Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Burn a forest in Oregon, smell it in Boulder

Equilibrium/ Sustainability — Burn a forest in Oregon, smell it in Boulder
© (National Wildfire Coordinating Group/InciWeb)

Today is Tuesday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

A “fast-moving” wildfire is scorching southern-central Oregon, prompting hundreds of evacuations and threatening power grid lines as far south as California, Jennifer Calfas reported for The Wall Street Journal.

Fueled by strong winds and dry vegetation, conditions became so severe that firefighters were forced to retreat over the weekend, according to the Journal. By Tuesday morning, the Klamath County blaze had become the largest in the country, at more than 200,000 acres, while smaller fires flared across the state, Erin Ross reported for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Gusts have carried smoke from Oregon across the West — even to Boulder, Colo., where Sharon inhaled some of these fumes as she set off for her morning run. (Despite smelling like a bonfire, Boulder received U.S. News's top Best Places to Live ranking for the second year in a row Tuesday. But if it rains ash again this year, we wonder how much longer that title will hold.)  

How dry is the West? So dry that the federal government will be declaring a water shortage along the Colorado River for the first time. We’ll look at this decision today, along with a leading business organization that is trying to redefine how businesses advocate for sustainable practices — starting with the passage of the Biden voting rights bill.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

First water shortage declared along dwindling Colorado River

This August, the federal government will declare its first water shortage along the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states and two in Mexico, Luke Runyon reported for KUNC.

Residents who live in the watershed depend on the 1,450 mile river for drinking water, hydroelectric power and desert crop irrigation, according to KUNC. But the ongoing drought has made it clear that the river cannot “meet all the demands communities in the Western U.S. have placed on it,” Runyon reported.

What makes this year different? From its Rocky Mountain headwaters to the U.S.-Mexican border, the Colorado River experienced its driest year on record from May 2020 through April 2021, KUNC reported. The arid soil sucked up spring rains that otherwise would have run off into the river, leaving the region pining for “a heavy blanket of snow” next winter.  

Ranchers are also enduring unusually hot winds, which Runyon described as “a giant hair dryer” directed right at pastures. A cattle runner on Colorado’s Western Slope told KUNC that the lack of water has eliminated grazing pastures — forcing him to put his animals on irrigated land where he would typically grow hay, which he will now need to buy.  

Downstream effects: Lake Powell, located about 600 miles southwest of the Colorado River headwaters, in northern Arizona, is approaching its lowest point since the reservoir was created in the 1960s, Runyon reported. As a result, Glen Canyon Dam is generating less hydroelectric power.

And at Lake Mead in Nevada — the target of the government's forthcoming water shortage declaration — faltering water levels will mean significant water supply cuts in Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico.    

New measures to combat the “megadrought”: Nevada passed a law in June to eradicate “non-functional” public grass in Las Vegas over the next five years to save about 10 percent of municipal water use, Oliver Milman reported for The Guardian. The local water authority has also hired investigators to crack down “on even the smallest misuse” of water such as faulty sprinklers, according to The Guardian.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has asked customers to conserve water in order to “avoid a crisis situation,” the Navajo Times reported, while California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomRepublicans trapped in a media prison of their own making Buckle up for more Trump, courtesy of the Democratic Party The Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out MORE (D) has called on residents to slash water use by 15 percent, Zack Budryk reported for The Hill.


To make matters worse, 17 million gallons of sewage just washed ashore in California. Beaches in Los Angeles — another Colorado River water recipient — closed Monday after raw sewage gushed ashore from the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, The Associated Press reported. The plant “became inundated with overwhelming quantities of debris, causing backup of the headworks facilities,” according to the plant manager. 

Hyperion is LA’s largest treatment plant and has operated since 1894, Elinor Aspegren reported for USA Today. LA County Supervisor Janice HahnJanice Kay HahnEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Burn a forest in Oregon, smell it in Boulder Miles of California beaches closed after 17M gallons of sewage spills Police investigating possible hate crime after car drives through crowd at 'Stop Asian Hate' rally MORE acknowledged that the plant’s relief system prevented “an even larger spill” but demanded “answers about how and why this happened.”

In a summer that is hotter than ever, LA’s beaches will stay closed until water samples are negative for bacteria, according to USA Today. But the Pacific sands may still be more pristine than those across the country — where NBC reported that days of storms, coupled with New York Harbor sewer systems, sent “hundreds of syringes” washing up along the Jersey Shore.

Takeaway: Federal water conservation policy has long played a critical role in maintaining a fragile balance in the West, but now conditions are much hotter and much drier — and it doesn’t help things when aging water infrastructure starts breaking down.

Meet a lobbyist trying to redefine 'pro-business'

The Senate should “carve out” an exception to the filibuster to allow discussion — and accelerate the eventual passage — of voting rights legislation, said Thomas Oppel of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC).

Step one: Such legislation, the ASBC believes, is necessary to safeguard the broader health of the economy. 

“You know the climate poster, ‘There’s no economy on a dead planet?’ Well, there’s no free market in an autocracy,” Oppel, the former chief of staff for the Secretary of the Navy, told Equilibrium. 

