on climate science, said he thinks people can adapt to the lower end. “It’s the high scenario, or anything approaching the high scenario, that by the end of this century I think would be disastrous for humanity.”

The higher estimates for the state by the end of the century are difficult to imagine. In northern Illinois, for example, at the extreme end, the annual average temperature could increase from 49 degrees to as much as 63 degrees — a 14-degree jump.

“It’s not in the abstract,” Angel said. “We’re actually observing these changes taking place now and the projections are that not only are they going to continue, but in many cases become much more problematic moving on into the future.”

At a Tuesday morning news conference, Wuebbles said, “My big worry is getting to 2050 and having our grandchildren saying, what were they thinking back in 2020?”

Can California’s Organic Vegetable Farmers Unlock the Secrets of No-Till Farming?

Civil Eats

Can California’s Organic Vegetable Farmers Unlock the Secrets of No-Till Farming?

Reducing tillage—which often relies on herbicides—has long been out of reach on organic farms. Now, a group of veteran growers are undertaking a soil health experiment with implications for California and beyond.

Transplanting melons in to high-residue beds on Full Belly Farm. (Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm)Transplanting melons in to high-residue beds on Full Belly Farm. (Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm)

Last summer, veteran organic farmer Scott Park was bewildered when he surveyed his vast tomato, corn, and sunflower fields. Before planting the crops on 350 acres he had radically cut down on tilling the soil, planted cover crops twice, and let goats graze the land. And he was sure he’d see excellent yields.

The undisturbed soil was loaded with earthworms, but the crops grew sluggishly and didn’t produce enough fruit. Park lost almost half of his yields—and over half a million dollars.

“We thought we were going to cut a fat hog,” said Park, whose farm lies 50 miles northwest of Sacramento in California’s Central Valley. “But the combination of no-till and grazing kicked me in the teeth.”

Though surprising, the result was part of a critical experiment that Park plans to replicate again—this time, on a smaller plot on his 1,700-acre farm: Because there’s more at stake than his own profit.

Park, who has been farming for 48 years and is well-known for his soil health practices, is one of a small group of innovative organic vegetable producers working with the University of California Cooperative Extension, Cal State Chico’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and California State University, Fresno to decipher how to farm with little or no tillage—and without chemicals. Similar research is also taking place at U.C. Santa Cruz.

For the vast majority of organic growers, tilling the soil is a crucial tool. It helps control weeds (which are a much bigger challenge for farmers who don’t spray herbicides) and helps incorporate compost and other nutrients into soil. But that system may begin to change.

Organic no-till farmer Scott Park. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Scott Park. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

The so-called no-till farming system, which is said to boost soil health, sequester carbon, and bring myriad other benefits, is popular among commodity grain farmers in the Midwest and the Northeast—many of whom rely heavily on herbicides and increasingly use the term “regenerative” to describe what they do. But even among those farmers, most haven’t cut out tilling altogether, alternating no-till with tillage practices.

Switching to no-till on mechanized organic farms—and particularly in organic vegetable cropping systems—has long been considered the holy grail, and practically impossible to achieve, especially in the water-parched arid West, a region that dominates U.S. organic produce production.

Two growing seasons into the California experiment, Park and the other farmers have faced an array of challenges. Some have been economically painful, while others have led to promising results. And yet, if the farmers can get past the hurdles presenting themselves in these early years, their efforts could catalyze a massive shift to reduced tillage—and a new understanding of soil health—in the organic industry in California and nationwide. And because no-till is held up as a central tenent of regenerative agriculture, it could also be seen as a boon for farmers hoping to take part in the carbon markets the Biden administration has put forward in response to climate change.

“When soil transitions to a no-till system, yield reduction is usually a temporary thing,” said Cynthia Daley, a professor at Chico State who is involved in the project. “These farmers see the benefit of going into no-till, but they are trying to find a way to get there that doesn’t result in a negative economic impact in the long run. Their dedication is incredible.”

No-till could also create a carbon sponge to retain water in the soil and cut back on evaporation, a change extremely welcome in California, where water is scarce and droughts are common, said Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm, another farmer participating in the no-till experiment. The cooling effects on soil would also be crucial, Muller said, given that hot temperatures can negatively impact the soil’s microorganisms.

“We’re trying to figure out . . . whether there’s a better system without tillage where we can empower the microbial communities under those plants to supply them with what they need,” said Muller. “We’re at the beginning of that curve of knowledge and of understanding how these practices can capture more carbon and put more vitality into our farming system.”

