Tag Archives: Agriculture

Cash and Chemicals: Banana Boom Blessing and Curse

A worker walks through a banana plantation operated by a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

By Jorge Silva 
May, 2017

Kongkaew Vonusak smiles when he recalls the arrival of Chinese investors in his tranquil village in northern Laos in 2014. With them came easy money, he said.

The Chinese offered villagers up to $720 per hectare to rent their land, much of it fallow for years, said Kongkaew, 59, the village chief. They wanted to grow bananas on it.

In impoverished Laos, the offer was generous. “They told us the price and asked us if we were happy. We said okay.”

Elsewhere, riverside land with good access roads fetched at least double that sum.

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Three years later, the Chinese-driven banana boom has left few locals untouched, but not everyone is smiling.

Zhang Jianjun, 40, co-owner of the Lei Lin banana plantation sits outside his house at a plantation in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

Experts say the Chinese have brought jobs and higher wages to northern Laos, but have also drenched plantations with pesticides and other chemicals.

Last year, the Lao government banned the opening of new banana plantations after a state-backed institute reported that the intensive use of chemicals had sickened workers and polluted water sources.

China has extolled the benefits of its vision of a modern-day “Silk Road” linking it to the rest of the world – it holds a major summit in Beijing on May 14-15 to promote it.

A banana plantation worker cries as he sits inside his shack during a day off at a plantation operated by a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

The banana boom pre-dated the concept, which was announced in 2013, although China now regards agricultural developments in Laos as among the initiative’s projects.

Under the “Belt and Road” plan, China has sought to persuade neighbours to open their markets to Chinese investors. For villagers like Kongkaew, that meant a trade-off.

“Chinese investment has given us a better quality of life. We eat better, we live better,” Kongkaew said.

A woman waits to deliver her harvest at a packing line at a banana plantation operated by a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

But neither he nor his neighbours will work on the plantations, or venture near them during spraying. They have stopped fishing in the nearby river, fearing it is polluted by chemical run-off from the nearby banana plantation.

Several Chinese plantation owners and managers expressed frustration at the government ban, which forbids them from growing bananas after their leases expire.

They said the use of chemicals was necessary, and disagreed that workers were falling ill because of them.

The daughter of a banana plantation worker swings outside her home at a plantation operated by a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

“If you want to farm, you have to use fertilizers and pesticides,” said Wu Yaqiang, a site manager at a plantation owned by Jiangong Agriculture, one of the largest Chinese banana growers in Laos.

“If we don’t come here to develop, this place would just be bare mountains,” he added, as he watched workers carrying 30-kg bunches of bananas up steep hillsides to a rudimentary packing station.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was not aware of the specific issues surrounding Chinese banana growers in Laos, and did not believe they should be linked directly to the Belt and Road initiative.

“In principle we always require Chinese companies, when investing and operating abroad, to comply with local laws and regulations, fulfil their social responsibility and protect the local environment,” he told a regular briefing on Thursday.

A worker waits to deliver his harvest at a packing line inside a banana plantation operated by a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

Laos’ Ministry of Agriculture did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment for this article.

China is the biggest foreign investor in Laos, a landlocked country of 6.5 million people, with over 760 projects valued at about $6.7 billion, according to Chinese state-run media.

This influence is not only keenly felt in the capital Vientiane, where Chinese build shopping complexes and run some of the city’s fanciest hotels. It also extends deep into rural areas that have remained largely unchanged for decades.

Lao people say Chinese banana investors began streaming across the border around 2010, driven by land shortages at home. Many headed to Bokeo, the country’s smallest and least populous province.

In the ensuing years, Lao banana exports jumped ten-fold to become the country’s largest export earner. Nearly all of the fruit is sent to China.

For ethnic Lao like Kongkaew, Chinese planters paid them more for the land than they could earn from farming it.

On Keo Wa, 25, carries her 9-month-old baby while working at a banana plantation operated by a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

For impoverished, hill-dwelling minorities such as the Hmong or Khmu, the banana rush meant better wages.

At harvest time, they can earn the equivalent of at least $10 a day and sometimes double that, a princely sum in a country where the average annual income was $1,740 in 2015, according to the World Bank.

They are also most exposed to the chemicals.

Most Chinese planters grow the Cavendish variety of banana which is favoured by consumers but susceptible to disease.

Hmong and Khmu workers douse the growing plants with pesticides and kill weeds with herbicides such as paraquat. Paraquat is banned by the European Union and other countries including Laos, and it has been phased out in China.

The bananas are also dunked in fungicides to preserve them for their journey to China.

Some banana workers grow weak and thin or develop rashes, said Phonesai Manivongxai, director of the Community Association for Mobilizing Knowledge in Development (CAMKID), a non-profit group based in northern Laos.

Part of CAMKID’s work includes educating workers about the dangers of chemical use. “All we can do is make them more aware,” she said.

This is an uphill struggle. Most pesticides come from China or Thailand and bear instructions and warnings in those countries’ languages, Reuters learned. Even if the labelling was Lao, some Hmong and Khmu are illiterate and can’t understand it.

Another problem, said Phonesai, was that workers lived in close proximity to the chemicals, which contaminated the water they wash in or drink.

A woman puts leftover bananas in a cart next to a packing line at a banana plantation operated by a Chinese company in the province of Bokeo in Laos April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

In a Lao market, Reuters found Thai-made paraquat openly on sale.

However, some workers Reuters spoke to said they accepted the trade-off. While they were concerned about chemicals, higher wages allowed them to send children to school or afford better food.

There is no guarantee the government’s crackdown on pesticide use in banana production will lead to potentially harmful chemicals being phased out altogether.

As banana prices fell following a surge in output, some Chinese investors began to plant other crops on the land, including chemically intensive ones like watermelon.

Zhang Jianjun, 46, co-owner of the Lei Lin banana plantation, estimated that as much as 20 percent of Bokeo’s banana plantations had been cleared, and said some of his competitors had decamped to Myanmar and Cambodia.

But he has no plans to leave. The environmental impact on Laos was a “road that every underdeveloped country must walk” and local people should thank the Chinese, he said.