“There is a direct line between free and fair markets and a democratic reform of government,” he went on. “If people don't trust the government, they begin to distrust all sorts of things.”

What is the American Sustainable Business Council? The ASBC is a coalition of more than 200,000 businesses, ranging from giants like Patagonia and Seventh Generation to Green Mountain Energy and Dole Packaged Foods. 

The group was founded in 2009 to channel disparate voices from business leaders who disagreed with what representatives called the “short-term” perspective of trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the American Chemical Council, which have given us now-traditional framings like “environment versus jobs.”

In the many meetings he has attended since joining the ASBC two years ago, Oppel marveled at how many times Thomas J. Donohue, an advisor to and former CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has said, “business believes” or “business says.” 

“Maybe your business says, thinks, believes that,” Oppel said. “But I represent over 200,000 businesses who believe, think, say, different.”

‘Sustainability’ is a squishy word. What do they mean by it? To the ASBC, sustainability is “not only the environment,” according to spokesperson Michael Neuwirth. “We think it’s equal parts social and governance related, because people — meaning how companies train, recruit, treat and pay compensation — are a huge part of sustainability.”

As such, the organization has backed expanding paid family leave and child care, as outlined in the Biden administration’s American Jobs and American Families plans, and has encouraged members to give employees paid time off to vote. 

Sustainability means “the need to act on climate change and not ignore it,” Oppel said, stressing that it goes further, toward the “notion of a more broadly inclusive prosperous economy that thinks about the long term.”

This allows the ASBC, Oppel said, to “say, no, Chamber of Commerce, you don't speak for all business.” Instead, the organization can “speak with a volume and quantity that says, ‘Hey, this is important and we have all these people who are doing this, not just talking, but doing it, and doing it successfully, and making a profit, while being consistent with their values.’”

“And if we can do it, others can do it,” Oppel added.

The end of Friedmanomics: Oppel sees this idea as pushing back on the idea, popularized by Milton Friedman, that the only value that matters is returns to shareholders.

“What this in fact produces is very short-term, quarter-to-quarter, Wall Street close to Wall Street close thinking,” he said. “What did my share price do today, and what short term things can I do to get my share price up?

“We always thought that was shortsighted, mistaken.”  

After 10 years of the ASBC promoting this idea, in 2019, 181 CEOs of the Business Roundtable — including Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson — released a letter renouncing this view of “shareholder primacy” and redefining the purpose of a corporation as to “promote ‘an economy that serves all Americans.’ ”

Takeaway: This is where the group’s voting rights and climate advocacy come together, according to Oppel.  

You can't separate the economy from the environment, or either of those from the form of government we have,” he said. “Go back to our founding documents: They recognize there is an inextricable link between the form of government and the economy, that free and fair markets are only possible in a truly democratic society.”

Similarly, Oppel added, “I think we clearly have to recognize now that it's harder on a business when you’re 3 feet under water because of extreme storms.”

For more insight into the ASBC announcement, and the reason behind it, click here for the full story.


Tricky Tuesday

Unexpected consequences, hard decisions and tigers padding silently through your garden. 

Indian tiger follows migration route across forest “stepping stones” 

  • An 18-month-old female tiger has made the longest recorded trek from her home range to a new territory, Mongabay reported, traveling by night across patches of unprotected forest.
  • After leaving her home in the Panna Tiger Reserve in central India, the tiger crept 211 miles across 19 fragmented “stepping stone” patches of forest.
  • Conserving patches like these can help protect tiger populations, as well as keep them away from people, researchers found — but for now, they are functioning as inadvertent private tiger sanctuaries.
  • Such migrations, researchers said, would become impossible unless infrastructure and planning projects began to “systemically embed” the tiger corridors.

Oil bottleneck will spur alternatives but slow recovery, IEA says

  • In June, crude demand was up by an average of 3.2 million barrels per day, but drilling stayed flat, driving U.S. gas prices to an all-time high of $3.14 per gallon, The Guardian reported.
  • This creates a paradox, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA): Increased prices “could increase the pace of electrification of the transport sector and help accelerate energy transitions.”
  • But if producers don’t pump more, “they could also put a drag on the economic recovery, particularly in emerging and developing countries,” the IEA said.
  • With oil woven into virtually all of the global economy, this could cause add-on social and political effects.

Coronavirus pandemic has led to a plague of hunger

  • As poorer countries lose years of gains in the battle against hunger, worsening inequality is likely to become “one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic,” Anthony Faiola wrote in The Washington Post.
  • Global hunger rose by about 118 million people worldwide in 2020, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization — the highest number since at least 2006, Faiola reported. And those encountering food insecurity increased by 318 million, 2.38 billion.
  • In the developed world, “if you do a lockdown, people have access to unemployment insurance or social aid,” Máximo Torero Cullen, chief economist of the U.N. agency, told the Post. 
  • “That did not happen in much of the developing world,” Torero Cullen said. “You saw a middle class move into poverty and the poor move into severe food insecurity.”

And that’s Tuesday. Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. See you Wednesday evening.