No-Till Catches on with Organic Farmers

Intensive tillage on a large scale took off in the U.S. with the invention of the steel plow in the 1830s. But while it facilitated the conversion of prairie land and large-scale farming across the country, tillage also led to massive erosion, habitat loss, and the release of greenhouse gases. It culminated in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an agricultural crisis so severe that it caused some farmers to adopt conservation practices and the U.S. government to invest in teaching them how to take care of their soil through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Soil Conservation service, which eventually became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). And while those efforts convinced some farmers to change their practices, most continued to intensively plow their fields multiple times each season.

No-till rose in popularity throughout several regions of the U.S. in the 1970s and today, its adoption is concentrated in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, no-till was used on 37 percent of U.S. acres, and reduced tillage was practiced on an additional 35 percent. Since reducing tillage is part of a wider set of regenerative practices, some farmers are also planting more cover crops to regenerate their soil and prevent erosion. Cover crops use rose by 15 percent between 2012 and 2017, but they still only grow on about 4 percent of the nation’s total cropland.

On most farms, the phrase “no-till” is a misnomer, as many farmers use it to refer to a greatly reduced approach to tilling and not to the continuous lack of tillage. For this reason, teasing out the differences in approaches between regenerative and organic systems can be a challenge.

Some organic farmers have scoffed at the idea of no-till and regenerative agriculture systems that include herbicides. They argue that organic farming, which is built around the idea of soil health, can build up soil fertility or sequester carbon better than regenerative/no-till agriculture. Some research indicates this is true because the addition of manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.

Other research shows that organic farms’ ability to store carbon at deeper soil levels exceeds that of conventional farms, even those using cover crops. Scientists are still learning to understand how soil works, so the jury is out on whether organic production that includes tilling but cares for the soil in other ways equals or outstrips no-till farming.

While science continues to evolve, a third of all organic farms nationwide self-define their operations as “no-till” or “minimal till”—but, as is the case for conventional growers, for most, these terms don’t mean that they have stopped tilling.

The “organic no-till” project at the Rodale Institute, is a good example. The Institute has been working since the 1990s on ways organic grain growers can disturb the soil less.

“On one hand, organic farmers claim to be improving soil health, but with the same breath they’re doing multiple tilling operations in a single season,” said Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute’s executive director. “Tillage day isn’t a particularly good day if you’re an earthworm.”

Moyer, who spent 35 years as Rodale’s farm director and farm manager, began encouraging large organic grain growers to plant cover crops prior to their cash crops and to use the residue as mulch to suppress weeds. To facilitate the process on large farms, he re-designed the roller crimper as a tool to help organic corn and soybean farmers reduce tilling. Hitched to a tractor, the crimper flattens cover crops, breaking their stems and creating a dense mat of mulch. With the right tool, the farmer can then plant the cash crop directly into the newly rolled mulch.

A no-till roller-crimper. (Photo credit: Rodale Institute)A no-till roller-crimper. (Photo credit: Rodale Institute)

This system has allowed some organic farmers, mostly in the Midwest, to reduce their tillage—cutting it down to one deep-till pass per crop rotation. In the past, those farmers would make a primary tillage pass over their fields, followed by multiple secondary passes to disc, pack the soil, make a clean bed ready for planting, and then—once the crop is growing—to rotary hoe and cultivate multiple times to manage weeds.

“To the microbial life in the soil, it feels like tillage over and over again, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Moyer said.

In addition to the tillage to establish the cover crop, Rodale’s system reduces multiple passes through the fields to just two, planting and harvesting, Moyer said. And farmers time the deep tillage for late summer, when the weather is dry and the earthworms and other soil life burrow deep in the soil in search of moisture. They also apply compost, manure, or other soil amendments, which—in addition to the benefits derived from the cover crop—reduce the negative impacts of deep tillage, he added.

The roller-crimper system has worked so well for organic grain corn and soybean that some conventional soybean growers are also using it to reduce their use of expensive herbicides, said Moyer, who is also the author of the newly published book, Roller/Crimper No-Till.

The approach has gone from total obscurity to adoption by organic farmers on millions of acres—mostly in corn and soybeans, but also on orchard and vineyard floors, Moyer said. Other institutions, including the University of Wisconsin-MadisonWashington State University, and Iowa State University, are also conducting research on reduced tillage in organic farming using the roller-crimper.

Organic Pioneers Form No-till Partnership

In California, organic vegetable growers have made multiple attempts at reducing tillage over the past decade, with little luck, said Tom Willey, an organic pioneer who retired three years ago from his 75-acre farm near Fresno. Willey, who farmed for nearly 40 years, is now helping other growers return to the effort.