“They don’t think, ‘Why have our lives improved?’. They think it’s something that heaven has given them, that life just naturally gets better.”

Copyright Reuters 2017


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Environmentally-sound agriculture can support farmers and consumers

Agroecology can help fix the food, water and energy challenges that conventional agriculture has created.

© Deborah Jones 2013

© Deborah Jones 2013

By Andrea Basche and Marcia DeLonge
March, 2017

The past several years have been rough for many U.S. farmers and ranchers. Net farm incomes this year could fall to 50 percent of 2013 levels in a fourth consecutive year of income declines that is leading some producers to seek alternatives. At the same time, rural and urban Americans share growing concerns related to agriculture: worries that water pollution will be increasingly costly and harmful, that water supplies are at risk from extreme swings in rainfall, and that global warming due to fossil fuel burning threatens our food system and will necessitate changes in how we farm.

What if all of these challenges could find a common solution? It might just be that they can. In a commentary published this week in the scientific journal Elementa, we contend that agroecology offers a promising approach to solving food system problems while mitigating, water and energy concerns — and propose a way to overcome the obstacles to fully embracing it.

U.S. agriculture has trended for several decades — as a result of policy, economics and other drivers — toward systems that are more simplified over both space and time. This has had adverse consequences for food, energy and water.

Agroecology takes a different approach, applying ecological concepts to create and maintain diverse, resilient food systems. Promising research demonstrates that bringing diversity back to farms can begin to reverse the problems simplification has created. For example, scientists have found that strategically incorporating perennial plants (including food, energy or non-crop plants) into small areas of commodity crops can significantly reduce water pollution and soil loss. Studies also show that using multiple crops rather than a monoculture is associated with improvements in the amount of carbon (important to help soils hold onto more water and mitigate climate change) and nitrogen (critical for plant growth and soil function) in the soil.

If better farming systems exist, why don’t more producers use them, and why aren’t they more encouraged? Among the reasons:

  • Government policies and economics influence many producer decisions that contribute to landscape simplification. For example, biofuel incentives greatly expanded markets for ethanol, leading farmers to replace grasslands with endless acres of monoculture corn rather than leaving them native or planting more diverse crops.
  • Research has also found that the need to focus on immediate cash flow rather than long-term benefits just to stay afloat can make it difficult to adopt more resilient systems
  • Agroecology research is woefully underfunded. This means that up-to-date examples of innovative practices suited to specific regions are not sufficiently available for many farmers.
  • Change is hard and it can take support for producers to get started. It is critical to find peers and peer networks to learn from — and these are rare.
  • Benefits are narrowly defined. When farmers, policy-makers, and scientists focus primarily on simple measures of progress like crop yields, we lose track of the many other benefits of agroecology — including those related to water and energy.

In spite of these and other obstacles, innovators have begun to demonstrate that diversified land management can be good business, from a cover crop seed company in rural Nebraska, to a food hub supporting local diversified food production in western Iowa, to a consulting group helping farmers optimize land management and costs with a “precision conservation” approach. The dire need for economic opportunity in rural America was a major discussion point in the 2016 election, and these examples suggest how a more diverse and sustainable agriculture can help meet that need.

A shift in perspective that recognizes relationships among food, water, and energy systems and new metrics that value co-benefits to water and energy could go a long way toward further advancing agroecology. In fact, recently published research refutes the idea that we must solely focus on doubling crop production to meet future demand. These researchers believe the actual future yield increases needed are smaller and that we must explicitly define environmental goals to match the production demands that always seem to dominate the narrative around food.

Fortunately, we know that solutions do exist, and with agroecological approaches we can solve these multiple challenges at the same time.

Creative Commons View Ensia homepage

Andrea Basche is a Kendall Science Fellow, Union of Concerned Scientists. Marcia DeLonge is an agroecologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Elementa wordmarkThis article was orignally published by Ensia, in published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Leveraging agroecology for solutions in food, energy and water,” a peer-reviewed article published March 2, 2017, as part of Elementa’s Food-Energy-Water Systems: Opportunities at the Nexus forum. —  March 3, 2017


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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More Food No Answer to Africa’s Hunger

A Malawian subsistence farmer surveys her maize fields in Dowa near the capital Lilongwe, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

A Malawian subsistence farmer surveys her maize fields in Dowa near the capital Lilongwe, February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

By Alex Whiting
September, 2016

TURIN, Italy (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As a young university student of agriculture, Edie Mukiibi believed the latest hybrid seeds which promised bumper crops were the answer to improving the lot of maize farmers in his part of Uganda.

He persuaded many to buy the seeds, while working part-time promoting them in Kiboga district in central Uganda.

But the consequences were “terrible”, he said. It was 2007, a year of drought, and the new seeds turned out to be less resilient than traditional varieties.    “The farmers lost almost everything – every bit of maize crop they had. When I went back to talk with the farmers I could feel their pain,” Mukiibi said.     Even worse, the new crops could not be grown with any other crops, so the farmers were left with nothing to fall back on except the bills they had run up for the pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers the maize required, he said.    “This is when I started working with farmers … to diversify (their) farming,” said Mukiibi, now vice president of Slow Food International, a grassroots movement of farmers, chefs, activists and academics campaigning to improve the quality of food and the lives of producers.

He said he wanted to help farmers use “local seeds, local knowledge, and traditional ways of managing resources”.

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Large companies are increasingly taking charge of food production in Africa and pushing for greater quantities of food – but these are not the answer to cutting hunger in Africa, he said on the sidelines of Slow Food’s annual festival in the Italian city of Turin which opened on Thursday.      “We need to think more about the real causes of malnutrition in developing countries, and we need to realise the problem is not production, the problem is how do we keep the food we have in circulation,” Mukiibi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Africa, food lost during or after harvest could feed 300 million people, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.    Mukiibi, who is based in Mukono district just east of the Ugandan capital Kampala, said people can go hungry in one part of Uganda while bananas are rotting in the fields and in stores in another part.    “We need to encourage small-scale producers that they are still important in the world of food,” he said, adding that thousands in Uganda have lost access to land bought by foreign companies producing food for export.

