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These 8 species depend on the Colorado River. What happens as it dries up?

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Friday, April 21, 2023

Millie von Platen for Vox Wildlife needs water, too. Part of the issue The 100-year-old-mistake that’s reshaping the American West from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Wedged between two vast stretches of farmland in Southern California, the Salton Sea doesn’t seem habitable. It smells foul, like rotting eggs. The shore is crusted with salt and littered with tires and old glass bottles. And the only water flowing into it is runoff from farmland. The Salton Sea is literally fed by wastewater. Yet here in the desert, the sea is a haven for birds. Roughly 270 avian species regularly use the lake — the largest in the state — including white and brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and snowy plovers. In past decades, for example, winter would draw millions of eared grebes, migratory waterbirds with piercing red eyes and golden feathers that fan out from their cheeks. The lake is something of a birder’s paradise. But like many of the United States’s important wildlife habitats, the Salton Sea is shrinking. Evaporation is outpacing the inflows of water running off from farms, causing the lake to recede and turning it incredibly salty. There’s so much salt now that few fish and other aquatic critters can survive, which means fish-eating birds like pelicans are vanishing, according to Robert McKernan, a retired ornithologist who’s been studying the sea since the ’70s. The decline of the Salton Sea is tied to another dwindling water body, some 60 miles east: the Colorado River. A century of mismanagement, coupled with two decades of drought that’s been deepened by climate change, has drained the river to record lows. The river’s many users — including golf courses, households, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, and farmers in the nearby Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley — have had to cut back their water use as a result. It’s runoff from these farms that feeds the Salton Sea. Over the last two decades, farmers here have slashed their usage substantially, causing the sea to drop. And now, they’re likely to cut back even more, further threatening the important ecosystem. It’s a complex problem: On the one hand, it’s good that growers have became more efficient with a limited resource, but it’s come, to an extent, at the expense of an important habitat for birds. The ongoing changes to the Salton Sea are just one example of how the Colorado River crisis affects not only human lives, but the lives of wild organisms — the fish, birds, mammals, and plants that have lived in the river basin for thousands of years. Humans depend on this diversity of life. Healthy river ecosystems help keep the river clean; they limit the destruction of wildfires and pests; and they provide a sustainable source of food for the basin’s inhabitants. Since the 1900s, the greatest threats to wildlife in the basin, which spreads across seven Western states, have been dams and other structures that control the river, utterly transforming how it operates. But the recent water shortage, along with drought and rising temperatures, is further changing ecosystems along the river. This story is about those changes. Through the lens of seven animals and one plant, we explain how a declining Colorado River is influencing the natural world. It’s not all bad: Nature has a propensity for adaptation, and humans are helping restore some of its most important habitats, including parts of the Salton Sea. What is worrying is that climate change is set to make many of the existing problems worse. Millie von Platen for Vox Cutthroat trout The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where it pours out of a snow-fed lake and runs south through marshy meadows and beaver ponds. The headwaters of the Colorado River, and other coldwater streams that feed into it, are home to a number of fish, including Colorado River cutthroat trout. A native fish with olive-colored scales and black polkadots, cutthroat trout have signature red markings behind their gills (hence their somewhat gruesome name). Competition with nonnative fish, such as brown trout, along with drought and rising temperatures, are imperiling the species, which is now found in roughly 10 percent of its native range in the Colorado River basin. These fish need cold, oxygen-rich water, but as streams shrivel during drought, they heat up and hold less dissolved oxygen — making the water much less hospitable. Millie von Platen for Vox Bark beetles The bark beetle is a small insect found throughout the Rocky Mountains, in the Colorado River basin and beyond. Although they’re no larger than a grain of rice, these native beetles are incredibly destructive. They bore into trees, disrupting the flow of nutrients into the plants. Along with symbiotic fungi that bark beetles are known to team up with, this process can weaken or kill the trees. In the past three decades, bark beetles (of a number of different species) have killed more trees than all wildfires in the Western US. Climate change and drought only makes the threat of bark beetles more severe. Rising temperatures can cause their numbers to balloon. And when there’s less water available, trees have a much harder time fighting off a bark beetle attack. Millie von Platen for Vox Beavers If bark beetles are unwanted pests in the upper Colorado River, beavers are ones we want. By the early 1900s, trappers had nearly wiped them out from North America, and today, people still kill these large rodents because they hack down trees and block streams. While beavers are still perceived in some places as pests, their reputation has been improving. Many water experts now see beavers as a potential antidote to drought and the problems it’s causing along the Colorado River. The snowpack in some mountain regions is now melting earlier, meaning there’s less water flowing downstream later in the year. By damming waterways, beavers help slow down the flow of water, keeping the landscape wet for longer. They also create cold ponds that benefit fish like cutthroat trout, and keep trees hydrated so they’re less likely to