A historical photo of Tom Willey in his farm field.Tom Willey holding soil from his farm.

“Our early attempts at no-till were so disappointing, we gave up,” Willey said.

Then, in 2018, three well-established organic farms, Scott Park’s farm Park Farming Organics, Full Belly Farm, and Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce joined forces with U.C. Extension, Cal State Chico, and Fresno State to launch on-farm trials focusing on various forms of reduced soil disturbance. Since then, with financial support from a USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), the farmers and researchers are trying out various approaches and equipment. While the farmers choose which practices to use, the universities are collecting soil and tissue samples and doing additional reduced till and cover crop experiments on the schools’ farms.

The partnership is especially significant in a state that has always been at the forefront of organics but has offered little to no research development or extension services to organic farmers.

The participating farmers have all grown cover crops, incorporated compost, and managed complex crop rotations for many decades; they have all also experimented with reducing tillage. Yet, in a sense, they have decided late in their careers to go back to farming school, putting aside prevalent, economically secure concepts of organic production to learn a more nuanced, complicated version of soil microbiology. It’s a significant risk, but one they hope will be worth it.

“It’s like looking at the world through a different lens . . . a more reverential one that says we don’t know a whole lot and we should stop screwing it up. And maybe it can teach us if we step back,” said Muller of Full Belly Farm.

The farmers and academics are part of a growing informal network that shares knowledge, swaps scientific papers and on-farm trial updates, organizes farm tours, and hosts a slew of soil health experts, including conventional no-till farmers.

“[There are] too few farmers left in this country to waste time being at war with each other,” Willey said. The hope is to eventually replicate a farmers’ network for organic vegetable producers that is akin to No-till On the Plains, which connects conventional growers from the Great Plains and Midwest regions.

Several hurdles to organic vegetable no-till have become immediately clear, said Jeffrey Mitchell, cooperative extension specialist at U.C. Davis and the lead on the CIG no-till project.

One of them is seed size. Unlike corn and soy, which will germinate well and emerge robustly in soil blanketed with thick cover crop residue, most vegetables seeds are very small and delicate. They don’t have the same ability to push out of mulch-covered soil and establish themselves. The lack of expensive no-till equipment in California is another challenge, said Mitchell, who over the past two decades has conducted reduced tillage studies in conventional farming systems. The farmers in the organic no-till project have “scrambled, borrowed, and modified” existing tools, he said.

California also has unique climate characteristics that make reducing soil disturbance more difficult. Unlike in the Midwest, there is no real winter or hard frost, which means year-round, hardier weeds. And for most of the year, California lacks the rainfall that Midwestern farmers depend on to add moisture and help integrate nutrients into the soil without tillage.

“For high-value vegetable organic farmers in California, the switch to reduced soil disturbance is high-cost and high-risk, so it’s been very challenging to break in with it in our state,” Mitchell said.

Using a ‘Cadillac System’ to Boost Soil Health

To Park, who grows processing tomatoes, dry beans, seed crops, wheat, rice, millet, quinoa, and corn, those risks are all too real.

February found him trying to understand what went wrong with the combination of grazing, double cover crops, and reduced tillage he’d deployed last year. He refers to it as his “Cadillac system,” because it’s a deluxe approach that uses multiple practices that are typically used piecemeal to support soil health.

Following a wheat crop, which Park chopped and used as mulch, he planted a multi-species summer cover crop. Once it matured, he brought in about 6,000 goats to graze it. He then spread compost and shallowly tilled it in 2–3 inches deep, planted a winter cover crop, mowed and lightly tilled the following spring, then planted tomatoes, corn, and sunflowers.

Park’s standard practices include eight soil disturbances (down from about 20 on a typical vegetable farm), but on the trial fields he has further reduced them to four light disturbances.

Park believes that combining multiple regenerative farming practices can improve the soil to a point where it can have a symbiotic relationship with the plants. Such soil can make more nitrogen available to the crops, while cutting down on pest and disease pressure. It also holds a lot more water.

“The idea is to flow with nature and not have to fight nature back,” he says. But this latest attempt at amping up his practices turned out to be a “complete disaster.”

The cover crops added plenty of biomass into the soil. And the fields had 70 percent of normal water and enough time to digest the residue, he said. But something—the decision to vastly reduce the number and depth of tillage passes, the grazing, or both—had “tied up” the nitrogen and starved the plants, he said. Park added granular organic fertilizer to 70 acres of the Cadillac fields, but it didn’t help.