Many are given jobs on the newly created industrial-sized farms.    Traditionally, Ugandan farms grow different crops on the same piece of land. Five acres may be planted with coffee and in between the coffee plants, bananas and cocoa are grown, as well as yams and beans for the family to eat, he said.    The crops support each other – in times of drought coffee plants extend their roots to banana plants which naturally hold more water, he added.    “This is a … very, very productive farming system in Africa.”

Copyright Reuters 2016

Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change.


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

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China’s soil as poisonous as its air and water

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
December 19, 2015

"Factory in China at Yangtze River" by High Contrast - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 de via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Factory_in_China_at_Yangtze_River.JPG#/media/File:Factory_in_China_at_Yangtze_River.JPG

Real journalism is not free. If you value evidence-based, non-partisan, spam-free information, please support Facts and Opinions, an employee-owned collaboration of professional journalists. Click here for details. Factory in China at Yangtze River. High Contrast/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

I was wrong when I said in last week’s column there is little reliable information available about the extent of soil pollution in China.

Well, half wrong.

In my hunt for facts I foolishly neglected to turn to the work of Professor Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and among the leading western academics gathering and analysing information on environmental degradation in China.

As Prof. Economy says in one of her latest essays: “Soil contamination has long been the poor stepchild of China’s environmental movement, lagging well behind air and water pollution in terms of government, and even non-government, attention and resources.”

From what is known, it will come as no surprise that the extent of soil pollution in China is as extensive and as deadly as the degradation of the country’s air and water. China is cursed from the beginning because only just over 11 per cent of its land is suitable for agriculture. The material gathered by Prof. Economy indicates that approaching 20 per cent of this scarce resource is now so contaminated by heavy metals from industrial pollution that food produced on it is toxic to one degree or another.

Thirty years of chaotic, corrupt and unregulated industrialization has so polluted China that it is killing hundreds of thousands of its people – by some estimates, millions – every year.

Last week’s column was sparked by the coincidence of Beijing having to shut down most municipal services because of deadly air pollution. The “smog” came, embarrassingly, in the middle of the United Nations conference on climate change being held in Paris. Smog is common in Beijing and in all China’s industrial cities, with the particulate level frequently reaching 80 times the level the World Health Organization considers safe.

I wrote last week that this deadly pollution at home has become the main reason wealthy Chinese give for wanting to emigrate, or at least acquire a safe haven abroad. They look for safe environments in places like Vancouver, Toronto, and other well-regulated countries such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and countries of the European Union.

Nearly as important for the pollution refugees is the safety of food, and that, as we will see in a moment, is where soil pollution plays a major role.

The irony, of course, is that the people who can afford to flee China are often those who have become rich through the free-for-all industrialization that has destroyed the country’s environment.

As always, the poor are stuck with the mess. I pointed out in last week’s column that pollution and destruction of the environment has become the spark for the majority of the nearly 500 riots and outbreaks of social unrest that occur in China every day. Until recently, it was corruption by Communist Party officials and their relatives and friends in business and industry that drove Chinese on to the streets every day in their thousands.

This seething daily discontent alarms the Communist Party rulers, who with a struggling economy now have little legitimacy in power. The response of the regime under President and party boss Xi Jingping is to tighten authoritarian control of the population and to mount nationalist propaganda campaigns, such as threatening Japan and the imperial expansion to take control of the South China Sea.

Xi’s reconstruction of an intolerant police state is having success. It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future the Chinese Communist Party will become the first regime in modern times to be deposed because it poisoned its people.

Yet it is evident everywhere that the Communists know they are skating on thin ice. As well as air and water pollution, the contamination of soil is not only a massive health hazard, it is undermining China’s efforts to maintain food self-sufficiency. China’s drive to lease or buy vast tracts of agricultural land in Africa, Central Asia and Russia are to meet the pressing need to be able to provide uncontaminated food for people at home.

Not surprisingly, China’s Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) has rejected requests to make public its data on soil pollution. But Prof. Economy found that officials in the highly industrialized southern province of Guangdong bordering Hong Kong to be more open.

Material published in May 2013 showed excessive levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium in more than 150 batches of rice imported from other provinces. At the same time, Guangdong officials published the result of studies of soil contamination in their own province. They found that 28 per cent of soil in the Pearl River Delta was contaminated. That percentage rose to 50 per cent in the agricultural plots in the industrial cities of Guangzhou and Foshan.

Later in 2013, in an unusual outburst of frankness, the vice-minister of lands and resources, Wang Shiyuan, said that 3.3 million hectares (eight million acres) of agricultural land is so polluted that planting crops “should not be allowed.” That’s just under three per cent of China’s total arable land, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Last year the state-controlled Xinhua news agency reported that 40 per cent of China’s farm land is “suffering from degradation.” This description includes the results of over cropping, lack of fertilizers, and erosion as well as poisoning by acidification and contamination by industrial effluents.

Finally, says Prof. Economy, China’s MEP did release some statistics last year on soil pollution. Based on studies conducted between 2005 and 2013, the department found that more than 16 per cent of total land and 19.4 per cent of arable land was contaminated.

The MEP gave little detail about where, to what degree and what types of pollutants were revealed by the study. Roughly in line with the findings of the MEP was a 2014 examination by the National Environmental Monitoring Centre, which found that about 25 per cent of nearly 5,000 vegetable plots tested throughout the country were polluted.

The major industrial pollutants are cadmium, lead and mercury, but Prof. Economy said China also has a problem with antibiotics leeching into the soil. China consumes more than half the global total of antibiotics, and she quotes a study for the Chinese Academy of Sciences as saying more than a third of these pharmaceuticals end up in the country’s waterways and soil. The long-term environmental impact of antibiotics pollution is still a matter of scientific study, but it is established that it leads to the development of resistant strains of diseases.

China’s rulers are undoubtedly worried about the long term impact of soil pollution on the country, its people and the survival of their regime. But they do not seem to have either the will or the capacity to do much about it. Prof. Economy reports that the Beijing government has pledged $US450 million over the next three years to help 30 Chinese cities tackle heavy metal pollution.