burn in a wildfire or fall victim to bark beetles. Millie von Platen for Vox Smallmouth bass From the Rocky Mountains, the river wanders west into Utah, passing through Canyonlands National Park, before running into the Glen Canyon Dam, where it forms Lake Powell. In the ’80s, wildlife officials introduced the smallmouth bass, a nonnative species, into the lake for sport fishing. It was good for tourism, perhaps, but bad for the local ecology: Smallies, as they’re sometimes called, like to eat rare native fish — like the highly threatened humpback chub. The chub, a strange-looking fish with a fleshy lump behind its head, has been recovering downstream in the Grand Canyon, partly because they’re guarded against smallmouth bass by Glen Canyon Dam. Smallies like warm water, and the intake for the dam is deeper down where it’s cold. At least, that’s how it used to be. Overconsumption of the river, mixed with drought, has caused the water level in Lake Powell to recede. And now, the intake valve is near the warm waters of the lake’s surface, allowing the invasive fish to pass through. Scientists recently found smallies below the Glen Canyon Dam, which could further imperil the humpback chub and the entire native ecosystem of the iconic national park. Millie von Platen for Vox Razorback sucker As the Colorado River continues south past the Grand Canyon, it bends around Las Vegas and runs into the Hoover Dam, before reaching a reservoir called Lake Mohave. The lake, tucked into the southern tip of Nevada, harbors one of the basin’s remaining population of razorback suckers. An endangered fish with green scales, a yellow belly, and a big mass behind its head, the sucker was once abundant in warm waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Now they’re incredibly rare, persisting in only a small sliver of their native range. In Lake Mohave, suckers have declined from roughly 60,000 individuals in the ’80s to just a few thousand in recent years — most, if not all, of which were reared in captivity and reintroduced by wildlife officials. Suckers face pretty much every threat there is along the river, from invasive species that prey on their eggs and babies, to giant infrastructure projects that have dramatically altered the river’s flow. Their decline, buffered to an extent by captive rearing and restocking programs, is emblematic of the broader ways the river has been changing. Millie von Platen for Vox American white pelican Just north of Yuma, Arizona, the Colorado River runs into the Imperial Dam. The dam diverts part of the river into the All-American Canal, which carries water more than 80 miles west to farmland in California’s Imperial Valley. It’s runoff from those farms that sustains the Salton Sea. Roughly 20 years ago, when farmers started using less water (as part of an agreement between the Imperial Valley and the city of San Diego, to send more water to urban users, which I explain here) the Salton Sea began shrinking. With less fresh water flowing in, the large, shallow lake began evaporating and becoming too salty for fish, causing declines in fish-eating birds. Thousands of American white pelicans, for example, used to visit the sea at one time, according to ornithologist Robert McKernan, who’s been studying the Salton Sea since the ’70s. Now, he said, you can only see a few hundred. “There’s just not enough fish for them to eat anymore,” said Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation at Audubon California. Should farming districts that feed the Salton Sea face additional cutbacks — which experts anticipate — the lake could become less hospitable to many birds. That’s troubling considering that California has already lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands. The Salton Sea is one of its last remaining habitats. Millie von Platen for Vox Yuma Ridgway’s rail If you follow the river further south, past Yuma and into northwest Mexico, you’ll reach the delta, the river’s end. The delta has been mostly dry for decades now — all the water is sucked out further upstream — but there are some habitats that remain wet, thanks again to runoff from farmland. Salty water pouring off of fields near Yuma trickles into Mexico, where it flows into a 40,000-acre wetland called Ciénega de Santa Clara. It’s an important habitat for birds, and especially for the Yuma Ridgway’s rail, a brown, crustacean-loving species with a long and narrow beak. As much as three-quarters of the world’s Yuma Ridgway’s rail population lives in this wetland, according to Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director. This habitat, too, could be threatened if farmers in southwestern Arizona start using less water on their crops, or reroute the runoff into a desalinization plant so it can be reused on farmland in Mexico. Ironically, while agriculture is a major driver of wildlife declines worldwide, many farms fed by the Colorado River help sustain birds. Millie von Platen for Vox Cottonwood tree The most iconic organism along the Colorado River is arguably not an animal but a woody plant: the cottonwood. This tall, deciduous tree grows along the edge of rivers throughout much of the basin and in the delta, providing habitat and food for a wide range of animals and helping stabilize the riverbank. “It’s a keystone species,” said Karl Flessa, a professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona, referring to organisms that help hold ecosystems together. (There are a few different cottonwood species in the Colorado River Basin.) Cottonwoods are still abundant in the West, yet they rely on two things that are increasingly limited: water and spring floods, which scour the ground and give seedlings a space to take root, Flessa said. They also face competition with a nonnative tree, the saltwater cedar, that can survive more easily without a recurring surge of fresh water. What happens to cottonwoods without water is apparent in the dry delta, where many cottonwood trees have disappeared. Over the last decade, however, environmental groups have restored parts of the delta, planting groves of cottonwood and willow trees, and finding ways to bring in water. Those efforts are encouraging the return of wildlife — the Yuma Ridgway’s rails, beavers, and other species that have lived here for thousands of years.

