Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Sicilian vines thrive in Sonoma due to climate change

AP Photo/Traci Cone

Grapevines that populate Sicily’s hillsides in the Mediterranean are now taking root on a remote Californian ridge just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, The New York Times reports.

These wine grapes, which “may never have been tried outside of Sicily,” are now populating a vineyard in northern Sonoma County — in part due to the changing environmental conditions spurred by a warming climate, according to The Times

“No other vineyard in the country but this one, as far as I can tell, has blocks of carricante and nerello mascalese, the two most significant white and red grapes grown on Mount Etna in Sicily,” wine critic Eric Asimov reported for The Times. 

California’s big shift between high daytime and low nighttime temperatures doesn’t work with many Italian varieties, but these specific varieties in this particular environment “makes a great wine of low alcohol and high acidity,” one grower said. 

“It’s a great fit for California,” he told the newspaper. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll travel to Arizona and look at a battle over a permit for a uranium mine located next to the Grand Canyon National Park. Then we’ll examine how India’s unprecedented drought is complicating its global trade promises.

A fight over a mine permit near the Grand Canyon

Conservation groups slammed Arizona’s environmental agency on Friday for approving a uranium mine’s discharge permit — a move they claim could threaten groundwater resources at the nearby Grand Canyon National Park

The groups argued that the permit in question, which technically serves to tighten government oversight of a polluter’s operations, could put the area’s aquifers and springs at risk by enabling the mine’s continued operations. 

Long-contested: The Pinyon Plain Mine, located about 15 miles south of the Grand Canyon, has a history of flooding, as it depletes shallow groundwater aquifers that express just south of the canyon, the groups explained in a joint press release.

  • They argued that continued operations of the mine, owned by Energy Fuel Resources, could also permanently pollute the deep aquifers that feed into Havasu Creek.
  • Members of the Havasupai Tribe, they noted, have repeatedly called for the closure of the facility.    

What exactly is the new permit? The permit approved on Thursday — an aquifer protection permit — is mandatory for any facility that releases pollutants into the groundwater, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). 

This type of permit requires such facilities to meet the state’s aquifer water quality standards, while showing they are using best available technologies to minimize such discharges. 

ADEQ’s permit review concludes “that the natural hydrogeologic protections at the mine site are expected to prevent any potential impacts to groundwater resulting from mining operations.”   

So what’s the problem? The conservation groups argued that in late 2016, mineshaft drilling pierced the area’s shallow aquifers, causing water pumped from the mine to spike to 1.4 million gallons from 151,000 gallons the previous year.

  • In 2021, that number jumped to 8.3 million gallons, according to the groups. 
  • Since 2016, dissolved uranium in the water has consistently surpassed federal toxicity limits by more than 300 percent and arsenic levels by more than 2,800 percent, they noted. 

“Neither regulators nor the uranium industry can ensure that mining won’t permanently damage the Grand Canyon’s precious aquifers and springs,” Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. 

ARIZONA OFFICIALS DEFEND MOVE

In response to the conservation groups’ claims, Arizona’s environmental quality agency said that the mine has been “studied, scrutinized and litigated for over 30 years” and therefore “has an extensive record.” 

“Federal courts have rejected all claims in two lawsuits that the mine will adversely impact groundwater and seeps and springs in the Grand Canyon,” a statement from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality said.

The statement explained that “although the mine is already lawfully permitted,” the mine’s operator was required to apply for an aquifer protection permit “out of an extraordinary abundance of caution.” 

Among the permit’s conditions, according to officials: 

  • A prohibition of mining in the region’s Coconino aquifer
  • Requirements for lining the bottom 12 feet of the mine shaft
  • Installation of at least three additional groundwater monitoring wells
  • Thirty years of monitoring whenever the facility does close its doors  

As a result of that permit, the Arizona officials said, the mine will now be “the most tightly regulated uranium mine in Arizona, and possibly the most heavily regulated conventional uranium mine in the United States.” 

But that’s a risk some Arizonans aren’t prepared to take: Thousands of residents have advocated for the mine’s shutdown, according to the conservation groups. 

“Contaminated waters left behind from the previous uranium boom-bust cycle already plague the region,” Alicyn Gitlin, of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “We shouldn’t further risk our life-giving water, especially in the midst of this megadrought.”

To read the full story, please click here

India’s drought threatens wheat promises to Biden

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had offered to export some of his country’s considerable wheat reserve to key U.S. allies like Egypt amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, an ongoing drought is posing a threat to these plans.  

