Save the Colorado Encourages Preservation of the Colorado River

Save the Colorado, an organization dedicated to preserving the Colorado River, declared and celebrated the first Colorado River Day this summer on July 25, and has organized several campaigns for the conservation of this major waterway.

The Colorado River originates in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and flows through Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California (forming the southern borders of the latter two states) before it enters Mexico, where it runs through Baja California to its endpoint in the Mexican state of Sonora. In addition, its tributaries reach New Mexico and Wyoming. Between thirty and forty million people in the southwestern United States and Mexico rely on the Colorado River for water, and the river and its water usage are highly controlled through the use of dams and aqueducts. As the largest source of water in the southwestern desert climate, the 1,450-mile-long Colorado River provides vital agricultural irrigation and urban tap water to this region and allows the area to produce hydroelectric power. The river is also home to wildlife, river ecosystems, natural and architectural spectacles such as the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam, and vacationers who swim and play on the river. The river supports fifteen percent of the country’s crops, 250,000 jobs, and $26 billion of the national economy.

For six million years, the Colorado river emptied into the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), located between the Baja California peninsula and mainland Mexico, but in the 1990s, the river stopped short of the sea. Human consumption of the Colorado River’s water has led to a severe depletion of the river’s resources; in the past ten years, five trillion gallons of Colorado River water has disappeared due to human use. Because Americans consume so much of the river’s water, farmers in Mexico are left with little to irrigate their crops with. Major agricultural companies in the United States drain the river of its water by growing crops that require large amounts of water, and are able to buy the water at much lower prices than citizens pay. Some of the river’s water is lost to the desert heat due to evaporation in the surrounding rocks and sandstone canyons.

Environmentalists have long been concerned about the future of the Colorado River and have wondered whether it is sustainable as a major waterway and provider of essential water services in the southwestern American desert. The population of cities in the Colorado River basin is expected to grow by more than fifty percent by 2030, and with serious effects of drought and climate change getting worse and the water supply lessening, it is uncertain that the river will be able to support the increasing population. Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River and generates hydroelectricity for the metro Las Vegas area, will not be able to provide power to the area’s homes if the water supply drops too low. In addition to losing water, the river is also threatened by pollution from companies that mine its natural resources (such as shale, oil, and uranium).

Save the Colorado is calling on politicians to create a more efficient way to utilize the river’s resources and find a solution to the growing water problems. Noting that increasing the water supply is difficult and expensive, the organization favors increasing efficiency in existing water use. Their petition on says, “As another drought and an expanding population continue to strain this vital river, utilities and governments are faced with tough decisions on a path forward … In a political environment that is ripe for division, we are happy to report that, as river conservationists and fiscal conservatives, we’re all in the same boat: it’s time to improve the efficiency with which we consume the Colorado River’s water.”

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Atlantic Ocean Alliance calls for marine protection at the South Pole

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA) – an organization that represents a group of environmental agencies, including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace – has launched a new campaign to protect Antarctica’s ocean through the world’s largest network of marine reserves.

Antarctica’s ocean, sometimes referred to as the Antarctic Ocean, the Southern Ocean or the South Polar Ocean, surrounds the icy continent of Antarctica and contains waters from the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (although, some scientists don’t acknowledge the presence of the Antarctic Ocean, instead insisting that it belongs to three separate oceans).

The Antarctic Ocean comprises ten percent of the world’s ocean waters, but hosts more than 10,000 species of fish and marine life, many of which are unique to the region and its icy temperatures. Animals that call the ocean home include whales, krill, seals, squid, fish and penguins.

Although Antarctica and its surrounding environment is largely untouched and unexplored, the region still faces some environmental problems and suffers from environmental issues such as climate change and overfishing. As the global temperature rises, an increase in ultraviolet radiation from a hole in the ozone layer penetrates the ocean’s waters, reducing the productivity of phytoplankton by 15 percent and damaging the DNA of some species of fish. Illegal and unregulated fishing is also a problem in the Antarctic Ocean, particularly harming the Patagonian toothfish, which is being fished – and thus depleted – at five to six times the rate of a regulated fishery.

One area that the AOA focuses on conserving is the Ross Sea, a body whose protection network would cover 3.6 million square kilometers on the edge of Antarctica closest to New Zealand. The AOA aims to protect the region’s biodiversity and geomorphic features, such as oceanic ridges and troughs, as well as its breeding areas for fish. The AOA also wishes to collect data on the region’s response to climate change and its effects, including ocean acidification.