Millie von Platen for Vox

Wildlife needs water, too.

Part of the issue The 100-year-old-mistake that’s reshaping the American West from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Wedged between two vast stretches of farmland in Southern California, the Salton Sea doesn’t seem habitable. It smells foul, like rotting eggs. The shore is crusted with salt and littered with tires and old glass bottles. And the only water flowing into it is runoff from farmland. The Salton Sea is literally fed by wastewater.

Yet here in the desert, the sea is a haven for birds. Roughly 270 avian species regularly use the lake — the largest in the state — including white and brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, and snowy plovers. In past decades, for example, winter would draw millions of eared grebes, migratory waterbirds with piercing red eyes and golden feathers that fan out from their cheeks. The lake is something of a birder’s paradise.

But like many of the United States’s important wildlife habitats, the Salton Sea is shrinking. Evaporation is outpacing the inflows of water running off from farms, causing the lake to recede and turning it incredibly salty. There’s so much salt now that few fish and other aquatic critters can survive, which means fish-eating birds like pelicans are vanishing, according to Robert McKernan, a retired ornithologist who’s been studying the sea since the ’70s.

The decline of the Salton Sea is tied to another dwindling water body, some 60 miles east: the Colorado River. A century of mismanagement, coupled with two decades of drought that’s been deepened by climate change, has drained the river to record lows. The river’s many users — including golf courses, households, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, and farmers in the nearby Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley — have had to cut back their water use as a result. It’s runoff from these farms that feeds the Salton Sea.

Over the last two decades, farmers here have slashed their usage substantially, causing the sea to drop. And now, they’re likely to cut back even more, further threatening the important ecosystem. It’s a complex problem: On the one hand, it’s good that growers have became more efficient with a limited resource, but it’s come, to an extent, at the expense of an important habitat for birds.

The ongoing changes to the Salton Sea are just one example of how the Colorado River crisis affects not only human lives, but the lives of wild organisms — the fish, birds, mammals, and plants that have lived in the river basin for thousands of years. Humans depend on this diversity of life. Healthy river ecosystems help keep the river clean; they limit the destruction of wildfires and pests; and they provide a sustainable source of food for the basin’s inhabitants.

Since the 1900s, the greatest threats to wildlife in the basin, which spreads across seven Western states, have been dams and other structures that control the river, utterly transforming how it operates. But the recent water shortage, along with drought and rising temperatures, is further changing ecosystems along the river.

This story is about those changes. Through the lens of seven animals and one plant, we explain how a declining Colorado River is influencing the natural world. It’s not all bad: Nature has a propensity for adaptation, and humans are helping restore some of its most important habitats, including parts of the Salton Sea. What is worrying is that climate change is set to make many of the existing problems worse.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

Cutthroat trout

The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where it pours out of a snow-fed lake and runs south through marshy meadows and beaver ponds. The headwaters of the Colorado River, and other coldwater streams that feed into it, are home to a number of fish, including Colorado River cutthroat trout. A native fish with olive-colored scales and black polkadots, cutthroat trout have signature red markings behind their gills (hence their somewhat gruesome name).

Competition with nonnative fish, such as brown trout, along with drought and rising temperatures, are imperiling the species, which is now found in roughly 10 percent of its native range in the Colorado River basin. These fish need cold, oxygen-rich water, but as streams shrivel during drought, they heat up and hold less dissolved oxygen — making the water much less hospitable.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

Bark beetles

The bark beetle is a small insect found throughout the Rocky Mountains, in the Colorado River basin and beyond. Although they’re no larger than a grain of rice, these native beetles are incredibly destructive. They bore into trees, disrupting the flow of nutrients into the plants. Along with symbiotic fungi that bark beetles are known to team up with, this process can weaken or kill the trees.

In the past three decades, bark beetles (of a number of different species) have killed more trees than all wildfires in the Western US. Climate change and drought only makes the threat of bark beetles more severe. Rising temperatures can cause their numbers to balloon. And when there’s less water available, trees have a much harder time fighting off a bark beetle attack.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

Beavers

If bark beetles are unwanted pests in the upper Colorado River, beavers are ones we want. By the early 1900s, trappers had nearly wiped them out from North America, and today, people still kill these large rodents because they hack down trees and block streams. While beavers are still perceived in some places as pests, their reputation has been improving.