However, China doesn’t appear to have the skilled officials necessary to do an effective soil clean-up. The Ministry of Land and Resources says that people skilled in land de-contamination account for only one per cent of all workers in the environmental protection sector. In most countries about 30 per cent of environmental reclamation workers specialise in soil de-contamination. China has only 20 companies experienced in soil remediation and less than 10 are really competent.

It may well be that the popular clamour for action from the government and level of unrest on the streets become so intense that the Beijing regime is forced to take serious steps against soil pollution.

But until that time, my advice is to follow the example of my Chinese-Canadian friends. Examine food labels closely, and if there is any indication the product comes form China, leave it on the shelves.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com


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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


Related Jonathan Manthorpe columns:

Beijing in smog on Nov. 29. Photo by LWYang/Flickr/Creative Commons

Vancouver’s housing bubble inflated by China’s air pollution

Vancouver’s grossly inflated housing market, the United Nations’ climate conference in Paris and China’s catastrophic environmental degradation are all linked in a circle of cause and effect.

China faces crippling water shortages and pollution

China’s drive for wealth and power is stumbling and could collapse over the country’s lack of water and its gross mismanagement of the resources it does have.

Beijing collides with China’s new community of human rights lawyers

The recent assault by President Xi Jinping on China’s community of human rights lawyers may be too late to insulate the Communist Party against a coming storm. There is a tacit acknowledgement by the party that China’s swelling community of about 300 human rights lawyers, their associates and like-minded advocacy groups have become a serious challenge to the one-party state.

Money flight impoverishes the poorest countries

It’s not just China’s “Red Nobility” and Russian oligarchs who are robbing their countries by illicitly exporting their wealth to compliant and complicit countries like Canada. There is an epidemic of money flight from developing countries, according to a new report from the Washington-based anti-money laundering organization Global Financial Integrity.

Vancouver: not mind-numbingly boring, but vacuously vain (public access)

The flood of vast wealth from China into Canada has not only contorted and distorted the Vancouver housing market beyond redemption, it has changed the sort of community the western Canadian metropolis is going to be for generations to come. In a bizarre piece of absence of mind and lack of attention, it has also hitched the future of Vancouver to the fate of the Chinese Communist Party. Vancouver’s low self-confidence and its destructive vanity have both played a part in these failures.

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F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.


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Life goes on in rural Newfoundland


Bringing the sheep back from the summer community pastures on the island at Tors Cove on Newfoundland’s Southern Shore. A practice that has been going on for more than 200 years. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015


September, 2015

Bay de Verde, Conception Bay, Newfoundland– Travelling around Newfoundland this summer I began seeing signs of life, culture and a society I thought were lost forever.

The cod moratorium was thought to be the death of rural Newfoundland. The outports are estimated to have been emptied of more than 50,000 people. Boats, houses, property …entire villages, abandoned. Newfoundland and Labrador’s historic cod fisheries attracted local and international fishing fleets for almost five centuries before the Canadian government shut the industry down indefinitely in July, 1992. By then, once-plentiful fish stocks had dwindled to near extinction, and officials feared they would disappear entirely if the fishery remained open. The moratorium put about 30,000 people in the province out of work, and ended a way of life that had endured for generations in many outport communities.

Except … it didn’t.

On the wharfs and in the twine lofts people are living their lives and following the old ways. In Tors Cove, just a 30 minute drive south of the capital, St. John’s,  Howard Morry was bringing his sheep back from the islands where they spent the summer grazing safe from dogs and coyotes. …the way it’s been done for generations.


Community party in a fisherman’s twine loft Bay de Verde, Conception Bay, Newfoundland. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

In Bay de Verde, fish were caught and parties and feasts went late into the evening. Just like the days in 1990 and 1991 when I spent all my spare time travelling the island documenting a fast disappearing culture. The sun sinks into the ocean, the moon lights the cove and the winding pathways through the village as people gather around the music and laughter from the sheds where coolers full of beer rattle with ice and deep fryers and barbecues sizzle with lobsters, crab and cod fish.

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Old historic houses, shops and fishing buildings are being restored in once booming places like Bonavista, Fogo Island and Elliston. Towns like Eastport and Glovertown are awash in new construction and service industries.

Newfoundland has been discovered by well-heeled and adventure tourists. They paddle in expensive kayaks alongside local fishermen in the new trendy hot spots.

Sure there is gentrification in the remote bays and coves, but the old ways remain. The new comers learn how to survive from the old timers and the few young Newfoundland people who were not meant to live in the cities of western Canada.

What happens when a government abandons its people? Do they disappear? What happens when the contract, trusts and social bonds between politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and the community its suppose to serve is broken?

In the years leading up to the destruction of the cod stocks, fishermen were warning the politicians and scientists that the fish stocks were disappearing, catches abnormal and erratic. These were not the fishermen with large offshore trawlers — the high-tech fishing factories — but small-boat fishermen living in the villages who fished close to shore, immersed in fish habitat and habits.

Officialdom turned a deaf ear. The message was that stupid uneducated fishermen don’t know anything. They lack biology degrees. They are ignorant of the machinery of politics.


Fishermen from Bay de Verde, Newfoundland catching their small allocation of cod fish in Conception bay. Photo by Greg Locke © 2015

More than 25 years later, Newfoundland rural culture survives in small, wise, pockets. They have learned a lot about the politics of Canada’s federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. More than they would care to, probably. The small-boat fishermen were proved right about the cod stocks.

In recent years those few still fishing are telling the politicians and scientists that cod catches are up, that the fish are the largest seen in more than 30 years.

They want to a return of a small, specialized, sustainable cod fishery for inshore fishermen and fishing communities. They are backed with science and expertise in sustainable fishing from groups as diverse as the fishermen’s union, World Wildlife Fund and independent biology and social scientists. All are working together on plans for that commercially viable, sustainable, community based fishery which the government doesn’t want to hear about it because its model is a fishing industry for a small number of large multinational food companies.

And DFO scientists, bureaucrats and politicians are still not listening.

It’s no surprise that all trust and respect has broken down between Newfoundland’s people, and the government, and scientists. And as the government, politicians and industrial fishing companies continue to abandon rural Newfoundland, it’s nice to see that the old ways are still remembered.

