Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — How COVID lockdowns affected bird behavior

Courtesy Holly Hauser
Great Blue Heron

The lockdown periods that marked the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic meant human isolation, cancelled plans and inactivity.  

But as humans shut their doors, birds that live in developed areas of the Pacific Northwest were able to take advantage of a wider range of urban habitats, a new study has found.  

These birds were likely able to spread their wings due to the reduction in noise and commotion related to the lockdowns, according to the study, published in Scientific Reports on Thursday.  

Many birds were just as often found in highly developed urban areas as they were in less-developed green spaces during the peak of the lockdowns, the study determined.  

“Our findings suggest that some birds may have been able to use more spaces in cities because our human footprint was a little lighter,” lead author Olivia Sanderfoot, who was a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington at the time of the study, said in a statement.  

For about half of the animals that the researchers observed, neither land use nor canopy cover influenced their site use, according to Sanderfoot, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“That’s very interesting, because we would expect that whether a habitat was mostly covered in concrete or vegetation would tell you something about what birds would be there,” Sanderfoot added.  

Among the 35 species that showed the biggest shifts in behavior were some of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic birds: black-capped chickadees, great blue herons, downy woodpeckers and Wilson’s warblers, according to the study.

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 feedbackSubscribe here.

Today we’ll look at what California’s doing to face the coming drop in its water supply, and why the threat along the Colorado River and Rio Grande is even worse. Then we’ll explore new findings about heavy metals in baby foods.

Newsom shifts California water strategy

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced a new set of water strategies on Thursday, while warning that the state’s supply is expected to plunge by up to 10 percent by 2040.  

Expanding storage, eliminating waste: In anticipation of these shortfalls, Newsom unveiled a 16-page action plan that focuses on “adapting to a hotter, drier future” — by adjusting state priorities “based on new data and accelerating climate change.”  

Among the strategies are plans for the expansion of water storage and water recycling capacity, as well as the elimination of water waste and the deployment of new technologies.  

Multiplicity, instead of scarcity: “The science and the data leads us to now understand that we will lose 10 percent of our water supply by 2040,” Newsom said at a press conference in the Bay Area city of Antioch on Thursday.  

“We have a renewed sense of urgency to address this issue head on,” the governor continued. “But we do so from a multiplicity of perspectives and ways, not just from a scarcity mindset.” 

Storage and reuse: One such strategy includes creating a storage space for up to 4 million acre-feet of water and capitalizing on big storms, as outlined in the document. 

Other plans involve recycling and reusing at least 800,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030 and freeing up 500,000 acre-feet for new purposes, by eradicating water waste. 

An average California household uses between one-half and one acre-foot of water each year, according to the Water Education Foundation. California has about 13.1 million households, per the U.S. Census.  

Emphasis on technology: The document also calls upon Californians to “move smarter and faster” to upgrade its water systems. Such modernization effort could generate enough water for more than 8.4 million households, per the plans. 

Additional water could become available by optimizing high flows during storm events and desalinating ocean water and salty — or brackish — water in groundwater basins, according to the document.  

How will the California fund these plans? The state will do so by harnessing last year’s $5.2 billion surplus and this year’s $2.8 billion surplus, the governor said.  

California will be using this money “to actualize, not just promote” these water supply plans — “moving these projects and doing them with urgency,” without “waiting for the voters,” according to Newsom.  

To read the full story, please click here.

Fixes for West’s failing rivers possible, painful

Local solutions and a broad cultural shift around water use will be crucial to helping the farms and cities of the Colorado River basin survive in an era of climate change, researchers and activists told our colleague Zack Budryk for The Hill. 

Budryk’s piece — published on Thursday — is the first installation in The Hill’s Dried Up series, which looks at how the West is adapting to meet the extreme stress post by climate change. 

Climate change is accelerating processes of inevitable decline across the Colorado River basin as a century of chronic overuse crashes into a new reality of megadrought, Christopher Kuzdas of the Environmental Defense Fund told Budryk. 

Tough but solvable: “I often get the question, ‘Can we fix it?’ … and the answer is, absolutely yes,” Jonathan Deason, director of the Environmental and Energy Management Program at George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science told Budryk. 

“We caused it and so humans can fix it. We will fix it. But how much pain will we go through before we do?” Deason added. 

Some alarming numbers. In an accompanying piece, Budryk found that: 

  • The entire state of California — the U.S.’s most populous — is abnormally dry, and 97 percent of the state is under severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 
  • Across the region, the drought has a 90 percent chance of reaching into next year and a 75 percent chance of continuing to 2030. 
  • Climate change accounts for about 40 percent of the problem, with cyclical patterns and over-pumping making up for the rest.


East across the mountains, another key regional artery — the Rio Grande — is already being overtaxed by the needs of all its users, our Nexstar colleague Curtis Segarra from KRQE Albuquerque reported on Thursday. 

Now that situation is getting worse for reasons very similar to those causing the Colorado River’s slow but implacable collapse. 

Major artery: While the Rio Grande is much smaller than the Colorado, the river serves some 6 million people and 2 million acres of farmland in the Southwest and northern Mexico, according to the International Boundary Waters Commission. 