Modi had made these commitments to President Biden during talks earlier this month, with hopes of both staving off regional unrest and winning a new market share for India.  

The pair “discussed the destabilizing impacts of Russia’s war against Ukraine, with a particular focus on global food supply,” according to a White House readout of their April 11 call.
 
What India offered: India’s wheat surplus could “feed the world,” Modi told Biden during the talks, according to NDTV. 

“The food stock of the world is getting empty, I was talking to the US President, and he also raised this issue,” Modi said. 

Then came the drought: India — as well as neighboring Pakistan — are experiencing their hottest April in a century.

  • The source of the heat wave is a weather phenomenon known as a “heat dome,” which is hovering above the area’s cities and fields — similar to the one that took up residence above the Pacific Northwest last summer, Yahoo News reported. 
  • The unseasonal heat is driving temperatures up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit in many regions and above 112 degrees in the capital of New Delhi this weekend, according to Quartz. 

Why so hot? This year’s rains were weaker than expected — allowing the drier-than-usual air to spike in temperature, Axios reported. 

That meant a sudden surge in spring heat. India’s wheat farmers usually time their planting to coincide with a March harvest, which allows the gently rising temperatures to slowly ripen the nutrient-dense kernels, Bloomberg reported. 

That was a bad move this year: Farmer Devendra Singh Chauhan told NBC News that while the ideal temperature in March should rise gradually, he “saw it jump suddenly” from about 90 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

“If such unreasonable weather patterns continue year after year, farmers will suffer badly,” Chauhan added. 

Those losses are on track for the rest of the country, Quartz reported. 

Another impact: The heat also hit workers needed to bring in the crucial harvest — or do to anything else, Reuters noted. 

“It’s become impossible to work after 10 o’clock in the morning,” Delhi rickshaw puller Sunil Das told Quartz India. 

COMPETING CONCERNS

Biden warned in late March to expect “real” food shortages due to the war in Ukraine, which has impacted the planting and harvesting of wheat in the area.

Russia and Ukraine usually export a third of global wheat supplies through the Black Sea ports to countries in Asia and Africa — a supply that has been severely disrupted by the war between those countries, Reuters reported. 

High bread prices helped spike the Arab Spring protest movement last decade — particularly in Egypt, American University agricultural professor Rami Zurayk wrote at the time. 

With wheat futures up 30 percent since February, that could happen again, CNBC reported.  

Power play: Modi’s offer this month to export grains came with strings attached. 

India has yet to export grains en masse because doing so would violate World Trade Organization rules, according to Indian financial magazine Moneycontrol.

India’s stockpile of cheap grain is heavily subsidized by fixed-price payments to poor farmers — meaning that exporting such goods could be considered “trade-distorting,” Moneycontrol reported. 

Accessing Indian grain exports would therefore require removing those restrictions — opening up a potential flood of cheap Indian grain, according to MoneyControl. 

That was a controversial proposition for Biden. In January, GOP lawmakers from key wheat- and rice-growing states called for the administration to take India to court over the subsidies, Kansas broadcaster WIBW reported. 

They argued that existing subsidies — even before Modi’s proposed relaxation of trade rules — had put American farmers at “a clear disadvantage” according to WIBW.

Seventeen senators sent a similar letter. 

That’s less likely to be an issue now: Those Indian farmers who still have surplus are making good money exporting to private traders, according to Reuters. 

But that means India is now facing its own political risk from rising bread prices — and it may need to reconsider whether chasing exports might do more harm than good, the Times of India reported. 

Follow-up Friday

In which we revisit some of the week’s news.  

Southwest ‘ripe’ for wildfires, Central Plains awaits powerful storms 

  • We tracked a wealth of worrisome weather events on Wednesday. A chunk of the Southwest has now turned “into a tinderbox” that is “ripe for more wildfires,” while storms are poised to pummel the country’s Central Plains, The New York Times reported. 

Texas can’t quite make sanctions on green investors stick 

  • Also on Wednesday, we covered how asset manager BlackRock has walked a tightrope between supporting climate goals and angering red-state regulators. One such state, Texas, has been trying to sanction firms that don’t invest in fossil fuels. But these efforts are flailing, as many “loopholes and exceptions” blunt their effects, NPR reported. 

With forest cover falling, US public forests offer greenwash solution 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you Monday.

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