The Ross Sea region is one of the last remaining pristine ocean environments on Earth, and has not been significantly altered by human presence. It is home to more than a quarter of the world’s population of Adelie and emperor penguins, as well as minke whales, killer whales and seals. There is little concern for illegal hunting of seals and whales in the area – like the greater Antarctic region, the Ross Sea’s largest environmental threats are due to industrial fishing and climate change. The AOA’s proposal encourages the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to “establish a fully protected marine reserve of approximately 3.6 million square kilometers in the Ross Sea region as a first step towards establishing a comprehensive network of marine reserves and MPAs around Antarctica.”

The CCAMLR, a body made up of representatives from 24 nations and the European Union, plans to set up protected marine areas in the Antarctic this year. Formed in 1982, the CCAMLR is composed of scientists and members who have experience in fishing and marine research in Antarctica. As the CCALMR’s decision regarding marine protection draws nearer, the AOA has set up a watch to track progress, and has written a petition to show support for the CCAMLR and for establishing a network of protected areas in the Antarctic Ocean. The petition letter states, “As CCAMLR is a body that meets with limited public participation and no media access, I feel it’s important to speak out for these unique global commons areas and to call for the widest possible protection for Antarctica’s oceans. Please do the right thing and protect Antarctica’s oceans for future generations.” To show your support for the Antarctic marine environment and the CCAMLR, and to show that you stand with the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, sign the petition at the AOA Web site.

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Conservationists promote establishment of mobile marine reserves

Conservationists have pitched a new idea that could save endangered marine animals, such as loggerhead and leatherback turtles, albatross, and sharks, from the threat of overfishing: establish mobile marine reserves as a flexible and effective way to protect the species. These protected areas’ boundaries would reflect the animals’ fluid migration patterns, which leave them in different spots in the ocean throughout the year.

The mobile marine reserves would use tracking devices to follow the populations of endangered animals, and would close the areas with the highest populations of the species to trawlers and industrial fishermen during peak seasons.

As ocean conditions change due to climate change-related factors, such as rising temperatures and ocean acidification, marine species migrate to different areas of the ocean. The regions where the species live can change according to ocean currents and climate, such as El Nino, so the boundaries of the marine reserves could be moved when the species migrates.

The proposal for the mobile marine reserves was brought forth at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, a science festival held earlier this month.

At the AAAS meeting, Prof. Larry Crowder of Stanford University said, “Less than 1% of the ocean is protected at this point, and these marine parks tend to be built around things that sit still like coral reefs and seamounts. But tracking studies show that many, many organisms – fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds and sharks – respond to oceanographic features that don’t have a fixed point. These features are fronts and eddies that may move seasonally, from summer to winter, and from year to year based on oceanographic climate changes like El Nino or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.”

Current marine reserves are stationary, but since marine animals migrate and ocean conditions change, there is a need to reform this method of marine protection. Marine scientists believe that recent animal tracking data reveals a need for a new marine animal protection system. Tracking devices follow animals over a vast area of oceanic territory, recording their migration patterns as well as their response to different oceanic conditions, such as eddies and the concentration of food in a given area. Since these conditions can change and shift across the ocean, scientists believe that the challenge is to construct reserves that are as dynamic as the species are. However, the improvement of GPS tagging and satellite technology allows researchers and scientists to better understand the behaviors and patterns of several marine species, and would allow conservationists to establish mobile marine reserves.

Prof. Crowder believes that the proposed reserves are realistic. “In addition to knowing where the animals are and how they respond to ocean features, we also know a lot more about where the fishermen are. The fishermen have very precise GPS. So I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility to get fishermen to observe where the edge of a mobile reserve is,” he said.

The mobile reserves would apply to areas where large concentrations of a certain species is present, and would prohibit trawlers and fishermen from entering those areas to harvest fish during the time when the species is most concentrated in those areas. These restrictions would protect endangered species and promote sustainable fishing.

One area that would benefit from the mobile reserves is the Pacific convergence zone, a flexible region where two major currents meet, filling the surrounding area with high concentrations of plankton, fish and turtles. Since the area is located approximately 1,000 miles further north in the summer than it is in the winter, mobile protections would benefit the area and allow the fish to thrive, while GPS tracking of the animals would alert scientists of where the area is.