Park is not the only farmer in the reduced-till trials who is seeing a yield drag, and knowing that provides motivation to continue the experiment. Thus far, all of the farmers who are part of the project have seen yield reductions ranging from 20 to 50 percent in most of their trial fields.

Given the weed control and yield issues, Park isn’t sure that organic growers in California will ever be able to cut out tillage completely

“There’s unbelievable interest in moving the dial and I’m 100 percent behind it,” said Park. “But every farm has its own personality and its own needs . . . These practices have to fit your crops.”

Cover Crop–Cash Crop Match-Making

Two-hundred miles south of Park’s farm, on California’s Central Coast, farmer Phil Foster was getting ready to plant carrots and lettuce in his reduced till trial fields. Foster, who co-owns Pinnacle Organically Grown Produce, has a much smaller farm than Park—300 acres split among two ranches—but grows 60 different organic fruits and vegetables in a carefully orchestrated year-round rotation.

During the on-farm trials, Foster and the other farmers have come to realize that cover crops are the key to sustaining a reduced or no-till practice. These crops, planted between cash crops, mainly for their benefit to the farming system, perform different functions: they may suppress weeds, fix nitrogen, or improve the soil microbial community. In recent years, research has pointed to the benefit of cover crop mixes—as opposed to a single species—because they mimic the natural ecosystem.

Farmer Phil Foster stands in his no-till organic field. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Farmer Phil Foster stands in his no-till organic field. (Photo credit: Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

Cover crops also must be chosen based on cash crops’ planting time and attuned to the crops’ nutritional, pest control, and water needs. And the various species should all have a similar maturation rate. Given all this, Foster say it will take time and a lot of experimentation to find that attunement with all his crops.

“We are continuing to learn the many nuances to cover species,” he said.

Foster has been farming organically for 30 years and keeps careful soil records. By cover cropping about half his acreage every year and incorporating the green manure and compost, he has been able to raise his soil organic matter by several percentage points. “I have seen how much more dynamic the soil is and how much easier it is to farm,” said Foster. “If you can attain a certain organic matter level, the soil takes care of the crops a lot better.”

But over the past decade, the organic matter on his farm plateaued, which lead him to consider reducing his tillage and a renewed focus on cover crops.

“We’re still disturbing the soil, but we’re bringing our soil disturbance from historical levels of 8 to 15 inches with discs and chisels, which we don’t run anymore, to 4 to 5 inches or even just a couple of inches,” Foster recently said during a presentation on the project at the EcoFarm Conference.

After joining the no-till trials, Foster upped his cover crop acreage by 20 percent. He also has increased the diversity of his cover crop mixes, with vetch and oats as the workhorses, and is now using “cocktails” of 5–10 species in different ratios that also include rye, field peas, safflower, sunflower, phacelia, mustard, flax, and tillage radish.

Like Foster, Full Belly Farm’s Muller is also expanding his mixes and now uses 10–12 different species. Muller is trying to make more use of cover crop grasses in his trial fields, including rye or sudangrass, which grow quicker than legumes such as vetch and provide a large amount of biomass. Grasses don’t decompose as rapidly, which has a down side in that they can tie up nitrogen and keep it from getting to the cash crops, but they also provide thick mulch that keeps weeds down for a longer window.

“We want to armor our soil as much as possible through the year,” Muller said. “That’s why we need to keep as much cover on the ground as possible at all times.”

For Park, whose tomatoes get planted in early spring, the options are slimmer. He has resorted to planting vetch in the fall, which matures quickly and can be terminated in March. While its residue supplies a quick boost of nitrogen to the tomatoes, it doesn’t suppress weeds, meaning that Park still has to till a few inches deep to get rid of them.

“Figuring this all out has been “a school of hard knocks,” he adds.

On Phil Foster’s farm, immaculate, uniform vegetables growing on the right side, compared with a high-residue set of beds on the left. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension.On Phil Foster’s farm, immaculate, uniform vegetables growing in tilled soil on the right side, compared with a high-residue set of beds on the left. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Davis Cooperative Extension)

By far the biggest challenge, Foster said, is figuring out when and how to kill—or terminate—the cover crops and to manage their residue on the planting beds before seeding. For instance, not all cover crops terminate well with the roller-crimper. In Foster’s no-till melon field, for example, the cover crop did not die when flattened with the machine and grew back, “meaning competition with the melons and lower yields,” Foster said.

Muller had a similar experience two years ago, when he tried a cover crop mix with oats. The oats didn’t die when flattened multiple times, and he finally brought in sheep to graze them down. It took three weeks to terminate the cover crop.

