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Colorado River
In Crisis

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Energy Boom

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Historical Background

The Country Life Commission

Dear Visitor: This site preserves the legacy publications of the Rural West Initiative from 2009-2014. 
For more recent information on our conference and publications, please go to ruralwest.stanford.edu

A Collaboration Between Journalists and Scholars

The Rural West Initiative aims to create a unique collaboration between journalists and scholars to investigate the forces transforming the rural west.  We are generating reports and stories ourselves and will commission more from reporters, scholars, researchers, and students across the West. Our work uses extensive data visualization as well as text, video, and still photography to tell our stories.
 

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Call for Participants: Rural West Conference in October 2012

Photograph: Native American Woman with Basket of Huckleberries. OSU Archives WilliamsG:USFS281580 via Flickr Commons    

Building on the work of the Rural West Initiative, the Bill Lane Center for the American West will hold a conference titled "The Rural West: Toward a Regional Approach to Common Issues." Scholars, journalists, policymakers, and others are invited to propose papers for the conference, which will be held October 12-14, 2012 at the David Eccles Conference Center in Ogden, Utah.

Last modified Thu, 26 Jan, 2012 at 11:27

What Seven States Can Agree to Do: Deal-Making on the Colorado River

The Central Arizona Project carries Colorado River water to Phoenix. (Photo: John Fleck)

By John Fleck

As western water leaders converged on Las Vegas in  December 2001, Southern California’s inability to contain its voracious appetite seemed finally to be bumping up against reality - there is only so much water in the Colorado River.

Shared among seven states and Mexico via a shifting, uncertain set of bargains, the river was running up against the era of limits.

For years, California had been living large off the surplus of others. It slurped Colorado River leftovers other states weren’t using, pumping it 250 miles to rapidly growing coastal cities. But as the rest of the southwest grew and began taking its rightful share of the Colorado, California faced an urgent deadline. It had to come up with a plan to cut its use or see a large share of its water supply simply cut off on Jan. 1, 2003.

Testifying at a Dec. 10 House field hearing, Larry Anderson, head of Utah’s Division of Water Resources, was blunt. If California did not tame its appetites, the other states dependent on the Colorado River expected the federal government to step in and enforce the “Law of the River”, the maze of laws that govern distribution of the river’s water. “Appropriate enforcement is critical to protecting our rights,” Anderson said. 1

In response, Southern California Congresswoman Grace Napolitano's question to the federal government’s top water official sounded more like a plea. If California is making a good faith effort, she asked, could the Golden State have more time? Coming from a representative of the region’s largest state and economic powerhouse, the plea also contained a hint of a threat: “California cannot afford the immediate reduction by that amount of water,” she said. “Our economy reaches out to the neighboring states so that if we suffer, so do the rest of the states around us.”

Sitting at the witness table, Interior Department’s assistant secretary Bennett Raley responded with what, in the coded language of western water law, amounted to an ultimatum. His boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, was ready to cut California’s share. If the state missed the deadline, “the Secretary will have to use all means at her disposal to ensure that she is in compliance with the Law of the River.” 2

 

Carving a course

The Colorado River carves a defining course through North American geography and history. Winter snow falling in the Rockies, mostly in Colorado and Wyoming, feeds it. The Colorado and its longest tributary, the Green, spend much of their lives in the deep, arid canyon country of the arid interior western United States.

The river and its tributaries pass through seven U.S. states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – before making a short run between the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California to the Gulf of California. (Read more)

Last modified Fri, 3 Aug, 2012 at 12:43

Conservation Is Up in a Down Economy Out West

(Graphic: Geoff McGhee)

From High Country News

By Jon Christensen, Jenny Rempel, and Judee Burr

The Great Recession, it turns out, may have been good for one thing in the West: private land conservation. From the tiny Orient Land Trust in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, which has nearly doubled its holdings to 2,260 acres, to the 138,041 acres of ranchland protected by the California Rangeland Trust over the last five years, statewide and local land trusts in the West have done better than ever recently, even as many environmental advocacy groups continue to trim budgets and federal funding for conservation falters.

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which agencies rely on to acquire valuable private lands, suffered a 38 percent cut and protected just over 500,000 acres over the last five years. During the same period, private nonprofit land trusts protected 20 times as much undeveloped land — 10 million acres nationwide, according to data in a new census of 1,700 land trusts in the national Land Trust Alliance.