“People might say the only way to achieve conservation for some marine life is to protect it everywhere in the ocean. But if we know where they move to, we don’t need to close the entire Pacific Ocean, we just need to close this place where they are really concentrated,” Crowder said. “The time is right for this idea. We are scientifically primed to do it.”

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Billionaires Team Up to Save China’s Natural Heritage

Some of China’s wealthiest business leaders are coming together in an attempt to rescue part of their country’s natural heritage from extinction.  By pooling donations totaling millions of dollars from wealthy philanthropists, the billionaires hope to establish China’s first privately run nature reserve.  If successful, the effort could help ensure a future for endangered species like the giant panda.

Though China already has more than 2,500 nature reserves, the existing protected areas are managed by the government.  Additionally, more than half of the funding for maintaining protected areas comes from revenue generated by commercial activity within parks, such as expensive tourist resorts.  This has created an incentive for over-developing natural areas, often at the expense of wildlife and nearby communities.

By establishing a privately-run nature reserve with guaranteed funding, business leaders in China hope to be able to focus solely on conservation.  As part of this goal, they will seek ways that protecting nature can benefit nearby human populations and generate revenue for communities in a way that doesn’t harm endangered species.

The idea was hatched last year by sixteen of the riches people in China, mostly wealthy business entrepreneurs.  It is the brainchild of Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese Internet corporation Alibaba.  Now the project has grown to include twenty-three billionaires, all of whom are expected to donate a minimum of $762,000 (five million Chinese yuan) to the cause of protecting one of their country’s most imperiled and valuable natural areas.

The billionaires have chosen to focus their conservation effort on Pingwu County in the province of Sichuan.  Once graced by vast swaths of ancient forest, the natural environment of Pingwu County has been severely degraded by logging and development of hydroelectric dams.  However the area still boasts some of the richest biodiversity in China.

To take an example, Pingwu County’s Xuebao Peak is listed as one of the twenty-five most biologically diverse sites in the world.  The area also provides habitat for severely endangered creatures like the golden monkey, and a unique East Asian antelope called the takin.  In addition it is home to an estimated 20% of the world’s giant panda population.

Conserving the natural wealth of Pingwu County for present and future generations will not be easy.  Even with large amounts of money readily available, conservationists will need to ensure efforts proceed in a way that is good for endangered species and local communities.  To figure out how to do this, the Chinese billionaires have entered into a partnership with the Nature Conservancy—an international environmental organization based in the United States.  But the Conservancy’s own history of working successfully with local communities is not exactly spotless.

In recent years advocates of environmental justice and community-base conservation, in the US and elsewhere, have charged the Nature Conservancy with using a failed model for land conservation and with not working effectively with human communities.  Nature reserves that exclude local people and prohibit small-scale, traditional uses of the environment can do more harm than good.  They fuel resentment towards conservation work, and alienate the people who may be best qualified to serve as local stewards of the land.

If the reserve in Pingwu County is to be a success, it will have to take into account the needs of nearby villages.  The project’s billionaire managers hope to do this in part by attracting responsible tourism.  Large areas of the reserve will be kept off-limits to tourists.  This will help protect wildlife habitat, and will encourage outsiders who visit in hopes of getting close to wild animals to spend their money in the villages.

Because it already has a secure source of funding, the nature reserve itself will not rely on tourist dollars or commercial activity to keep running.  That’s the advantage of having some of China’s wealthiest people committed to local conservation work.

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European Countries Protect Diverse River Ecosystem

white tailed eagle-Danube-Mura-Drava-conservationIn a historic move for habitat restoration, five countries in Eastern Europe have come together to protect one of the largest and most ecologically important intact ecosystems on the continent.  On Friday official representatives from Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, and Serbia signed a declaration that marks the first step toward protecting a riverine are which provides habitat for migrating waterfowl, white-tailed eagles, and other vulnerable wildlife.  If the effort is successful, it will be the first time five countries have come together to create a single nature reserve that spans all of their boundaries.

The new reserve will cover an area of about 800,000 hectares (a hectare is a little less than two and a half acres).  It includes long stretches of the Danube, Mura, and Drava rivers, as well as wetlands that provide flood protection and a steady supply of drinking water for people in the surrounding area.  The region is considered a biological hotspot because of the diversity of plants and animals it supports, which include endangered species like the black stork, little tern, and sturgeon.  It is also an important breeding ground for the white-tailed eagle, a large European relative of the North American bald eagle. 

