Logging forests after they're chewed up by bark beetles won't cut fire risks, new report says

An interesting study out today (PDF) concludes that logging in Western forests ravaged by pine beetles not only doesn’t do much to prevent wildfires – it also wastes precious government dough that could be used instead to actually protect the homes of those folks foolish enough to build in fire-prone forests.

This particular study comes out of Colorado, which is described as the “epicenter” of the pine-beetle outbreak, although I think I wouldn’t have a lot of trouble finding folks in British Columbia who would dispute that characterization.

 And it’s reminiscent of the findings in Oregon following massive fires there a few years ago: That coming in and “salvaging timber” actually disrupts the natural processes that govern forests the way God made them.

This newest report, spearheaded by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, points out that insect outbreaks have been a part of forest ecology in the West for millennia. It also details how it’s climate, high temperatures and the sparse amount of water in our changing Western climate that are primarily responsible for the beetle outbreaks. Harvesting beetle-mauled trees does not head off climate change. Perhaps even the opposite is true? 

It's particularly damaging to do this kind of post-beetle tree-cutting in roadless areas, sacrificing longterm ecological integrity for short-term profits and roads that pierce into formerly intact wilderness areas, the report argues.

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SAD day for Aspens in the West

Tomorrow is the official start of fall, and that means glorious autumn colors soon to follow. . .or does it? Something is killing Aspens throughout the West. The condition, known as SAD for "Sudden Aspen Decline" is starting to show up in New Mexico's Carson National Forest, writes Staci Matlock of the New Mexican. Trees with the condition have blistered trunks, and fail to leaf out. Scientists suspect drought has something to do with the trees' susceptibility. And they fear increasing droughts in the future could wipe out the signature trees of the Southwest. The Smithsonian has a good explanation of the history of the problem. The cure may be just as bad as the disease in the short term. Forest researchers suggest that slash cutting, or burning the diseased stands will make room for new healthy clones of the trees to shoot up from the roots. That's tough medicine. But it would be even sadder not to try.

Drought threatens Garden of Eden site in Iraq

The lede on a recent piece from The Guardian makes me wonder why we're not hearing more about this story:

A water shortage described as the most critical since the earliest days of Iraq's civilisation is threatening to leave up to 2 million people in the south of the country without electricity and almost as many without drinking water.

(Possible reason we haven't heard more: Like so many environmental stories, this one is not breaking news. It oozes, rather than breaks, as the saying goes. )

It sounds impressive anytime something is happening that hasn't been known before in a particular country's history. But recall that when we're talking about Iraq, we're talking about what appears to be the first civilization. Yes, we're talking about the Garden of Eden, or at least the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Martin Chulov's file from Nasiriyah covers death and disease resulting from saltwater intrusion, electricity from hydropower about to grind to a halt, and goes on to paint this grim picture:

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Worries over Arizona water supply

Rural Arizona is searching for a stable source of water. The existing patchwork system of wells and reservoirs is wearing thin, Shaun McKinnon writes in the Arizona Republic. Flagstaff water-resources Chief Brad Hill told the Republic that the rural parts of the state need to plug into the Colorado River. But competition for that water is also fierce. In the meantime, rural communities wrestle with how best to balance growth with water needs.  In urban centers, new developments must verify they come packaged with a 100-year water supply before they are allowed to be built. Rural towns have no such restrictions.

There's been as steady drain on underground water reserves in the state, McKinnon writes in an earlier extensive story. Excessive reliance on groundwater supplies could prove "potentially disastrous," resulting in wells running dry and aquifers collapsing. Such failures could alter the landscape itself, creating fissures and sinkholes. Drought and climate change are also straining surface-water supplies at the same time that groundwater resources are shrinking. Herb Guenther of the Arizona Department of Water Resources told McKinnon: "What we have to do is get out of denial."

New Dust Bowl seen in western Canada prairies

The Economist has a brief but illuminating article on how drought in western Canada's prairies is causing farmers to say a new Dust Bowl is upon them. Rainfall is at 40 percent of normal. Around Saskatoon, hundreds of farmers already have plowed their crops under and applied for insurance.

Perhaps most chilling: As in the American West, tree-ring data and other indicators seem to suggest that the West was traditionally much drier than in recent decades, i.e., the 20th Century was anomolously wet. A return to more-normal dry conditions comes as the climate is warming in general.

Readers, if you know of other data on the West's paleoclimate, please e-mail me at rmcclure (at) invw.org

Drought reveals holes in Bay Area water jurisdiction

Three years of drought have focused attention on the San Francisco Bay Area's Byzantine water distribution network, which allows some ratepayers to use water freely and restricts others from washing cars and watering lawns.

Kelly Zito of the San Francisco Chronicle reveals that threatened water supplies are forcing a re-examination of the differences between Southern California's highly integrated water transport system and the patchwork system set up in the Bay Area. 

Any way you slice it, rates are going to go up -- which could force consumers to pay attention to the management of one of society's most precious resources.