California water witches see big business as the drought drags on

Dowsers, sometimes known as ‘water witches,’ are in high demand in drought-stricken California, where four dry years find farmers and vintners taking desperate measures.

The Guardian
September 15, 2014

Outside of a farmhouse on a 1,800-acre organic dairy farm near Oroville,California, Sharron Hope bends over a printout of a Google Earth map, holding a small jade Buddha pendant. The map shows a small section of the farm to the east, and Hope is hunting for water. As the pendant swings, she notes a subtle change in motion that, she says, indicates she has found some.

Is there any significance to the jade? No, she says, I just like it. Plus, she adds, “I figure Buddha’s gotta know.”Logo-Guardian

Hope is a water dowser, or someone who uses intuition, energy vibrations and divining rods or pendulums to mark the best spots for wells.

As California rounds the corner towards a four-year historic drought, many farmers and vintners have become completely reliant on groundwater. After divvying surface water allotments to satisfy urban, ecosystem and industrial needs, farmers in many parts of the state received little or no irrigation water from state agencies this year. In a normal year, allotments would cover roughly two-thirds of farmers’ needs.

Under these severe drought conditions, the success or failure of a well can mean the success or failure of a farm or vineyard, so before the drill bit hits the dirt, landowners need an educated guess as to where to find the most productive well site on their property. To get that, they can call in a professional hydrogeologist, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars – or they can drop a fraction of the cost on a dowser, such as Hope.

Despite a distinct lack of empirical evidence regarding dowsers’ efficacy, demand is high and dowsers’ phones are ringing off the hook.

“I’ve gotten far more calls this year from farmers looking for a water dowser than in most years,” says Sacramento-based Donna Alhers, who heads the Sierra Dowsers, a chapter of the American Society of Dowsers.

Water dowsers from around the state are also seeing a spike in demand. “I’m getting a lot of calls from people whose wells have run dry,” Hope says.

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Fall of the Wild: The Trapped Wolves of Isle Royale

Global warming is putting wildlife at risk, leading to hard questions about wilderness ethics

Al Jazeera America
June 4, 2014

Chapter 1: Death of a Wolf

On January 21, Isabelle, a 5-year-old gray wolf, was spotted along the southwest reaches of Isle Royale National Park, which sits on an island in Lake Superior. During a survey flight over the island, John Vucetich, an ecologist with the Isle Royale Wolfe-Moose Study, confirmed the lone wolf’s identity thanks to a reading from her radio collar. “As we circled Isabelle, every few moments she stopped and turned to look back, as though concerned about being followed by other wolves,” wrote Vucetich on his research blog. During the previous year, two other wolves in her small pack had tried to kill her more than once.

“They beat [her] up several times, the female who was to breed [with Isabelle’s brother] would not want another breeding female around. There were times we weren’t sure if she would survive. We would see her laying on the ice and were not sure if she would get up,” explains Rolf Peterson, wolf expert and a retired professor at Michigan Technological University who, with Vucetich, has spent the past 44 years studying the wolves and moose of Isle Royale National Park.

Yet, she did get up and made it on her own through the summer and fall. She fled the island and traveled across 20 miles of ice. But by February 8, Isabelle was dead. Her carcass was discovered on the shore of Lake Superior in eastern Minnesota, on the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation.

According to the necropsy report, a pellet entered Isabelle’s chest and led to fatal trauma and bleeding. Whoever shot her multiple times with an air gun and left her for dead didn’t realize — or just didn’t care — that Isabelle’s arrival on the mainland had given her a second lease on life.

Isabelle’s long-term survival on the island was unlikely, and not only because other wolves ostracized her. Isle Royale’s once-robust wolf pack appears to be trotting toward extinction. From 2011 through 2012, the island’s wolf population declined 56 percent, and it has remained at its lowest total, just eight or nine individuals, since the Wolfe-Moose Study began, in 1956.