Land trusts also grew in other ways, including a 19 percent increase in paid employees and contractors, a 36 percent increase in operating budgets, a 70 percent increase in volunteer numbers, and a near tripling of long-term endowments. Land trusts protect land by either buying it outright or paying for a conservation easement, which restricts or removes the landowner’s right to develop open land. Landowners can also donate property and easements and then receive a break on their income taxes from the federal government and some state governments. The latest gains bring the total area protected by the nation’s land trusts to 47 million acres — more than twice the area covered by all of the national parks in the Lower 48 states.

In fact, private land conservation is now shaping the future of much of the West as decisively as development.

Last modified Sun, 29 Jan, 2012 at 23:36

Drilling to Energy Independence: Can the West Save Us from Foreign Oil Imports?

(Photo: John Amos via Flickr)

By Dustin Bleizeffer

True to the frontier attitude still prevalent here, oil and gas officials say there’s a treasure of fossil fuels in the West that will take America closer to energy independence than any plan conceived in Washington D.C.

Story Written In Collaboration With


Wyoming Politics & Policy
http://wyofile.com

While speaking to a group of energy industry leaders in Wyoming recently, Chesapeake Energy’s John Dill said his company — and other oil and gas developers — fully intends to implement their own American energy plan.

“The country has waited long enough for a national energy policy,” Dill told attendees of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s October meeting in Laramie. “So we’re going to take the bull by the horn and do it ourselves.”

Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends (1949-2010)

(Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends)

Chesapeake Energy’s plan, “A Declaration of Energy Independence,” proclaims America’s “$400 billion a year” in foreign oil imports is “fiscally insane.” Toward American energy independence, Chesapeake created a $1 billion venture fund to convert transportation fleets from gasoline to compressed natural gas (CNG), aiming at the No. 1 driver for oil imports. The company invested another $150 million in Sundrop Fuels, which is developing what it calls a non-food biomass “green gasoline.”

“We believe American energy needs to be supplied 100 percent by domestic resources,” said Dill, director of Chesapeake’s corporate development and government relations.

With a huge presence in America’s current onshore drilling boom, Chesapeake Energy is the second largest natural gas producer in the nation. It’s recent acquisitions in the Denver-Julesburg Basin and Powder River Basin are part of an industry-wide shift toward developing shale oil.

Last modified Tue, 6 Dec, 2011 at 12:16

Rural West Initiative's North Dakota Story Airs on NPR

By John McChesney

NPR carried my story on North Dakota's oil boom on Morning Edition today. Some of the characters will be familiar from my reporter's notebook from earlier this Fall. But you can hear emotion and connotation better in audio, so it's better to listen, rather than read in this case.   

The tough economy has taken its toll on most states, putting budgets deep in the red and putting people out of work.

But North Dakota has a low 3.5 percent unemployment rate and a state budget with a billion dollar surplus. That's because of a major oil boom in the western part of the state, a discovery of at least 2 billion barrels to be gained by fracking — the controversial process of injecting fluid deep into underground rock formations to force the oil out.

The find could be the largest ever in the lower 48 states. It's expected to make North Dakota the third largest producer of oil after Alaska and Texas. But many residents of the oil boom region are not singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" — they're saying "enough."

Listen to the story at NPR's website  »

Last modified Tue, 6 Dec, 2011 at 11:31

Feeling Overwhelmed by Pace Of the Oil Boom, North Dakota Residents Want to Hit the Brakes

Ag and Oil: Can They Coexist?        

By John McChesney

I should have known what it would be like here when I could not find a motel or hotel room within a hundred-mile radius of Williston, North Dakota.

Even after a year of reading about the oil rush on the Bakken field in western North Dakota, nothing had prepared me for what I found when I drove in. It seems that nearly every 18-wheeler tank truck in America is on the road here, making tens of thousands of trips , hauling water, fracking fluid, waste water, oil, and oil well condensate. Then there are the semis hauling fracking sand, gravel for drilling pads, gravel for roads, drill casings, pipeline sections, drilling rigs, huge oil tanks, and more. Dozens of small – we’re talking really small – rural towns with one main street dot the area, and those trucks rumble through the towns at all hours, creating monumental traffic jams and deep potholes.