To deal with the problem, the farmers have mostly resorted to using a vertical tillage tool with undercutting knives or repeated mowing, although the fine clippings don’t keep weeds down for long.

Like Park, Foster isn’t quite ready to take his farm to zero till—mainly because planting the cash crops amidst the cover crops is still a work in progress. For now, he and the other farmers are using a strip tiller, which tills only a narrow, shallow strip for planting seeds in—a technique that’s still rare in California.

Does Plastic Hold the Keys to Vegetable No-till?

Foster and Willey, the retired Madera farmer, have been experimenting with cutting out all tillage on Foster’s trial fields via plasticuture and occultation, techniques often used by no-till gardeners and very small-scale farmers. They involve the use of plastic tarps and cardboard or other barriers to suppress weeds and retain moisture.

The plasticulture trial is the only experiment in the project thus far that has successfully addressed one of the major challenges for organic vegetable no-till in California: how to add fertility to the soil and prevent yield reductions.

Typically, organic producers incorporate compost and cover crop or crop residue into the soil through tillage. But with no-till, the residue and compost are left on top of the beds. Leaving plant “nutrition” on top isn’t a problem in rainier environments, Willey said, since the moisture turns the residue and compost into mush and brings it down to the plant roots. But that’s not the case in the arid West. And most California farms have switched to drip irrigation, which is buried in the soil and doesn’t help break down what’s on the top layer of soil.

The plasticulture and occultation trial fields have avoided this problem, Willey said, by mimicking or re-creating an artificial Midwest or Northeast climate through sprinkler or drip irrigation under the plastic “mulch.” The plastic helps retain moisture and keeps the soil warm. And the moisture, in turn, helps the decomposition of organic matter, which releases nutrients for plants to take in.

Last season, when Foster and Willey grew melons and watermelons this way, they saw high yields. It was a victory, though ironically Foster has worked for years to eliminate plastic from his fields and said he isn’t thrilled to use it on a large scale again.

Muller ran a similar experiment last year, also using a thin sheet of plastic on top of his beds. The eggplants he transplanted into the system had “great plant vigor, earlier set of fruit and better consistent yields,” he said.

Closing the Nitrogen Loop with No-Till

While most of the trials in the no-till project have seen less-than-stellar results so far, Muller takes the long view. He believes that with time, going to continuous no-till will be possible and advantageous to organic vegetable farmers.

“It’s going to take us time and we have to commit to reestablishing the soil microbiome and to providing a habitat for those organisms that fix nitrogen for the plants,” said Muller.

Muller, who was born and raised on a conventional farm, grew up seeing the impact of pesticides on both farmers and farmworkers. Like Foster’s operation, Muller’s 450-acre farm in the Capay Valley west of Sacramento grows over 80 varieties of vegetables, fruits, and nuts. And he has focused on natural practices to maximize the vitality of his farm and his soil, including cover cropping and applying compost. Now, he hopes cutting down on tillage can take the effort further.

Muller hasn’t tilled his trial field for nearly three years. He likes to walk through it examining the soil; he brings a shovel, but it’s easy to dig in with his hands.

Paul Muller standing in his cover-cropped field. (Photo courtesy of the Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)Paul Muller standing in his cover-cropped field. (Photo courtesy of the Chico State Center for Regenerative Agriculture)

“There’s more earthworms, more vitality, more fungal activity, and much better water retention,” he said of the soil. The cover crops have also attracted beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings. “I’m not a scientist, but I can see the differences.”

Muller has been rethinking his views about soil fertility and “how farming practices determine the health of microbial communities, on which plants depend for nutrient acquisition, their diversity, who dominates and how both water and nutrient cycling are impacted.”

He and the other farmers are looking to emerging soil health research to understand the impacts of reduced or zero tilling on the living processes happening below ground. In recent years, scientists have come to understand that the soil’s fungi-to-bacteria population ratio is a good indicator of plant growth and nutrient uptake. Most tilled soil is higher in bacterial growth than fungi, which is damaged by tilling. But the ideal is to balance the two.

Higher inputs of nitrogen fertilizer have also been shown to cause lower fungi-to-bacteria ratios. In fact, studies show that adding any nitrogen inputs, including animal manure or other organic soil amendments, to soil can be detrimental to the mutually beneficial relationships mycorrhizal fungi form with plants.

“When you add nitrogen to the soil, you make the plants and bacteria lazy,” Muller sums it up.