Many water experts now see beavers as a potential antidote to drought and the problems it’s causing along the Colorado River. The snowpack in some mountain regions is now melting earlier, meaning there’s less water flowing downstream later in the year. By damming waterways, beavers help slow down the flow of water, keeping the landscape wet for longer. They also create cold ponds that benefit fish like cutthroat trout, and keep trees hydrated so they’re less likely to burn in a wildfire or fall victim to bark beetles.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

Smallmouth bass

From the Rocky Mountains, the river wanders west into Utah, passing through Canyonlands National Park, before running into the Glen Canyon Dam, where it forms Lake Powell. In the ’80s, wildlife officials introduced the smallmouth bass, a nonnative species, into the lake for sport fishing. It was good for tourism, perhaps, but bad for the local ecology: Smallies, as they’re sometimes called, like to eat rare native fish — like the highly threatened humpback chub. The chub, a strange-looking fish with a fleshy lump behind its head, has been recovering downstream in the Grand Canyon, partly because they’re guarded against smallmouth bass by Glen Canyon Dam. Smallies like warm water, and the intake for the dam is deeper down where it’s cold.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Overconsumption of the river, mixed with drought, has caused the water level in Lake Powell to recede. And now, the intake valve is near the warm waters of the lake’s surface, allowing the invasive fish to pass through. Scientists recently found smallies below the Glen Canyon Dam, which could further imperil the humpback chub and the entire native ecosystem of the iconic national park.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

Razorback sucker

As the Colorado River continues south past the Grand Canyon, it bends around Las Vegas and runs into the Hoover Dam, before reaching a reservoir called Lake Mohave. The lake, tucked into the southern tip of Nevada, harbors one of the basin’s remaining population of razorback suckers. An endangered fish with green scales, a yellow belly, and a big mass behind its head, the sucker was once abundant in warm waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries.

Now they’re incredibly rare, persisting in only a small sliver of their native range. In Lake Mohave, suckers have declined from roughly 60,000 individuals in the ’80s to just a few thousand in recent years — most, if not all, of which were reared in captivity and reintroduced by wildlife officials. Suckers face pretty much every threat there is along the river, from invasive species that prey on their eggs and babies, to giant infrastructure projects that have dramatically altered the river’s flow. Their decline, buffered to an extent by captive rearing and restocking programs, is emblematic of the broader ways the river has been changing.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

American white pelican

Just north of Yuma, Arizona, the Colorado River runs into the Imperial Dam. The dam diverts part of the river into the All-American Canal, which carries water more than 80 miles west to farmland in California’s Imperial Valley. It’s runoff from those farms that sustains the Salton Sea. Roughly 20 years ago, when farmers started using less water (as part of an agreement between the Imperial Valley and the city of San Diego, to send more water to urban users, which I explain here) the Salton Sea began shrinking.

With less fresh water flowing in, the large, shallow lake began evaporating and becoming too salty for fish, causing declines in fish-eating birds. Thousands of American white pelicans, for example, used to visit the sea at one time, according to ornithologist Robert McKernan, who’s been studying the Salton Sea since the ’70s. Now, he said, you can only see a few hundred. “There’s just not enough fish for them to eat anymore,” said Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation at Audubon California. Should farming districts that feed the Salton Sea face additional cutbacks — which experts anticipate — the lake could become less hospitable to many birds. That’s troubling considering that California has already lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands. The Salton Sea is one of its last remaining habitats.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

Yuma Ridgway’s rail

If you follow the river further south, past Yuma and into northwest Mexico, you’ll reach the delta, the river’s end. The delta has been mostly dry for decades now — all the water is sucked out further upstream — but there are some habitats that remain wet, thanks again to runoff from farmland. Salty water pouring off of fields near Yuma trickles into Mexico, where it flows into a 40,000-acre wetland called Ciénega de Santa Clara. It’s an important habitat for birds, and especially for the Yuma Ridgway’s rail, a brown, crustacean-loving species with a long and narrow beak.

As much as three-quarters of the world’s Yuma Ridgway’s rail population lives in this wetland, according to Jennifer Pitt, the National Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director. This habitat, too, could be threatened if farmers in southwestern Arizona start using less water on their crops, or reroute the runoff into a desalinization plant so it can be reused on farmland in Mexico. Ironically, while agriculture is a major driver of wildlife declines worldwide, many farms fed by the Colorado River help sustain birds.

 Millie von Platen for Vox

Cottonwood tree

The most iconic organism along the Colorado River is arguably not an animal but a woody plant: the cottonwood. This tall, deciduous tree grows along the edge of rivers throughout much of the basin and in the delta, providing habitat and food for a wide range of animals and helping stabilize the riverbank. “It’s a keystone species,” said Karl Flessa, a professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona, referring to organisms that help hold ecosystems together. (There are a few different cottonwood species in the Colorado River Basin.)

Cottonwoods are still abundant in the West, yet they rely on two things that are increasingly limited: water and spring floods, which scour the ground and give seedlings a space to take root, Flessa said. They also face competition with a nonnative tree, the saltwater cedar, that can survive more easily without a recurring surge of fresh water. What happens to cottonwoods without water is apparent in the dry delta, where many cottonwood trees have disappeared.