Oops! Still Learning to Turn.

Tankers by the hundreds blanket huge lots on the edges of towns. On the two-lane roads linking towns, you stare up the tail end of the tanker ahead, and flinch as the massive grills of Kenworths, Peterbilts, and Macks whoosh past on your left. It’s brutal out there. Last October through June of this year saw 1,142 crashes involving trucks, with 16 fatalities and 242 injuries. One official told me that some workers come here, take a two-week course in big rig driving, and hit the road as amateurs. 

Last modified Wed, 2 Nov, 2011 at 15:01

Is There More Water to Be Moved From the Colorado Basin?

Photo: Wyoming's Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, by Carfull...Holding onto Summer via Flickr

By John Fleck

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water and Power in April 2010, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Jennifer Pitt warned of the dynamic among the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin:

There appears to be a race among the states to develop the next big use of water, because for water users who don’t get their straw into the system first, their risk of curtailment increases.

Last modified Wed, 28 Sep, 2011 at 10:57

Refinery Construction Begins on North Dakota Reservation

Photo: Oil refinery in Billings, Montana, by Jon Martin via Flickr

By Reese Rogers

We are of the firm belief we will become more sovereign by the barrel.”

–Chairman Tex Hall. January 2011.

Construction began recently on the first oil refineries to be built in the United States in decades. The refinery is situated on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. The construction is the culmination of a development process that began back in 2003 when tribal leaders of the Three Affiliated Tribes first proposed the refinery project as a way of bringing economic development and jobs to the reservation community. Fort Berthold now encompasses much of the booming Bakken oil field.

This recent energy boom on the reservation and now the permission to build the refinery are long-awaited bright spots in the economic development of a people who have seen more than their fair share of hardship. Beyond the history of decimation through disease and violent conflict, many tribe members today still remember the tribe’s 1951 relocation to make way for the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. Their original settlements and childhood homes are now buried under the waters of Lake Sakakawea. 

Last modified Wed, 28 Sep, 2011 at 10:58

High Stakes for Rural Health in Fight over Affordable Care Act

(Photo: Edgar Zuniga, Jr. via Flickr)

By Robin Pam

According to a new report from the Center for Rural Affairs, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke are responsible for 75 percent of all health care spending. Rural Americans experience these diseases and chronic conditions in higher numbers than the general population. This happens for a variety of factors, including heavier tobacco use, physical inactivity, poor diet, and alcohol abuse.

The health challenges facing rural communities are even further exaggerated in the West. Here rural and frontier communities are farther away from urban centers or larger towns with more sophisticated health care facilities. The large distances and extreme isolation place a greater strain on community health providers. 

Encouraging healthier behaviors and preventing chronic conditions is critical to controlling costs in the health care system. These goals are a major part of the Affordable Care Act, the health reform law passed in 2010. Residents of rural communities, and especially those in the West, stand to benefit greatly from the increased emphasis on prevention.

Last modified Thu, 8 Sep, 2011 at 8:36

Bonus Water on the Colorado River

Lee's Ferry, the dividing line between the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins. (Photo: Lissa Heineman)

By John Fleck

It is telling that when Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall went looking for a way to explain the implications of this year’s bountiful Colorado River Basin snowpack, she ended up at one of Lake Powell’s boat ramps:

The sudden rush of water into the lake has meant seven-day workweeks for the National Park Service and concessionaire crews that manage the boating facilities. Again and again they have reeled in floating docks and marina utility lines that were extended as the reservoir shrank. Dive teams were called in to move anchors.

At the Hite marina on the lake's northern end, where boating facilities had been stranded on the dry lake bed for years, workers used a backhoe and trucks to free them from layers of muck and silt as the water rose.

This is not a criticism of Boxall, one of the best reporters on the Western water beat. Such is water management on the Colorado River that, in the wake of the worst drought in a century of record-keeping, from 2000 to 2010, everyone in the seven western U.S. states and Mexico that depends on the Colorado River continued to get their full allotment. As the lakes receded, journalists (myself among them) turned to the recreational boating business in our search for a visible manifestation of drought. Marina operators engaged in the ritual they call “chasing water”, moving their floating docks farther and farther out into the lakes as the reservoirs shrank. Reporters followed along.

Last modified Wed, 7 Sep, 2011 at 14:51