Life will carry on, regardless of the destruction wrought by the interlopers.



 Copyright Greg Locke 2015


Photographer and journalist Greg LockeGreg Locke is a founder and the managing partner, visual, of Facts and Opinions. He built the Facts and Opinions website, produces F&O’s photo essays, reports for Dispatches, writes and photographs Think magazine pieces, and contributes to the blogs.

Greg Locke has been a professional photographer, media producer and journalist for more than twenty-five years. Locke has covered politics, economics, energy issues, international development and civil conflicts in more than 30 countries including the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1980′s, civil wars in the Balkans and the conflicts of central and east Africa in the 1990′s. He has published three books and has been a regular contributor to Canadian Business, Canadian Geographic, Time, Businessweek, Macleans and Forbes magazines.

For more about Locke’s work you can visit his website at www.greglocke.com


Two decades of disaster: Newfoundland’s fishery, by Greg Locke

It’s a cold foggy day in the fishing village of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. Just 20 kilometers south from downtown St. John’s, it feels much further. There is not much activity or many people out and around the few remaining wharfs and twine lofts that once were buzzing hives of fishing activity ringing the harbour. Today, there are just a few frozen tourists looking to make photos of a Newfoundland that doesn’t exist anymore.


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We do not carry advertising or “branded content,” or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Please support us with a contribution, below, of at least .27 per story, or a site pass for $1 per day or $20 per year — and by spreading the word.


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Killing the Colorado: Water Rights and the Right to Waste

Lake Powell "LakePowell3" by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

Lake Powell “LakePowell3” by G. Thomas at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LakePowell3.jpg#/media/File:LakePowell3.jpg

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, in collaboration with Matter
June, 2015

High in the Rocky Mountains, snowmelt fills a stream that trickles down into Ohio Creek and then onward toward the Upper Gunnison River. From there, it tumbles through the chasms of the Black Canyon, joining the Colorado River, filling the giant Lake Powell reservoir, and, one day, flowing to Los Angeles.

But before the water gets more than a few miles off the mountain, much of this stream is diverted into dirt ditches used by ranchers along the Ohio Creek Valley. Standing astride one of those ditches one day last fall, Bill Ketterhagen dug his boot soles against the concrete edge of a 5-foot-wide dam. He spun a steel wheel and opened a gate that allowed water to pour into his fields of hay crops.

Ketterhagen, 39, manages a 750-acre ranch outside the town of Gunnison, Colorado, for its out-of-state owners, mostly growing a mixture of Meadow Foxtail, Timothy, wheat grasses and some alfalfa. The grasses, knee-high with bursts of clover flowers and flat, slender leaves, are cut, baled and shipped to feedlots where they fatten cattle soon to be slaughtered for beef.

"Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, CO IMG 5651" by Billy Hathorn - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG#/media/File:Cattle_Feedlot_near_Rocky_Ford,_CO_IMG_5651.JPG

A cattle feedlot in Colorado. Photo Billy Hathorn, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Thickly built, wearing overalls and a four-day beard, Ketterhagen has a degree in biology and natural resource management and once worked in a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He knows his fields could thrive with much smaller amounts of water — he’s seen them do so in dry years — but the property owners he works for have the legal right to take a large supply, and he applies the water generously. 

“When we have it, we’ll use it,” he said. “You’ll open your head gate all the way and take as much as you can — whether you need it or not.”

Ketterhagen feels he has little choice. A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed. 

There are few starker examples of how man’s missteps and policies are contributing to the water shortage currently afflicting the western United States. In a series of reports, ProPublica is examining how decisions on water management and growth have exacerbated more than a decade of drought, bringing the West to the point of crisis. The Colorado River is the most important source of water for nearly 40 million people across California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and supports some 15 percent of the nation’s food crops. 

But the river is in trouble, and water laws are one significant cause. Legal water rights and state allocations have been issued for more water than the river, in an average year, can provide. Meanwhile its annual flow has been steadily decreasing as the climate changes and drought grips the region. And so, for more than a decade, states and the federal government have tried to wring more supply out of the Colorado and spread it further, in part by persuading the farmers and ranchers who use the vast majority of the river’s water and have the largest water rights to conserve it.

But in many ways it’s the vast body of often-antiquated law governing western water rights, officials acknowledge, that actively undermines conservation, making waste — or at least heavy use — entirely rational.

“Water is money,” said Eugene Backhaus, a state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which works to help ranchers use water more efficiently. “The way the current water law structure is, if they don’t use it for the assigned use, they could lose the water right.” 

Adding to the problems, the states linked by reliance on the Colorado govern their water resources separately and have not standardized their water laws. While states have made incremental adjustments to those laws, they have not recast them to address the new needs of a region undergoing vast changes. Some rules force ranchers to dry up entire streams; others ignore the ecological value of maintaining a healthy river. The common element of all these laws is the blunt ethos of the West: Water exists mainly in order to get used up, even if that means deepening the problems of neighboring states.

Ketterhagen understands that the ranch he runs sits atop a system under enormous stress and that he’s wasting water in a region that desperately needs it. But he also understands Colorado water law — rights are precious, and sometimes more valuable even than the land to which they are attached. 

Throughout the long, hot summer, Ketterhagen let water course through his fields, irrigating his pastures and vitalizing the gravelly soil beneath. Last spring, the water flowed over the grass’s roots, drowning them, and climbed past the first leaves of the sprouting plants until it stood calf-deep.

“She’s my gauge,” Ketterhagen said, pointing at Gilli, his black and white Aussie heeler mix, who bounded around the field. “When I see a little bit of spray kicking up behind her, it’s just right.”

The body of law governing how water is distributed in the West was shaped by the gold rush. 

As people were lured to settle vast, uninhabited and arid parts of the country, they staked their claims to land and water only to face fierce competition upstream as rivers were diverted to sluice for treasure. Courts decreed that water would be saved for the first to use it. Since most property was far from streams and there was little rain, officials then gave settlers formal rights to take water out of rivers and move it across dry land where it could be used to mine minerals or turn rocky fields into farms. 