The farmers in the trial have been influenced by the work of Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, who has found that the best way to mimic nature and ensure a robust microbial community is by having green plants grow in the soil year-round. Jones’ work has shown that cover crop mixes in a no-till system can create a self-sustaining closed loop in which bacteria and fungi will naturally do the work of fixing nitrogen and make it available to plants as long as enough carbon is available for them to digest. Such a system would decrease fertilizer greenhouse gas emissions as well as input, labor, and fuel costs.

“There’s emerging scientific evidence that diverse soil microbial communities can deliver never-imagined levels of nutrients to crops if our farming practices facilitate, rather than interfere with, their ability to do so,” Willey said.

Is Organic No-Till Farming Even Possible, or Worth It?

If these three California farmers do figure out how to eliminate tillage in their production systems, it’s not clear how long they can sustain such practices.

In experiments at the Rodale Institute, for instance, Moyer has seen that after five years without tillage “things start to break down.” There’s often a shift from annual weeds to perennial weeds, which are more challenging to control. In some areas, shrubs and trees start popping up in the fields. And groundhogs can become a problem.

“In the Northeast, our landscape wants to be hardwood forest . . . so the soil will try to revert back to that. In the Plains states, it wants to be grass prairie,” Moyer said. (In California, which has a Mediterranean climate, lack of rainfall limits forest growth, so this issue may bear less weight.)

“I don’t think we’ll be able to fight back the succession of species with mulch forever,” he added.

It may be, Moyer said, that agricultural soil that isn’t tilled needs an occasional reboot, much like a computer. For organic growers, “tillage is the reboot system,” Moyer said, “while for conventional farmers it’s increasing or changing the chemistry.” Organic farmers can quickly mitigate the damage from the occasional tillage by applying compost or animal manure and immediately planting a cover crop, he added

For the California farmers, who are planning to continue with the on-farm experiments beyond the four years of the CIG grant, the experiment is worthwhile. And they’re hoping other organic farmers will join the conversation. Ultimately, farmers need to figure out whether the overall benefits of reducing tillage outweigh the drawbacks in large-scale vegetable production systems. But the answers may not be far off.

“It’s one of the most exciting times I’ve had as a farmer,” said Muller. “The scientific body of knowledge is making wonderful leaps in our understanding of soil ecology. The hunches we had as organic growers . . . are now being borne out and understood.”

Gosia Wozniacka

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) and follow her on Twitter.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

Civil Eats

Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land

From fishing rights off Nova Scotia, to grazing in Oklahoma and salmon habitats on the Klamath River, tribal groups are reclaiming their land and foodways.

The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)

Last November, escalating tensions between the Mi’kmaq First Nations people exercising their fishing rights and commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia resulted in an unexpected finale: A coalition of Mi’kmaq tribes bought 50 percent of Clearwater Seafoods, effectively giving them control of the billion-dollar company and one of the largest seafood businesses in North America.

The Mi’kmaq people, who compose 13 distinct nations in Nova Scotia alone, have relied on fishing for tens of thousands of years and were granted treaty rights to a “moderate livelihood” by Canada’s Supreme Court. Despite these protections, the Mi’kmaq faced resistance, hostility, and even violence from commercial fishermen when exercising their rights.

By becoming majority owners of Clearwater Seafoods, the Mi’kmaq gained full ownership of Clearwater’s offshore fishing licenses, which allow them to harvest lobster, scallop, crab, and clams in a large area extending from the Georges Bank to the Laurentian Channel off Cape Breton. Tribal leaders hope the purchase guarantees the food security and economic sustainability of Mi’kmaq communities for generations.

Indigenous food sovereignty activists across the world stood in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq and applauded their unexpected victory. The deal represents a growing trend: Indigenous people are regaining access to—and control of—their traditional foodways.

For centuries, Native Americans in the United States have endured countless atrocities, from massacre to forced removal from their ancestral lands by the federal government. This separation from the land is inextricably tied to the loss of traditional foodways, culture, and history.

Now, there is growing momentum behind the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. Over the past few decades, Native American tribes in the U.S. have been fighting for the return of ancestral lands for access to traditional foodways through organizing and advocacy work, coalition building, and legal procedure—and increasingly seeing success.

In recent years, the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California secured ownership of its ancestral lands and is working to restore its marine habitats; the nearby Yurok Tribe fought for the removal of dams along the Klamath River and has plans to reconnect with salmon, its traditional food source; and the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has cleaned up contaminated land to make way for agriculture and cattle businesses.

“A big part of [land reclamation] is for food sovereignty,” stressed Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “We depend on the land to eat, to gain protein. It’s what our bodies were accustomed to, it’s what we as a people are accustomed to—working out in the landscape. It’s where we feel home. It’s good for our mental health. Oftentimes, folks have to be reminded that [food] is our original medicine.”