Over the last decade, however, environmental groups have restored parts of the delta, planting groves of cottonwood and willow trees, and finding ways to bring in water. Those efforts are encouraging the return of wildlife — the Yuma Ridgway’s rails, beavers, and other species that have lived here for thousands of years.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Study: Nonnative earthworms are all over North America, and it’s a problem

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Nonnative earthworms have colonized much of the North American continent, posing a threat to native ecosystems, a recent analysis reveals.Writing in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers documented the presence of scores of nonnative earthworm species across the continent, calling them a “serious threat” to biodiversity because of their role as “ecosystem engineers.”The researchers relied on data spanning from 1891 to 2021, including spatial distribution information and reports of nonnative earthworms intercepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A machine learning analysis of species richness revealed that nonnative earthworms are probably the dominant species across 73 percent of the continent, with 28 percent of North America now devoid of its original earthworm species.Overall, the researchers pinpointed 70 unique species of alien earthworm, the majority of which originate from Europe and Asia. The use of earthworms for fishing bait and the sale of vermicomposting materials are partly to blame, the researchers write, and the creatures tend to enter the continent from coasts and areas with airports.The environmental changes wreaked by the new arrivals vary, from taking over areas with few native earthworms to spurring changes in the plant composition of forests and other areas.Earthworms are often seen as positive forces in their native habitats, but the researchers point out that nonnative species can have the opposite effect. The invaders’ slow movements and feeding habits can cause soil compaction that precludes plant growth, reduce biodiversity, enable invasive plant takeovers and hurt trees such as the sugar maple.“Because it is virtually impossible to remove established populations of alien earthworms,” the researchers write, “the best management option is to focus on prevention and early detection.” They call for policies to prevent the future spread of the alien earthworms, noting that climate change will probably drive future invasions.

Pregnant women in Indiana show fourfold increase in toxic weedkiller in urine – study

Seventy perc ent of pregnant women in state had herbicide dicamba in their urine, up from 28% in an earlier studyPregnant women in a key US farm state are showing increasing amounts of a toxic weedkiller in their urine, a rise that comes alongside climbing use of the chemicals in agriculture, according to a study published on Friday.The study, led by the Indiana University school of medicine, showed that 70% of pregnant women tested in Indiana between 2020 and 2022 had a herbicide called dicamba in their urine, up from 28% from a similar analysis for the period 2010-12. The earlier study included women in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Continue reading...

Pregnant women in a key US farm state are showing increasing amounts of a toxic weedkiller in their urine, a rise that comes alongside climbing use of the chemicals in agriculture, according to a study published Friday.The study, led by the Indiana University school of medicine, showed that 70% of pregnant women tested in Indiana between 2020 and 2022 had an herbicide called dicamba in their urine, up from 28% from a similar analysis for the period 2010-12. The earlier study included women in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.Notably, the study also found that along with a larger percentage of women showing the presence of dicamba in their bodies, the concentrations of the weed-killing chemical increased more than four-fold.Both studies found that 100% of the women tested had 2,4-dichloroacetic acid, better known as 2,4-D, in their urine; the more recent study showed detectable, but not significant, increases in concentration levels.The findings add to a growing body of literature documenting human exposure to chemicals used in agriculture, and various known and potential health impacts. Many scientists have particular concerns about how farm chemicals affect pregnant women and their children, but say more research – and more regulatory scrutiny – is needed.“These are two chemicals we’re concerned about because of their increasing use,” said Paul Winchester, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University school of medicine who was not involved in this study.Winchester called the findings “sobering” and said that there is growing evidence that these chemicals can be harmful to fetuses. “Fetal DNA is being shaped by these exposures,” he said. “What we’re seeing in other chemicals that have had longer pathways of study is that this is not benign exposure.”Dicamba exposure has been linked to increased risk of liver and bile-duct cancers. Though the effects of 2,4-D on humans is less understood, some animal studies of 2,4-D exposure during pregnancy found low body weights and changes in behavior in the offspring, while other studies have found that exposure to 2,4-D appears to increase the risk of lymphoma.Rising useGestational exposure to glyphosate – the key ingredient in the well-known Roundup herbicide - is associated with reduced fetal growth and other fetal problems. Glyphosate separately has been linked to cancer and other health problems.Monsanto introduced glyphosate to agriculture decades ago, followed by genetically engineered crops created to withstand glyphosate spray, allowing farmers to kill weeds in their fields without harming the crops. That technology led to skyrocketing use of glyphosate starting in the late 1990s, but its extensive and repeated use triggered an explosion of glyphosate-resistant weeds. Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.Monsanto and other companies then developed dicamba- and 2,4-D-tolerant crops, and as a result, reliance on the two weedkillers has risen 10-fold since 2010.The study notes that the vast majority of soybean and cotton seeds now sold and grown in the US are genetically engineered to tolerate a range of herbicides, including glyphosate, dicamba and 2,4-D.“There’s no other way to explain a four-fold increase in dicamba in the urine of pregnant women in the midwest other than the planting of these technologies,” said Charles Benbrook, a co-author of the study and an expert witness for some cancer patients who have sued Monsanto, alleging Roundup caused their diseases. “This is a technology they probably should never have approved.”Dicamba has particular volatility when sprayed on farm fields and is capable of traveling far from where it is sprayed, so exposure does not necessarily occur only on or near a farm where it is sprayed. Since dicamba-tolerant crops were introduced, the weedkiller has been documented on non-target crops, on trees miles from fields, even in rain.Last week, a federal court in Arizona vacated the registrations of the weedkillers, ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the law in approving dicamba by not giving adequate opportunity for public comment. It was the second time a federal court has banned dicamba.But this week, the EPA said that despite the court ruling, it still will allow millions of gallons of dicamba to be sprayed this growing season.This story is co-published with the New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group