As western territories became states, those states institutionalized the rules — sometimes in their state constitutions — first locking in water rights for those who were already there and then issuing more to those who requested them, on a first-come-first-served basis. For irrigation, shares were apportioned according to crude 19th-century notions of how much water was needed to get 40 acres of dry soil to produce a crop. In times of drought, those with the oldest, or most senior, rights to water would get it first; those with the newest rights would have to wait at the back of the line. 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the seven states whose territory was touched by the Colorado River and its tributaries began to compete for access to the source of that water. Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, led negotiations in which the states agreed on an estimate of the amount of water in the river. The rights to most of the flow were split between states in the upper and lower basins. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico got half, while Arizona, California and Nevada got the rest. This was, in part, to keep California — already the most populous and industrious of western states — from taking it all. Each state continued to govern the rights to water distributed within its borders. 

But even in that first 1922 compact, more water was divvied up on paper than would actually run through the river. Officials, it turned out, had estimated the Colorado’s average flow after a period of unusually wet conditions, calculating that 18 million acre-feet flowed through the river each year, and dividing up some 15 million acre-feet, or 4.8 trillion gallons of water, between the states. Within two decades they began to understand their folly: During many years as little as 12 million acre-feet flowed, and under normal conditions the river would rarely yield close to the amount of water expected. And yet the states piled on more obligations, bringing the amount of water parceled out even higher. In 1944, for instance, Congress signed a treaty promising an additional 1.5 million acre-feet to Mexico, where the Colorado River naturally ends. 

Today, 15 years into an epochal drought, 16.5 million acre-feet of water have been allocated, while the river, during the recent drought, has been flowing at a rate of around 12.4 million acre-feet each year.

Still, aside from a 2007 temporary pact to divide the pain of river shortages between them, officials in the seven states have never renegotiated the original river compact or fundamentally changed the foundations of water law that lead to overuse. The result is a set of codified principles designed for a different era and divorced from today’s environmental realities. 

The term “water law” in the Colorado River basin has come to refer to a monstrous volume of federal statutes and agreements, court precedents and state laws and regulations that can differ from place to place and have changed incrementally over the years but are structured by the interstate agreements to divide the river. Most of those state laws share the basic principle that the first people to arrive in the West should hold the most senior rights to its water. 

The notion of “first in time, first in right” has persisted even as the need for water has exploded in urban areas that sprang up long after most water rights were distributed and therefore rank lowest in priority. 

Fly-fishing, rafting and mountain tourism contribute billions of dollars to Colorado’s economy, yet in most cases state law distributes rights to a majority of water in streams and tributaries to farmers and ranchers and incentivizes them to leave little, if any, for recreational use. Many small streams in the Rockies run dry by midsummer, often because ranchers don’t have a reason to let water pass them by. 

“Ninety percent of water users thought water running downstream was wasted water,” said Cary Denison, the Gunnison basin project coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a sportsmen’s and river conservation group working with ranchers to get them to use less water. 

Years of worsening water scarcity passed before those ranchers began to appreciate how their practices — and the laws guiding them — were contributing to the problem. “Only recently do we start to see articles in the paper about the drought, and we think, gosh, we have some effect on this,” Denison said.

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

The Kawuneeche Valley near the source of the river in the Rockies. Photo by Darekk2 , Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Even when there is no more water to distribute, Colorado officials can certify place holders in an endless line, assuring that water will be overallocated forever and that someone will always use whatever the last person leaves untouched.

“The whole system is designed towards preserving the status quo,” said Jim Lochhead, the chief executive of the urban utility Denver Water, who formerly represented Colorado on interstate water negotiations. The most pragmatic approach, he thinks, is to build off existing water law while reforming its worst parts. But in a perfect world, he said, “I would abolish Colorado water rights law and start all over again with a clean slate.”

None of the antiquated parts of what across the entire basin is referred to loosely as “water law” play as much a role in stressing the water system — or seem as fixable — as the one known as “use it or lose it.” 

Originally devised in part to keep speculators from hoarding water to build wealth and power, the intent of “use it” laws was to make sure the people who held rights to water exercised them. They could keep those rights indefinitely, passing them on through generations or selling them, attached to the land, at great profit, as long as they constantly put the water to what most Western water laws refer to as “beneficial use.” 

Each Colorado River basin state has a variation of rules promising to confiscate water rights if water users don’t maximize their use. While some of the laws allow for state-approved conservation or other flexibility, legal experts say ranchers often understand the laws to be absolute. Colorado authorities keep a list of property owners whose water rights are primed for “abandonment,” meaning that the full extent of the rights haven’t been exercised, by intent and on average, over a 10-year period.

The provision leaves landowners feeling they have little choice but to take as much as they are allowed, and many do it year in and year out to preserve the value of their property. “I would say to my clients: ‘You have to protect yourself … by using the water that is appropriated,'” said John McClow, a prominent water rights attorney who represented the state on the Upper Colorado River Commission, the interstate water management coalition, and now serves on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. But maximizing their rights keeps the river under maximum strain. 

It’s not just ranchers who feel they must use up water for fear of losing rights to it. Towns, counties and even states do more or less the same thing, not necessarily because they are bound by abandonment clauses like ranchers but because they harbor fears of losing their water as it flows out of state. There is a push for Colorado to maximize its use of all the water it can. 

“The state of Colorado is supposed to double in size by 2050,” said Marc Catlin, who sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and represents Montrose County, which has filed applications to snatch up additional conditional water rights for its own future growth. “And somebody has got to be thinking about the future if that’s the case.”

The effects of “use it or lose it” laws are so significant that policy experts warn that western states won’t be able to begin untangling larger issues of drought and conservation without dealing with it first. “It’s fundamental,” said Laura Ziemer, senior counsel for Trout Unlimited and a leading expert on water law. 

Any reform would probably have to happen state by state. States are fiercely protective of their sovereign rights to govern their water resources, and the federal government has repeatedly pledged not to interfere. Challenging state leaders on that, said Pat Mulroy, the former head of Las Vegas’ water authority and Nevada’s former negotiator on the Colorado River, is a sure way to “see eyeballs start popping out and bones start showing up on the side of their backs.” 