At the heart of the tribes’ different approaches to food sovereignty is a shared common goal: reclaiming ancestral lands for habitat restoration, access to healthy, culturally relevant diets, and economic opportunity.

In Eureka, an Unprecedented Land Return—and the Restoration of Marine Habitats

Between California’s northern coastline and the redwood forests, the Wiyot Tribe has practiced its way of life for centuries, celebrating ceremonial dances on Tuluwat Island, its place of origin. The island sits in the Arcata Bay of the present-day city of Eureka and provided access to essential nourishment, including oysters, clams, mussels, and fish.

A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

“For us, it’s a giant Costco. Everything that we needed was right there,” explained Ted Hernandez, Wiyot tribal chairman and cultural director, in a recent interview.

That was until 1860, when gold-rush era settlers ambushed and massacred between 80 and 250 Wiyots peacefully gathered on Tuluwat Island for a renewal ceremony. The surviving Wiyots were forced off the island and moved to Fort Humboldt, where Wiyots say that nearly half of the tribe died of exposure and starvation. They were then forcibly relocated to reservations at Klamath, Hoopa, Smith River, and Round Valley. In the early 1900s, a local church group bought land to house the Wiyots on what is known today as the Old Reservation. But after briefly losing federal recognition and a lack of potable water, the tribe moved to the Table Bluff Reservation, where it currently resides.

In 2000, after an acre and a half of the ancestral Tuluwat Island went up for sale, tribal elder Cheryl Seidner organized fundraisers to buy it for $106,000. This purchase gave the tribe momentum and hope that it could secure more land. Seidner led the Wiyots in negotiations with Eureka city leaders, and the city agreed to return most of the island to the tribe in 2019.

“With Tuluwat, it’s the first example of a city ever repatriating land to a tribe, which I think is great—but it’s also pretty sad that that never happens,” said Adam Canter, a natural resource specialist for the Wiyot Tribe.

Since then, the Wiyot people have used local community partners, volunteers, and state and federal resources to clean up the island, which was left in toxic disarray after years as the site of a shipyard for non-Native commercial fishermen. “There was a huge [Environmental Protection Agency] cleanup there,” said Canter, who leads the restoration effort. “The soil was contaminated with dioxins and pentachlorophenol oils, and all kinds of bad stuff.”

Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)

But this hasn’t deterred the Wiyots, who are 600 members strong and have a vision of restoring the crucial marine and land habitats that have for so long nourished the tribe. The Wiyots hope to improve health outcomes for tribal members and create a sustainable food system that emphasizes food sovereignty and security. “Now we’re in the process of completing that healing process by bringing back the traditional plants that were . . . in the waterways so our eels, and our oysters can grow back in the bay,” explained Hernandez. “And once that’s complete, then we can start the healing process for the whole world. But in order for us to do that, we need our traditional foods.”

In her role as natural resource technician-in-training, Wiyot tribal member Hilanea Wilkinson is working on removing invasive species and reintroducing native, edible plants to the island. She sees her work as even more urgent in light of the ongoing pandemic. “It has really shed light on the need for sustainable food for lots of reservations and Native communities—all communities,” she said. “Native communities are in more rural areas and don’t have easily accessible grocery stores.”

The Wiyot Tribe is also bolstering its food sovereignty movement through education. Currently, it’s fundraising to build the Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop in partnership with Humboldt State University’s (HSU) Native American Studies program. The goal is to indigenize the HSU campus and inspire future generations of Indigenous botanists and biologists who can help preserve Native American communities’ food security and sovereignty.

California’s Largest Tribe Restores Crucial Salmon Habitats

About 100 miles north of the Wiyot, the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest, is working to restore once-thriving salmon populations, which are culturally and spiritually significant in addition to being a major food source.

The Yurok people reside along the Klamath River, which was once a bustling artery that connected Northern California tribes and provided a food system of salmon, berries, elk, and acorns. Since the construction of the Klamath River Dams in the early 1900s for hydroelectric power and farmland irrigation, the salmon populations have been devastated to near-extinction. Most notorious was the Klamath River Fish Kill of 2002, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 34,000 salmon died from infection in a disaster caused by warm water temperatures and low dam water flow rates (Some counts say as many as 70,000 salmon died.)

Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Since the early 2000s, the tribe has built coalitions with local community groups and advocated for dam removal to state and federal authorities. They recently celebrated a historic agreement to remove four obsolete dams along the Klamath River (Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 in California, and J.C. Boyle in Oregon) to clear the river and revive the traditional salmon runs.