US becoming ‘factory farming nation’: key takeaways from the agriculture census

Small farms and Black farmers are going out of business, while corporate-controlled farms are booming, raking in subsidiesRecord numbers of American farms are going out of business with small farms and Black farmers the hardest hit – again, according to the 2022 agriculture census, a comprehensive snapshot of the state of America’s farms and farmers published every five years by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Yet industrial factory farms rearing thousands of livestock in confinement have further expanded into rural America, acquiring smaller farms, raking in taxpayer subsidies and generating environmental harms.The agriculture census is a mammoth data collection effort involving more than a million farmers, which tracks the number, size and types of farm across sectors, as well as the farmers and the financials – at the national, state and county levels. It provides insights into the impact – good and bad – of government programs on farmers, workers, land use, animals, waterways and the climate, and should inform future policy. The latest data set includes the Covid pandemic – an extraordinary time when global food prices, government farm subsidies and food insecurity all surged. Continue reading...

Record numbers of American farms are going out of business with small farms and Black farmers the hardest hit – again, according to the 2022 agriculture census, a comprehensive snapshot of the state of America’s farms and farmers published every five years by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Yet industrial factory farms rearing thousands of livestock in confinement have further expanded into rural America, acquiring smaller farms, raking in taxpayer subsidies and generating environmental harms.The agriculture census is a mammoth data collection effort involving more than a million farmers, which tracks the number, size and types of farm across sectors, as well as the farmers and the financials – at the national, state and county levels. It provides insights into the impact – good and bad – of government programs on farmers, workers, land use, animals, waterways and the climate, and should inform future policy. The latest data set includes the Covid pandemic – an extraordinary time when global food prices, government farm subsidies and food insecurity all surged.There is a lot to digest in the 700-page report, but here are some of the key takeaways:The number of farms and quantity of farmland continues to decline steeply – but mega farms are thrivingLine chart of green and brown lines trending downThe number of farms fell 7% over the past five years to 1.9m – compared with a peak of almost 7m in the mid-1930s, and 2.2m in 2000. Around 20m acres of farmland were lost over the same period, as fields made way for urban sprawl, solar farms and other industrial development.The decline is by no means steady across the board. The steepest decline – 17% – was among the smallest farms with less than 10 acres. The US globalized agricultural system favors large and corporate owned operations, as smaller farms struggle more with boom and bust prices, extreme weather linked to the climate crisis and access to government subsidies and other credit.Large farms – which includes mega operations with hundreds of thousands of acres – account for only 4% of the total number of farms, but control two-thirds of US agricultural land. The largest – with sales of $5m or more – accounted for fewer than 1% of all farms but 42% of all sales. The consolidation of American agriculture continues, despite a commitment by the USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, a former big dairy executive, to shore up small and midsize farm operations.Another steep decline in Black farmersBar chart of four khaki bar going left and two green bar charts going rightThe number of Black farmers fell by 8% in the past five years, the largest decline among all ethnic and racial groups. This is another setback for Black farmers, who have been forced out of agriculture by decades of discriminatory USDA policies that systematically denied them access to low-interest loans, grants and other assistance. The number of Black farmers has dropped from a peak of almost 1m in 1910 to 41,807 in 2022.It’s perhaps too early to judge the Biden administration, which has enacted policies aimed at helping Black and other “underserved” farmers, but so far Black farmers have little to cheer. The white domination among farmers has grown from 89% in 2017 to 95% in 2022.In some good news, the number of Hawaiian and Pacific Islander farmers increased by 13%, with a whopping 50% (1,509 in 2022 compared with 1,007 in 2017) rise in new producers. This may partly reflect a resurgence in Native Hawaiian farming practices and the land back movement.Climate smart agriculture and conservation remain rare among American farmers – despite government programsBar chart of six khaki bars pointing downThe number of farms enrolled in USDA conservation programs that pay farmers to leave environmentally important areas such as wetlands fell by 7% between 2017 and 2022. Smaller farms saw the steepest decline, which is likely due to high commodity prices on the global market that offered short-term economic gains, according to Anne Schechinger from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Increasing financial support – USDA rents – for long-term conservation projects such as 30-year wetland preservation could attract more farmers and would maximize climate and environmental