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MacKenzie Elmer's biweekly environmental news roundup (Mondays)
The Colorado River basin is heating up and drying out as human-exacerbated climate change projections predicted, a new campground is underway in the Tijuana River Valley and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.
If San Diego’s urban core were a human heart, then the 53rd Congressional District would be, geographically, its left ventricle. The political battle to represent its people is one between two liberals: former environmental justice advocate and San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez and Sara Jacobs, the granddaughter of a Qualcomm co-founder who also chairs a childhood poverty organization called San Diego for Every Child.
I moderated a Politifest debate between the two on Oct. 1 and, I gotta say, it’s difficult to separate these two progressive women on policy issues. Their history and endorsements say something about which Democrat squad they drift toward. Jacobs worked as a foreign policy adviser on the Hillary Clinton campaign and Gómez is endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
I invited a number of organizations to submit pre-recorded video questions but only San Diego 350, a climate change action and Green New Deal flag-waving group, responded. Meisha Meyers, an environmental engineering major at San Diego State University who’s a volunteer with the group, asked the candidates what “climate change injustice” meant to them and how they would address it.
Climate justice is a term and a movement that acknowledges the negative social, economic and public health effects of climate change on underprivileged populations.
In response to the question, Jacobs said she supports the Green New Deal, a vast yet nonbinding resolution for tackling climate change that garnered fame when Oscasio-Cortez joined the youthful Sunrise Movement in demanding it during a sit-in outside Rep. Nancy Pelsoi’s office after the 2018 midterms. But Democrats so far have had trouble coming to a consensus over what kind of policy goals would drive it.
Gómez didn’t mention the Green New Deal in her response. But at a February forum in the lead-up to the primary, Gómez said she supported it (as did the other four candidates at the time).
It’s still not clear what exactly the two candidates believe the Green New Deal would and should accomplish, especially for San Diego. But I did notice that during the February forum they offered different timelines on how soon the United States and others should transition away from fossil fuels. Jacobs said 2030. Gómez said 2050. The city of San Diego’s own plan is to run on 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, but the plan doesn’t stop the community from using natural gas in stoves or heating, for instance.
Jacobs’ career outside of school and work on political campaigns (including her previous bid for the 49th Congressional District in 2018) was in foreign affairs at the United Nations, UNICEF and the State Department. She said she worked on humanitarian response and relief efforts during a typhoon in the Philippines and a landslide in Uganda.
“If you don’t intentionally put equity at the heart of your emergency response it ends up exacerbating inequality because people who are able to get assistance they need are already well connected,” Jacobs said.
Gómez grew up in Barrio Logan, an area plagued by industrial air pollution from the highways that roll through the neighborhood and the shipyards that flank it.
“Your ZIP code determines how long you’re going to live and it’s based on these racial inequities this country has created,” Gómez said.
As a follow-up at Politifest, I asked about Gómez’s campaign about receiving $5,400 from the chairperson of Sampson Energy LLC, an oil and gas exploration company based out of Tulsa. Both Gómez and Jacobs in that February debate said they wouldn’t take money from fossil fuel companies. Gómez said she returned that money, and the campaign finance data backs her up — she returned the money three months after it was donated.
The answer to the debate’s climate question mostly shed light on the fact that the two are seeking federal office from different vantage points: One has had her eye on international affairs, and the other on hyperlocal San Diego affairs. Their answers didn’t tell us much about what actions they would take on behalf of San Diego’s specific climate problems, like the fact that the sea is predicted to swallow more of its shores than other parts of the country. Or the fact that the district’s population is inland from the cooler coastal areas and thus will experience longer and more extreme heat waves.
Gómez has said in other debates, including one hosted by the Union-Tribune, that she sees climate change as an infrastructure-building and middle-income job-creating opportunity. Gómez also argued that a proposed $177 billion transportation plan for San Diego County will require significant help from the federal government if it’s ever going to get done.
Jacobs talked about the presence of lead in some San Diego schools. Gómez noted that lead is still present in older, more dilapidated housing — though I would argue lead isn’t really a climate issue.
I couldn’t resist a little reporting stop at the Colorado River State Historic Park on my way to a little desert camping trip last week. You can catch the tail end of the Colorado River on the U.S. side before it drifts into Mexico there.
A reminder: Southern California gets 64 percent of its water from this river, which is fed by the snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, but it didn’t look so hot. It was maybe a few feet deep.
The river’s levels have dropped significantly over the last few years, staff at the park told me. I could see to the bottom through just a few feet of water from the Highway 8 bridge.
This graph from a 2017 research paper shows river flow measured at different locations over time as various dams were built between its banks. The light gray line shows how much water flowed on the Colorado at Yuma. In 1905, the river raged at over 3,000 meters per second (about 10,000 feet of water per second) until we erected the Hoover Dam in 1936. You can see the river’s flow drops dramatically in Yuma, then to about 500 meters per second or 1,650 feet per second.
At Yuma, officials have built what’s called a salinity basin, a concrete canal constructed in 1977 that takes salty drainage from U.S. farms and dumps it at the Gulf of California in Mexico on the Cienega de Santa Clara wetland.
The drive from San Diego to Yuma turns drastically from dune desert to lush farm fields and mega cattle ranches. Some farms employ dozens of whipping water sprinklers that toss irrigation into the air before hitting the soil in 108-degree heat.
Agriculture is a $23.7 billion economy in Arizona, according to one estimate. And its water consumption is just as large, accounting for about 68 percent of the state’s water use to grow primarily alfalfa (cow food), grains and lettuce.
They’re lucky to be along the river basin. Farms in northern Arizona are starting to mine groundwater from aquifers, which can be easily overtaxed if users don’t allow the resource to recharge (a slow process where water trickles down from surrounding mountains and deep into a system of soils and rocks that make up an aquifer).
As the Colorado River basin heats up and dries out as human-exacerbated climate change projections predict, I wondered how long it would take before the actual river at the Colorado River Historical Park is no longer.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the year by which the city of San Diego plans to run on 100 percent carbon-free electricity; it is 2035.