At the state level, suggestions that the “first-in-time” water rights policies might be modified triggers an equally radical reaction, conjuring fears of property seizure and a nearly religious opposition to change. Even the most ardent supporters of such changes — people like Lochhead of Denver Water — admit water laws are probably too sensitive to be reformed any time soon. 

Still, overhauling “use it or lose it” clauses would protect property, could offer quick improvement for water supplies and has the support of many ranchers. 

Recognizing that its groundwater aquifers were being rapidly depleted, Kansas passed legislation protecting farmers’ full water rights even if they choose to use less water in any given year. But efforts to pass a similar measure in Colorado have so far failed. Last year Colorado’s governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed ranchers to use less water without jeopardizing their long-term entitlements, and an effort to revive the issue earlier this year hit a dead end. Some ranchers — including Ketterhagen — wanted to see the water they didn’t need stay in the river, where it would support the state’s booming fishing and outdoor tourism economy. But others, including those with more junior water rights, didn’t want to give water to trout — or to lower basin states.

“Do we want to fix it in a way that sends more water to Arizona?” asked McClow, the water attorney. “We’re still parochial about that. If we save some water, I think we want to use it ourselves.”

Across the fields from the ranch managed by Ketterhagen lives Bill Trampe, a significant user of Colorado water and one of the most influential.

Like his father and grandfather, Trampe, 68, harvests alfalfa on what is now 6,000 acres of picturesque rolling hay crops and grassland 30 minutes outside the town of Crested Butte. His grandfather cleared stones and dug the miles of irrigation ditches that bring water to the ranch with his own hands.

Trampe sits on the boards of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee. Many of the River District members at first supported Colorado’s attempt to fix the “use it or lose it” law last year. But when Trampe — who argued the law would embroil ranchers in expensive legal and engineering fights to defend their water rights — came out in opposition, momentum shifted against the bill, and the governor ultimately killed it. 

Trampe, like many alfalfa ranchers, flood irrigates his pastures, and he says that while the water he dumps on his fields can seem excessive, it serves other invisible but essential purposes. He fears a law that encourages farmers to conserve water would have unintended consequences on a complex natural system. 

Driving his combine tractor, his thick, calloused hands wrapped over the vinyl steering wheel, Trampe described his fields in the way that only someone who has spent his entire life on the land can. Because his rocky soil drains quickly, the extra water he applies seeps downward and keeps the underlying aquifer full, he says. What water isn’t sipped up by his own plants flows underground downhill to benefit his neighbors, and ultimately to provide a steady flow of water back into the river itself. 

Before there was farming, Trampe says, there wasn’t much of a ground water supply in his part of the valley north of Gunnison. But today households there depend on water wells for bathing and drinking, and those wells tap into a water table that is kept artificially high by the overuse of irrigation water on the ranches. There is also the drain water: “return flows” that seep back into the river to be claimed again by “junior” water rights holders downstream. 

Return flows are an essential component of Colorado water accounting, and ranchers like to say their water is recycled four or five times by the time it gets all the way down to the main stem of the river. Among Trampe’s concerns is that conservation would wind up cutting off return flows the next farmer counts on. 

“Over a century, we’ve been irrigating this country, and we’ve established an ecology based on what we’ve been doing,” he said.

Trampe also sees conservation efforts as a sort of Trojan horse. He says that, squeezed between Denver to the east and all the big thirsty desert cities downstream, Colorado’s ranchers are under siege. 

“The municipalities will come here and condemn us, or buy us out,” he said.

Indeed, western cities have become increasingly critical of the imbalance between rural and urban regions when it comes to rights to water. “There is a very small number of people that control a huge amount of water,” said Douglas Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. “Is it truly equitable that water was allocated 100 years ago and now we are locked into that forever?”

Denver and other eastern Colorado cities already take 154 billion gallons of water across the Continental Divide from western Colorado each year. Schemes to build more tunnels to divert more water from rural western areas like Gunnison are a constant concern. And last July the utilities and groups that represent the lower river states’ biggest urban areas — including Las Vegas, Denver and Los Angeles — proposed a pilot program to find additional water supplies in the agriculturally rich parts of Colorado, in part by paying people like Trampe to fallow fields, be more water-efficient or perhaps lease or sell their water rights. 

“The cities continue to grow and grow and grow — and they expect me — or us as an industry — to give up water,” Trampe said. “Why should I suffer for their sprawl?” 

Mercury Pool, Caesar's Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Mercury Pool, Caesar’s Palace, Los Vegas. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

In 2012, it hardly snowed in Colorado. Even in the Colorado River’s uppermost reaches, streams narrowed to a desperate trickle in the early summer, and long before Gunnison’s ranchers could take their water, Ohio Creek and the other tributaries nearly ran dry. A strange thing happened as a result. 

Walking through shoulder-high Garrison grass, Ketterhagen recounted the lessons of that summer: His fields did great, perhaps better than they have done since. He has come to think the grasses — a pasture mix of slender wheat, Garrison, clover and alfalfa — suffer with too much water. The dry year trained them to withstand the rigors of water shortages in the future. “If you are able to irrigate your crops with less water over time,” Ketterhagen said, holding his arms out and letting the silky plumes brush his palms, “I think you could create a more drought-resistant hay crop.”

There’s no quicker way to make a Colorado rancher bristle than to suggest that the water he applies to his meadows is wasted, but the science — and Ketterhagen’s observations — suggest many water users could get by with less. 

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Backhaus, an alfalfa plant in particular, set in saturated soil, will grow weak roots only half as deep as normal. The saturation can bring more disease and insects and grow a plant deficient in iron. Alfalfa is the thirstiest crop grown in western Colorado, consuming as much as 3 acre-feet of water per acre of crop each year. But it’s not uncommon for local ranchers to deliver 4 to 6 acre-feet of water, taking twice as much water from the river as their crop needs. If it doesn’t drain, that much water can suffocate the plants and they will be overtaken by sedges and other species. 

“Saturated soil actually doesn’t have oxygen in it, and so you will start seeing more of that wetland type plant growing in it,” Backhaus said. “By continually irrigating — letting the water go over a field and never stopping it — it could turn into an artificial wetland.”