benefits, said Schechinger.An incentives scheme to encourage cover crops – a regenerative agro-ecology technique that helps reduce synthetic fertilizer use, improves soil health and conserves water – shows mixed results. The number of farms enrolled in the program has stagnated at around 153,000, but there was a 17% rise in cover crops overall, which was mostly down to larger farms planting more nutrient rich cover crops between growing periods for cash crops.Large farms and corporations benefit most from taxpayer dollarsA bar chart of six green bars pointing upGovernment payments to farmers skyrocketed 17% since the last ag census to $10.4bn – thanks in large part to Covid era subsidies, which boosted income for some farmers to record levels between 2020 and 2022. But the number of farms receiving taxpayer subsidies fell dramatically by 25%, and it was the larger, wealthier – not struggling small farms – that benefited most. Farms with the highest sales (at least $50,000) received 64% of the total subsidies – despite accounting for only 11% of the beneficiaries. The smallest farms account for almost half (48%) of those that got some financial assistance, but only 4% of the total money.America’s industrial agriculture complex is raising more animals on factory farms than ever beforeThree bar charts, each topped with an icon of an animal. The charts have a series of green (going up) and khaki (going down) barsIn the past five years, the US lost 34% of dairy farms, 9% of hog farms and 7% of beef cattle farms but the livestock numbers stayed more or less constant. That means fewer, but much larger, concentrated lots – which are linked to an array of harms including water and air pollution, poor animal welfare, labor abuses and climate impacts. As it stands, 1.7 billion animals – mostly pigs, cattle, chickens and sheep – were reared on US factory farms in 2022 – a 6% increase since the last census in 2017 and a 47% rise since 2002. This includes 7,406 chicken farms with half a million of more birds in 2022 – a 17% rise in the past decade.According to analysis by Food and Water Watch (FWW), 24,000 factory farms are producing a staggering 940bn lbs of manure each year – double the amount of sewage produced by the entire US population. This is 52bn pounds more greenhouse gas emitting concentrated manure than in 2017, the equivalent to creating a new city of 39m habitants in the past five years.Small and medium dairy farms have fared worst. Almost 7 million dairy cattle – 75% of the total – are now reared in confinement on factory farms, each with 2,000 or more cows. “As industrial confinements drive family-scale farmers off their land … the benefits flow to private coffers while our communities and environment are left holding the bag,” said Amanda Starbuck, FWW research director.“America today is truly a factory farming nation.”

West Virginia's new agriculture bill raises concerns over potential toxic emissions

In West Virginia, a new bill limiting county control over agricultural operations sparks fear of a toxic fumigation plant in the Allegheny Mountains. John Raby reports for the Associated Press.In short:The bill, passed by the House of Delegates, restricts counties from regulating agricultural activities, potentially paving the way for harmful industrial developments.Residents worry about the possible revival of plans for a facility emitting methyl bromide, a pesticide linked to severe health risks.The legislation reflects a broader trend of prioritizing industrial interests over local community health and environmental concerns.Key quote:The bill "is really just a backdoor way for non-local, corporate entities to build whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the impact on local communities." — John Rosato, Hardy County resident.Why this matters: This development highlights the tension between industrial growth and environmental health. The potential for increased toxic emissions poses significant risks to public health, particularly in rural communities, and underscores the need for balanced policy-making that considers both economic and environmental impacts.Commentary: Industrial agriculture is a dead end. Agroecology is the only way to ensure that all people have access to sufficient, healthful food.

In West Virginia, a new bill limiting county control over agricultural operations sparks fear of a toxic fumigation plant in the Allegheny Mountains. John Raby reports for the Associated Press.In short:The bill, passed by the House of Delegates, restricts counties from regulating agricultural activities, potentially paving the way for harmful industrial developments.Residents worry about the possible revival of plans for a facility emitting methyl bromide, a pesticide linked to severe health risks.The legislation reflects a broader trend of prioritizing industrial interests over local community health and environmental concerns.Key quote:The bill "is really just a backdoor way for non-local, corporate entities to build whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the impact on local communities." — John Rosato, Hardy County resident.Why this matters: This development highlights the tension between industrial growth and environmental health. The potential for increased toxic emissions poses significant risks to public health, particularly in rural communities, and underscores the need for balanced policy-making that considers both economic and environmental impacts.Commentary: Industrial agriculture is a dead end. Agroecology is the only way to ensure that all people have access to sufficient, healthful food.