Each year over 250,000 ducks, geese, and other waterfowl use the three-river area for a feeding ground while travelling their annual migration route.  Because of large number of birds, mammals, fish, and other organisms that depend on the area for survival, conservationists have referred to it as “Europe’s Amazon.”  Healthy river shorelines and wetlands support some of the largest numbers of species of any ecosystem outside of the tropics. 

Environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are hopeful the five-country declaration will lead to permanent protections for the Danube, Mura, and Drava rivers.  The announcement follows an earlier agreement between Croatia and Hungary signed in 2009, which these two countries launched to protect river ecosystems along their shared borders.  Expanding conservation talks to include Austria, Serbia, and Slovenia is a way to build on the success of that earlier agreement, and ensure protection of a still larger area.

Like many habitats rivers, wetlands, and shoreline have been subjected to centuries of pressure from human activities, which range from damming rivers to provide power, to draining wetlands to make room for crops.  In the last several decades pollution from industry and an increase in energy demand has made the challenge of preserving freshwater habitats even greater.  Conservationists estimate 80% of the wetlands that originally lined the Danube River have already been lost to development, while fish like the beluga sturgeon find their migration routes cut off by large dams.  This history of use and abuse makes current conservation efforts all the more important.

In fact, thanks to environmental restoration work the last two decades have seen rivers like the Danube gradually start to recover.  Industrial pollution in the rivers of Eastern Europe reached its peak when these countries were controlled by the Soviet Union.  After the collapse of Soviet Communism in the late 1980s, the economic depression that followed inadvertently contributed to healthier rivers.  Though East European economies have begun to grow again since then, many new governments are much more concerned with environmental protections than was the Soviet Union. 

Along with reducing pollution, establishing protected areas along river shorelines and wetlands is a crucial step toward ensuring a future for wildlife.  It’s also a way to make sure that densely populated European countries retain access to drinkable water and that flood damage along rivers is minimized.  Friday’s conservation announcement is especially important, because it paves the way for multiple countries to work together toward restoring their shared natural ecosystems.

Photo source: Englishpointers

India Announces New Steps to Protect Environment

By: Nick Engelfried 

October 20, 2010

One of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India, has announced new steps it will take to limit environmental damage and hold polluters accountable to the law.  At a United Nations conference on preserving global biodiversity, India is scheduled to unveil plans to track and take into account the economic value of natural ecosystems.  Earlier this week, India also established a “green court” that will make it easier for citizens to hold corporations accountable for polluting.  Both steps are suggestive that Indian leaders are growing more serious about preserving the environment as the national economy grows.

India is following a United Nations recommendation that ecosystem services such as clean air, water retention, and even increased peace of mind should be given the same kind of economic weight countries give to their gross domestic product.  Though India will likely be the first country to establish an ecosystem value accounting program, UN officials and the World Bank hope to convince 10-12 countries to take similar steps by the year 2015.  By 2020, the goal will be to have 20-30 more countries participating on top of that. 

As environmental degradation continues around the world, more and more nations are becoming aware of the economic benefits of natural ecosystems and species.  Preserving the environment can help prevent a degradation in quality of life, while environmental restoration in already-damaged areas can have a positive impact on the economy.  In one telling example, restoration of seventy hectares of damaged forests in India increased the productivity of local wells, allowing nearby agriculture to thrive.  An ecosystem services accounting program would ensure the economic value of such projects is taken into consideration as India decides how to develop.

Meanwhile Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh is leading the charge to establish a green court.  Citizens who believe they’ve been unfairly damaged by corporations that fail to follow environmental laws will be able to approach the court and seek compensation, leading to more effective implementation of the country’s existing laws.  So far only two other nations—New Zealand and Australia—have a court charged with focusing specifically on environmental issues. 

Yet India isn’t the only developing country implementing new measures to protect the environment.  Last week China announced a new conservation plan designed to protect biodiversity and ensure a future for many of the nation’s endangered species.  In South America Ecuador has incorporated rights for nature into its national constitution, while Brazil is engaging in new efforts to slow deforestation in the Amazon.  Island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati have recently set aside large areas within their waters as marine reserves. 

While questions remain about how effectively many of these programs will be implemented, the trend that they signal is encouraging.  India’s announcements that it will track the value of ecosystems and establish a green court are just two of the latest examples of developing countries taking environmental initiative. 

Photo credit: McKay Savage