Even where crops aren’t overwatered, water is lost just by transporting it from the river to the field. Copious amounts evaporate out of the ditches that line the hillsides and seep out the bottom into the loamy soil, well before the water even gets to ranchers’ fields. Ranchers know this; they open the gates long before they need the water, allowing extra time for the soil to get saturated enough to hold water. 

Along the banks, the roots of weedy tamarisk shrubs guzzle even more water, and sedges grow in depressions — a sign of moisture pooling where it isn’t needed. As Trout Unlimited’s Denison points out, flood irrigation is just 35 percent efficient, meaning nearly two-thirds of the water taken out of the river is lost, and never gets used by the grasses it is meant to nourish. The extra water is presumed to ultimately return to the river — and is counted that way when the state tallies up its usage — but Denison and others say only some of it actually does. 

Denison sees opportunity in the margins. Rather than a black-or-white struggle between agriculture and cities, a compromise could send more water downriver while keeping the farms in business. But finding it requires rethinking water entitlements, and more flexibility than existing laws allow. California has been grappling with this realization as its most senior water rights holders have begun to relinquish part of their share. “There is plenty of water to meet current needs, but we have to define what needs are, versus what a ‘right’ is,” Denison said. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers financial incentives to help ranchers upgrade equipment and adopt new, more efficient irrigation technologies. A pivot irrigation system — in which a long sprinkler pipe is set on wheels and rotates from a fixed point, leaving lush green crop circles — can potentially cut water use in half. Remote-controlled water ditch gates allow ranchers to shut off flows they otherwise leave running for months at a time because they are too far up in the mountains to visit. Drip irrigation for vegetable crops, in which small amounts of water are emitted right at a plant’s roots, is estimated to be as much as 95 percent efficient. 

Standing at the top of a meadow full of Timothy and wheat grasses, Ketterhagen points to a 12-inch PVC pipe running beside an empty 2-foot-deep dirt ditch that it replaced. He worked with advisers from the NRCS to design the pipe system and install it on part of the ranch. The pipes don’t lose water en route to the field and let Ketterhagen distribute water more evenly. Within a week, he says, his water use on that section of the ranch seemed to drop by about half.

Federal officials believe the subsidy program could successfully prod ranchers to put hundreds of billions of gallons of water back into the river and help relieve the shortages plaguing states downstream. “If every producer did that … there would be measurable gains,” said the NRCS’s Backhaus. “If 50 percent of them did it and they got a 10 percent gain, that would still be measurable.”

And yet ranchers have been slow to adopt changes. Their reasoning varies from the practical — Gunnison-area ranches often grow only one cutting of alfalfa a season, putting the $90,000 cost of some pivot irrigation systems out of reach — to the cynically ideological. “If you save it you lose it. You don’t get paid for it. You just give it up,” said Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, a national farmer advocacy group that advises Washington policymakers, repeating complaints he says he hears from some of his members. “So why would you give up water for use you don’t even believe in, for nothing?” 

The risk to long-term water rights figures prominently in ranchers’ thinking. If Ketterhagen piped every ditch on the ranch he runs, the pipes might not even carry enough water for the owners to be able to take their full allotment out of Ohio Creek. The Colorado authorities could confiscate their water rights. Ketterhagen’s employers would lose much of the value of their land, and Ketterhagen expects he’d be out of a job. Federal officials say similar concerns weigh on other ranchers, and that “use it or lose it” statutes create a strong headwind for the government’s conservation program, prompting ranchers to worry about becoming too efficient for their own good. 

“It kind of runs crosswise with the goal of our program,” said John Scott, a former district conservationist for the NRCS in Gunnison.

Many of the same ranchers who insist they need all of their water also say they could use less if their rights were protected and they benefitted from the savings. “Why shouldn’t we have a say in how those savings are used?” asked Ken Spann, one of western Colorado’s significant water users, who farms thousands of acres between Crested Butte and the town of Delta downstream. “Do I have a moral and ethical obligation as a citizen of Colorado to ensure that they can continue to expand the metropolitan area toward the Kansas line? I don’t think I do.” 

Spann would support a change in the law if it allowed him to retrieve the water he saved one year and use it the next. For now, he says, he has no good reason to use less water.

“People behave rationally,” said the University of Colorado’s Kenney. “The incentives are structured in a way that they are encouraged to act in a way that isn’t in society’s best interest.”

There is a consensus that this status quo has got to change. There is going to be less water and increasing pressure to use it efficiently. 

“It’s like I’ve got a devil and an angel on my shoulder,” Ketterhagen said. He wants to see a healthy river and applauds an effort last spring to send a surge of water to the river’s end to restore its delta. “On the one hand the Colorado River flowed all the way into the Sea of Cortez this year, it brings a tear to my eye.”

“On the other, we give them our water and what do we get in return?”

Creative Commons

Naveena Sadasivam contributed to this story. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter


Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES, a blog announcing new works, and the odd small tale. Look for evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. Some of our original works are behind a paywall, available with a $1 site day pass, or with a subscription from $2.95/month – $19.95/year. If you value journalism, please help sustain us.


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Boo! GMO!

GMO food

© Deborah Jones 2012

By Chris Wood

The purported dangers of genetically modified organisms are articles of faith among certain tribes of environmentalists and pure-foodies. I’m not personally alarmed about GMO foods — empiricism is demanded, as I wrote in a recent column, Follies to the Right, Follies to the Left — but what exactly is wrong with allowing consumers to be informed?

A cabal of industry-supported United States Congresspeople is trying to prevent American consumers from being informed about the GMO content of the hamburger and frozen fries down at the Piggly Wiggly. These would be Republican Congresspeople.

One of the numerous fact-free assumptions of the classical economics that derange right-wing American and Canadian market-fetishists alike, is that consumers DO have ‘perfect knowledge’. Unless of course, actual knowledge might dissuade them from buying … in which case much better to keep them in the dark?

— Chris Wood

Further reading:
Politico: GMO labeling bill would trump states. http://www.politico.com/story/2014/04/gmo-labeling-bill-105548.html

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