If all goes according to plan, the four dams will be officially decommissioned by 2023 in what would be the world’s largest dam removal project.

“We know from generations past that if we let the salmon die, then we follow along with [them],” said Myers. “The median [household] income on the upper reservation where I live is $11,000. The protein that salmon provides is actual sustenance people need to live.” (In California, the median household income is $75,235, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

While awaiting the final green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on dam removal, the Yurok Tribe is collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fish, and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California Department of Water Resources to build the Blue Creek salmon sanctuary—a permanently protected portion of the salmon’s river habitat—and restore native plants to the area.

They’ve also secured control of more than 60,000 acres of ancestral lands, through both direct purchase and a land transfer from Western Rivers Conservancy.

Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)

Ultimately, the Yurok Tribe hopes to become a fully sovereign nation that can sustain its people, both physically and economically, from the Klamath River and its salmon. “There is a way to survive and live and thrive here in the basin that isn’t just hunter-gatherer,” Myers said. “Because we used to have . . . an economy that was also based on salmon, and we feel like we could get there again.”

Restoring a Toxic Wasteland for Cattle Grazing and Agriculture

Across the country, in Northeast Oklahoma, the Quapaw Tribe has been working on land cleanup for its own food sovereignty initiatives. The Quapaw, or O-Gah-Pah (meaning “downstream people”), were a plains tribe that inhabited present-day Arkansas along the Mississippi River. When the Quapaw were moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1834, they could no longer practice their traditional hunting and gathering, according to Devon Mihesuah, co-editor of Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States. Out of necessity, they became ranchers, like many others relegated to reservations.

In the 1890s, lead and zinc were discovered on Quapaw land. In the documentary “Tar Creek,” Quapaw members described how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior often leased this land to mining companies without tribal approval, or through coercion. These companies mined lead and zinc to supply the war efforts until the 1970s. The mines, now long-abandoned, have polluted local water and land, leading to developmental delays in Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.

While the local residents of the nearby towns all received buyouts to relocate, the Quapaw people are still on their land and determined to make it hospitable again. The tribe secured a contract with the EPA more than a decade ago to remediate the land at the Tar Creek Superfund Site and repurpose the land for agriculture. The tribe has also seen recent success protecting tribal land sovereignty in Oklahoma.

“We are reclaiming it little by little and regaining land. And we’re doing whatever we can [to] remediate and put it back into ag use,” says Mitchell Albright, Quapaw tribe member and agriculture director.

Today, the restored land is used for more than 1,000 cattle and bison grazing under the Quapaw Cattle Company. The Quapaw have also been able to grow row crops (canola, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and wheat primarily used for animal feed) on restored lands, and they have built greenhouses to grow heirloom, pesticide-free vegetables. In 2017, the Quapaw Tribe also opened the country’s first tribally owned, USDA-approved cattle processing plant.

With rural geography, the Quapaw know the difficulties in transporting mainstream foods to their tribe. That’s why their priority is self-sufficiency, along with cultural preservation and job creation.

Through their farm, they supply the casino and restaurants located on the reservation. They also boast a coffee roaster, craft beer production, and a strong honeybee pollination program. Albright recalls that when he took over as ag director around eight years ago, there were around 15 employees. Today, there are upwards of 100.

“There’s gonna be a time—maybe not in our lifetime, but at some point—[when] maybe you can’t go to Walmart or your local grocery store and get what you need to survive,” Albright said. “And that’s what I love about Native people when they come together. They come up with ideas [that] can feed our people.”

The Future of Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Myers sees the land reclamation work of his and other tribes as more pressing than ever in light of climate change. “[We are at] the frontlines of this war to reclaim our history, our land, our culture . . . We have a system that can not only be saved but restored. And not just kept from going extinct, but being able to flourish in abundance. We’re ready for some victories.”

Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy Rep. Deb Haaland's office)Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Deb Haaland’s office)

The confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) to lead the Department of the Interior is a huge symbol of hope to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, Haaland has firsthand understanding of Indigenous issues such as land sovereignty. Although the #LandBack movement wants Haaland to endorse land reparations for Indigenous people, and she has so far refrained from doing so, Myers and others say her confirmation is enormously significant.

Myers is optimistic about the way forward. “We’ve gone a few hundred years never having anyone in that seat that understood the tribes from a member’s perspective. And now we do,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, things are going to get better because there’s an understanding that was never there before.”

This article was updated to correct the spelling of the Quapah phonetical and to update the name of Western Rivers Conservancy.


Melissa Montalvo is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on the food and agriculture industry, cantinas, and all things Mexico.