Now residents of Texas and New Mexico are facing the reality of the river’s long-term and likely irreversible decline, Segarra reported. 

“Just stop using the word drought. Because really, this is a product of climate change,” Joaquin Baca, a director at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District told Segarra.  

While seasonal monsoons help break up dry spells, they don’t generate enough water to make up for these losses, according to Baca. “Those are actually pretty small events water-wise, quantity-wise,” he added. 

Washing out canals: Post-fire debris washed down by the monsoons have also threatened to silt up and overwhelm the traditional New Mexico irrigation ditches known as acequias, Segarra reported.

Study warns of heavy metals in baby foods

Most baby foods — both store-bought and homemade — that American parents feed their children contain detectable amounts of toxic heavy metals, a new study has found. 

No toxin-free options: The study, conducted by the Health Babies Bright Futures alliance, found that 94 percent of pre-packaged foods marketed for babies and toddlers contain heavy metals like lead and arsenic. 

What if it’s homemade? The exact same percentage applied to homemade purees and pre-packaged “family food” options geared toward the entire family, the study found. 

Building on previous research: The new findings build upon a 2019 study conducted by the same group, in which 95 percent of store-bought baby foods tested were contaminated with heavy metals. 

This time, the alliance — which includes nonprofits, philanthropies and scientists — set out to determine whether homemade options were, in fact, a superior choice. 

After assessing 288 different products, the researchers said they “found no evidence” to corroborate this notion. 

“Heavy metal levels varied widely by food type, not by who made the food,” the authors stated. 

An emerging national issue: Baby food safety has increasingly emerged on the national radar, particularly following a 2021 congressional investigation that identified “dangerous levels” of toxins like lead and arsenic in such products. 

Thus far, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set or proposed limits for heavy metals in two types of baby foods: infant rice cereal and juice.  

The FDA also established its Closer to Zero program, with a variety of goals for reducing early childhood exposure to heavy metals. 

What were the most contaminated foods? Rice cakes, crisped rice cereal, rice-based puffs, brown rice, rice-based teething biscuits and rusks, white rice, raisins, non-rice teething crackers, granola bars with raisins and oat-ring cereals. 

And the least? Bananas, grits, baby food brand meats, butternut squash, lamb, apples, pork, eggs, oranges and watermelon. 

To read more of the findings, as well as commentary from the American Academy of Pediatrics, please click here for the full story.

US to feel brunt of extraction reshoring

The vital rush for minerals to produce the batteries for electric vehicles (EV) is running into environmental concerns across the globe — and in the United States. 

Waiting on the starting gun: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that the House of Representatives would vote on Friday to pass the Democrats’ signature Inflation Reduction Act, Reuters reported. 

Meeting requirements: To qualify for billions in tax credits in the new bill, the EV industry will have to develop new networks of mines, refiners and factories in the U.S., The Washington Post reported on Thursday. 

A lot of local residents near mines aren’t thrilled about that, according to the Post. 

“The history with these types of mines is pretty terrible in the U.S.,” landowner Tom Anderson said of an enormous proposed nickel mine near his land in Minnesota. 

“They could make it clean if they spent enough money, but nobody has ever done that,” he added. 

Bringing the damage home: The new manufacturing will force the U.S. to confront problems it has historically dumped on other countries, the Post noted. 

Mining for rare earth minerals to meet demand for clean energy has poisoned mountain forests across the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, the Associated Press reported. 

“There’s still this push to find the right place to mine them, which is a place that is out of sight and out of mind,” geographer Julie Michelle Klinger of Boston University told the AP.  

Positive production: Relocating mining and battery production to the U.S. doesn’t prevent human rights abuses, which “can occur in any jurisdiction,” nonprofit Human Rights Watch wrote on Wednesday. 

“If America is heading for an electric car revolution, we need to make sure car manufacturers produce greener vehicles responsibly,” the report concluded.

Thursday Threats

Energy prices in Europe sore, oil drilling puts African rainforests at risk and rising seas are swallowing beachfront territory.  

European energy crisis worsens, as power prices sore 

European power prices climbed to new records on Thursday as a heatwave and wildfires cut energy supplies in France — and as the E.U. struggles to boost gas stores amid Russian cuts, Bloomberg reported. A plunge in nuclear output, as well as low wind and hydroelectric production, has driven up prices even further, according to Bloomberg. 

Oil, infrastructure and climate threaten African national parks 

A new auction for oil and gas drilling sites is putting thick — and climate-vital — rainforests in the Democratic Republic of Congo at risk, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Tuesday, according to The New York Times. That potential adds to a continent-wide pressure on Africa’s protected areas from both infrastructure projects and climate change, The Associated Press reported. 

Rising seas are covering beachfront bit by bit 

Sea levels around the world have risen about four inches on average since 1992 — enough to swallow about 34 feet of beachfront, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. These findings build on a February NASA report that predicted a sea level rise of 10 to 12 inches by midcentury — which could lead to an eventual loss of 62 feet of beachfront.

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


Tags American Rivers California water supply Climate change Gavin Newsom heavy metals mining
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