When an ice bridge, the only conduit between the island packs and the mainland wolves, formed during this past, frigid winter, Peterson and Vucetich felt buoyed with hope. During the first decade of the study, an ice bridge formed during three out of four winters. But during the past 17 years, because of rising temperatures, ice bridges have been documented only three times. One formed in 1997, followed by an 11-year gap. This winter marked the first bridge since 2008.

During cold winters, Isle Royale, an island located in Lake Superior, is connect to the mainland via ice bridges.
During cold winters, Isle Royale, an island located in Lake Superior, is connect to the mainland via ice bridges.

Rising water temperatures and declining ice cover in Lake Superior (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that by 2011 the lake’s yearly ice coverage had declined 76 percent, compared with 1973 levels) have combined with strong winds to reduce the frequency of ice bridges connecting the 45-mile-by-9-mile island to the mainland of Ontario and Minnesota. Because of this, the last time a new wolf entered the island was in 1997, and that male bolstered the island’s “gene flow.”

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Photo: John Vucetich

Within a decade, however, all wolves on the island carried that new arrival’s genes. Today, the nine wolves that live on the island are all closely related. With most organisms, including wolves, this sort of genetic inbreeding reduces the rate of reproduction, and it is the major factor behind the Isle Royale population’s decline.

Another cold winter in the next few years could create another bridge and perhaps draw wolves from the mainland to contribute to the gene pool. However, it is impossible to say how long the current wolf population can survive in these conditions. Given the specter of extinction, Peterson and Vucetich want to transport mainland wolves to the island.

Their hope is that intervention, which scientists call genetic rescue, would result in a more viable wolf population. That decision, however, is not theirs to make — it falls under the purview of the superintendent of Isle Royale National Park. And it is a decision fraught with controversy and disagreement, both on scientific and philosophical fronts.

Chapter 2: What Would Aldo Do?

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It’s a Hardrock Life

In Wisconsin’s picturesque Northwoods, a big battle over iron-ore extraction is pitting environmentalists and Native Americans against mining companies and their political allies.

Earth Island Journal
Summer 2014

EIJ-logoThe cab of Bill Heart’s Ford Ranger is cluttered with pamphlets and fishing gear, and as we pull out onto Highway 77, just north of the high ridge formed by Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, a warm August wind rushes through the open windows and whips up patches of fur left behind by his pack of dogs. “My wife has a habit of collecting strays,” he quips. It’s summer and Heart would rather be out fishing. Instead, he is taking me to Harvest Camp, an ad hoc village of makeshift tents, wigwams-in-progress, fire pits, and a sweat lodge that has been established by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, one of six bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

Usually, harvest camps are simply a meeting place for tribal members to share their knowledge of local plant life and its medicinal applications on land they ceded through treaties, but on which they still retain hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. This camp is different. It has become a de facto base camp for protestors – people from both within and outside the tribes – who want to block a massive, $1.5 billion-open pit iron ore mine nearby.

The Penokee Hills span Iron and Ashland Counties in Wisconsin’s iconic Northwoods. The hills are the headwaters of the Bad River that flows into Lake Superior, which by surface area is the world’s largest freshwater lake. But there’s also an estimated 3.7 billion tons of iron ore underneath the mountain ridge. In total, the deposit is roughly 20 percent of all remaining US iron ore reserves. Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a subsidiary of the Cline Group, owned by Florida coal magnate Chris Cline, has its sights set on this iron ore. Mining the ore body would start with a mine roughly 4 miles in length and 800 feet deep, making it the largest open pit mine of its kind in the world. The full ore body is 22 miles long, so the long-term potential for changing the landscape is astounding. If the vein were to be completely dug out, the hole in the ground would be big enough to contain the largest open pit iron mine in the US five times over.