US farms and farmers are on the decline. Can climate action reverse the trend?

The new Census of Agriculture shows carbon-intensive farms and large, factory-scale animal operations are only getting bigger.

This article originally appeared on Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is republished with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here.On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack helped unveil his agency’s Census of Agriculture, a huge quinquennial report that covers 6 million data points and gives the current state-of-the-state of American farms and farmers.In a presentation at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Vilsack underscored his main takeaway: The number of American farms and farmers continues to decline, a fact that has broad consequences, he argued, beyond farming itself.“I’m concerned about the state of agriculture and food production in this country,” he said, before ticking off a few numbers to make his point.In 2017, the year the previous report covered, the country had 2,042,220 farms. In 2022, it had 1,900,487. In that same span, the number of farmed acres dropped from almost 900 million acres to 880 million—a loss in area the size of all the New England states, minus Connecticut, Vilsack noted.The drop, Vilsack argued, has caused ripple effects across rural America, resulting in the loss of schools, businesses and healthcare infrastructure, and the overall hollowing out of farming communities.One way to reverse the trend, he said, is to boost support for agricultural methods and practices that have climate benefits so farmers can earn money for them.“It’s important for us to invest in climate-smart agriculture,” Vilsack said, “because that creates an opportunity for farmers to qualify, potentially, for ecosystem service market credits, which is cash coming into the farm for environmental results that can only occur on the farm. The farm then creates a second source of income.”In other words, Vilsack argued, climate action could help save the American farm.The problem, the census data suggest, is that American farms, especially big factory farms that generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, are growing in size. The data also show that, overall, more government support is flowing to larger or more profitable operations. According to the census, these farms are using more of the precious and drought-depleted water supplies that climate change is projected to deplete even more, especially in the West.“This tells a compelling story, across all of these things,” said Anne Schechinger, the Midwest director of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “It’s a clear picture that these larger farms are doing the best and are benefitting the most from government policies.”Researchers and advocacy groups pored over the data after it was released Tuesday afternoon, trying to tease out trends.The number of cattle, the biggest source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions—both from burps and manure storage—actually went down by 5.6 million over the 2017 census. But the number of cattle in large dairies and feedlots—and the overall number of larger dairies and feedlots—went up.An analysis of the data by the advocacy group Food & Water Watch found the number of animals raised on large, factory-scale farms rose by 6 percent over 2017 and by 47 percent over 2002. That translates to more animals in concentrated areas, generating more manure that’s disposed of in pits and lagoons where it emits more methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas.“We haven’t seen a huge difference in the number of dairy cows,” said Amanda Starbuck, the group’s research director. “But because there’s a shift to these big facilities, we’ve seen an increase in emissions from manure management.” (According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory, methane emissions from manure management rose from 39 million metric tons in 1990 to 66 million in 2021. When animals are raised on pasture, their manure releases very little methane.)The EWG analysis found similar trends. The number of the largest cattle farms—those with 5,000 or more cattle per farm—has grown from about 1,100 in 2012 to just under 1,450 in 2022, an increase of nearly 30 percent. Of the “Big Three” livestock—cattle, chicken and hogs—the number of animals produced in the largest farms also went up by about 28 percent for cows and 24 percent for hogs and chickens.As for farm economics, Schechinger noted that the most recent income data suggest that farmers are actually doing pretty well and that farm income is roughly at its 20-year average.“Farmers don’t need more sources of revenue,” she said, referring to Vilsack’s comments. “They’re already getting subsidies and crop insurance, not to mention we have high farm incomes generally.”Schechinger’s analyses in the past have found that much of the money the Agriculture Department spends on conservation tends to flow to big-ticket items, such as irrigation systems and methane digesters, which generally go to bigger farms.“Conservation money shouldn’t be viewed as a revenue generator,” she added. “It should be viewed as having a climate benefit for the taxpayer money.”In his presentation Tuesday, Vilsack referred to the agency’s push to build voluntary carbon markets in which farmers get paid for practices—planting cover crops, stopping tillage and employing so-called adaptive grazing—that sequester carbon or limit emissions. Polluters seeking to offset emissions then purchase those credits.The Biden administration has attempted to make farmers central in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has directed nearly $20 billion to the USDA for climate and conservation programs through the Inflation Reduction Act.But to some analysts, the new census suggests that agricultural policy continues to enrich the biggest players at the expense of farmers and the climate.“Vilsack is talking about a system that doesn’t benefit farmers; it benefits big food companies and ethanol producers,” said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “He’s spinning climate action and is missing some of the lessons of the data that tell us the markets aren’t working. Farmers need to get paid fairly. Farmers are weak players in the market right now. That’s the fundamental problem.”“We don’t need to create other income streams that others can capitalize on,” Lilliston added, referring to carbon markets. “If farmers are doing things that are climate-smart, they should be paid a premium for it.”

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