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Squeezing Cleaner Energy from Coal’s Waste

Coal mine methane could soon transform from problematic waste to valuable fuel

elk_creek_coal_mine_goldeneagle
In a Colorado valley where miners have harvested coal for more than a century, a second fuel—methane—escapes from the thick black seams of the Elk Creek mine. A system of boreholes and pipes around the mine funnels methane-rich gas to a modified truck engine. Using a trio of one-megawatt generators, the engine converts this methane to electricity for the local power grid.
Elk Creek is the first methane-to-energy project at a coal mine west of the Mississippi and the largest of its kind nationwide. But coal mines like Elk Creek contribute about 10 percent of methane emissions nationally and 6 percent of methane emissions worldwide, and they continue to release methane long after mining operations have ended. The gas also seeps from swamps, industrial flues, landfills, cattle farms and natural gas operations.

In fact, so much methane enters Earth’s atmosphere each year that globally it is the second largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Methane dissipates more quickly than carbon, but its strength as a greenhouse gas over a 100-year period is more than 20 times that of CO2.

Burning methane can generate energy or useful heat while lessening its climate impact—essentially reducing the gas to a weaker brew of water and carbon dioxide. At Elk Creek, burning just over 670,ooo cubic feet of methane per day—roughly 16 percent of the mine’s total methane emissions—in an internal combustion engine is expected to generate 24 gigawatt hours annually. That’s enough electricity to power roughly 2,000 homes.

Read the full story here.

The Dangers of Kickstarter

Kickstarter has become the go-to funding source for serious expeditions and boondoggles alike. And that has some benefactors wanting their cash back.

Outside Magazine, February 2013

Last May, Andrew Badenoch, a thirtysomething former Internet marketer in Oregon, set off on a 7,000-mile solo expedition from Bellingham, Washington, with a jumbo-tired fat bike and a pack raft. His goal was to travel to the Arctic Sea and back under his own power, all the while making a documentary about the trip. Backing him were 212 individuals who anted up a combined $10,437 via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. PBS even loaned Badenoch camera equipment and agreed to run his footage as an online series.

kickstarter-andrew-badenoch_feBy late summer, though, the expedition had fallen apart, and Badenoch, who had never before embarked on a human-powered expedition of this scale, had quietly returned to Oregon after bailing on the trip in Pink Mountain, British Columbia. He later blamed “14 weeks of delays” and told supporters the “weather window had closed.” Throughout the summer, a handful of backers had asked him via Twitter for updates on his status and location. Except for a handful of tweets, these largely went unanswered. Badenoch now says that he could have been better at communicating his plans. But he also maintains that “it was never my intent to explain everything as I went. That’s not part of the documentary.” As for the money, Badenoch has yet to offer a breakdown of his expenses, because, he says, he plans to complete the trip this spring and produce his documentary. “I have no comment on accounting specifics while the project remains in progress,” he wrote in an email last fall. “When adding layers of accounting, reporting day-to-day activities, and scrutinizing every word and detail during the creative process, the creative process is killed.”

To some of his backers, this all sounds pretty thin. “He should have told people if things had not gone according to plan,” says Hendrik Morkel, 31, a Finnish wilderness guide and author who donated $25 to Badenoch and has used Kickstarter to produce his own online series about ultralight gear. “Sometimes that’s how expeditions go.”

Explorers have been soliciting financial backing since Columbus first begged boats off of Queen Isabella. Companies like Eddie Bauer, the North Face, and Rolex have been the primary backers since the mid-20th century, but social media have provided an additional option: the public. With Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, adventurers can create a pitch with an embedded video, spread the word on Facebook, and watch the money roll (or, more often, trickle) in. The company has provided a funding platform for about 75 expeditions, though it’s important to note that the backers didn’t pay for those trips per se. When funders drop cash on an expedition, they’re funding what Kickstarter calls the “creative work” that will result—usually a film or book—and the best ideas with the most enthusiasm behind them usually win. But crowdfunding isn’t venture capitalism. Apart from rewards like getting your name in a documentary’s credits or, say, receiving artifacts collected during an expedition, there is no return on investment. Pitchmen have little responsibility to their funders, which opens the door for overpromising—or worse.

Read full story here.