Western drought and sustainable food systems

The drought in California is stretching into Texas leaving much of the countries prime agricultural areas in dire need of water and declining production of vegetables and fruit. This drought and the drought over the past decade have shown us that our food production system cannot be sustainable as our climate changes. Western agricultural areas are mostly in arid and semi-arid grasslands that need water for sustained production given their limited rainfall. This means that water resources for growing populations and economic sources are getting tighter and as snowpack and glaciers are reduced upstream in the origins of Western rivers. Lake Mead on the Colorado River is rapidly declining due to sustained drought over the last 14 years in Arizona and is nearly the critical level of 1,000 feet above sea level when pumping will no longer be viable. In the Bravos River valley, oil companies are purchasing older water rights for first use in their facilities leaving agriculture and populations thirsty. Thus our major Western agricultural regions are rapidly drying strongly impacting food production. Predictions of climate models strongly suggest that the southwest US will experience increased drought further reducing water availability in the coming years.

Do we rebuild a sustainable food system such as our grandparents or great-grandparents had or do we rely on Kroger’s and Wal-Mart?   Kroger’s and Wal-Mart both rely heavily on mass production areas of food resources such as the vegetable and fruit fields of California. Where do they go when shortages in this area arises? Probably from international sources including evermore stripped rainforest ecosystems turned into large-scale agricultural fields that quickly loss nutrients and soil resources. This leads to new areas having to be stripped and burned out for more agricultural fields which will in turn rapidly be depleted of soil and nutrients.

So if we do not want to see all of our key carbon absorbing, oxygen-producing rainforests lost, we must rethink and rebuild our food production system. We need to look inside our communities and nearby farms for a more sustainable system that does not require so much carbon and energy inputs. We need to reduce large-scale mechanized truck farming with locally produced goods. Some parts of the country have long realized this and placed a priority on maintaining farmland and not turning it into more gas-guzzling and energy hungry suburbs. The heavy dependence on carbon-based fuels is further impacting our climate leading to greater greenhouse emissions and higher temperatures across the US and the world. This further acerbates drought conditions in the southwest.

In Northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville has shown some movement in this direction with allowing chickens, bee hives, and now goats (though only mini-goats, why?).   We need to find a balance between high-density housing and allowing more garden space. Our suburbs have some room for some gardens in which we could grow some of our own vegetables and fruit. With higher density housing, we could set aside some property for community gardens especially on old farms within or near to city limits. Several good examples of this being accomplished include Portland; Davis, California; and Sacramento, California.

We also can rely on some of our areas farmers as we support them at several venues for farmers’ markets in the region. This reduces transportation costs, includes green space, and provides for economic opportunities for farmers and their employees and market managers. Our local food coop, Ozark Food Co-op, could increase stocking of local food products. Wal-Mart has pledged to increase its purchasing of local food resources, but needs to put in a plan to aid some farmers to increase production or for more farmers to start in the business. Across the country the number of people farming is indeed increasing, especially on small farms. This has provided many families with a steady income particularly needed as jobs above minimum wage are declining due to the move from manufacturing to service industries. Additionally, low income families and individuals who qualify for food stamps now have the opportunity to purchase at farmers’ markets with their SNAP benefits increasing their access of higher quality fresh produce and meat.

A number of farmers’ markets and vegetable stands have been established in Northwest Arkansas in addition to the long-running Fayetteville Farmers’ Market in the Square. Farmers’ Markets are spreading across the week (not just on Saturdays anymore) and across the region. A list of other farmers’ markets and times are available on Ozark Slow Food website which has a wealth of information on food sources, recipes, events and other news (the farmers’ markets are listed at www.ozarkslowfood.org/northwest-arkansas-farmers-markets/).

For backyard gardeners and small farmers there are a number of good local sources for seeds, plants, trees, and soil amendments. These include Chicken Holler in Farmington, Fayetteville Farmers Coop, Ozark Natural Foods (chicken feed – go to the back of ONF), White River Nursery, Westwood Gardens, Ozark Gardens and Nursery, Berries Unlimited (in Prairie Grove – great trees and prices) and Lowes (for a big box example). Check with the University of Arkansas Extension Service for selection of varieties and species of plants for this area.

As a country, we need to reduce our alliance on carbon based energy including fuels for food transportation and fuel for large-scale farming. We could make strong inroads on this by moving towards a more local food production system and provide more economic opportunities for small-scale farming and other food production entrepreneurs. This will enable us to reduce our carbon emissions by reducing large-scale farm fuel expenditures, food processing, and shipping. Local food production then will help lower the impact of climate change and provide better economic opportunities for local farmers and markets. So start by learning more about the farmers and farmers’ markets of our region and go see (and purchase) their wonderful, sustainable, healthy products.

Northwest Arkansas Planning

Green Planning in Northwest Arkansas

Transportation is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions on local and regional scales for much of the US, Europe and other industrialized areas.  Nationwide in the US, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2011 second only to energy production (33%) according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). [1] Thus targeting the transportation sector would allow cities and regions to significantly reduce their GHG emissions overtime.  Transportation industry GHG emissions reductions could be achieved by developing and instituting a regional plan to reduce auto traffic by expanding and promoting mass transit systems.  The EPA has also outlined four areas in their Smart Growth Program in which cities and regions can reduce transportation GHG[2].  These are: 1) fuel switching; 2) improving fuel efficiency with advanced design, materials, and technologies; 3) improving operating practices; and 4) reducing travel demand.[3]

Reducing travel demand can be largely achieved by planning and zoning initiatives to increase population densities in urban areas making cities more walking and bike friendly as well as increasing ridership on mass transit systems.  Planning and zoning initiatives for several regions or cities have been highly successful in curbing greenhouse gas emissions while others have been less successful.  Portland, Oregon is one of the more successful programs while Sacramento could not curb growth due in part to the lack of sites for building new schools needed for growth.  The EPA has developed a Smart Growth Program to help cities and regions such as Northwest Arkansas devise specific plans for growth while reducing GHG emissions and conserving agricultural resources, and open land.[4]  Planning and zoning initiatives would be a key component of any plan to reduce GHG emissions in NWA along with increased development of mass transit systems that would be integrated.

A green transportation plan for reducing GHG emissions tentatively called The Northwest Arkansas Regional Plan (NARP) incorporates increased public transportation ridership, bike-lanes and bike-paths, improved highway traffic flow, and greater mixed zoning regulations to decrease home-work distances.  A viable plan for Northwest Arkansas would include the cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville across two counties.  Currently, there is only minimal mass transit (buses) mostly around the University of Arkansas and the Ozark Regional Transit system (again buses) that run from Bentonville in the north to Fayetteville.  There is basically only one north-south highway route (US71 and a few east-west corridors that could be utilized.  An expanded mass transit system would form a core for zoning and planning initiatives discussed below.

Northwest Arkansas Population Growth and Urban Sprawl

Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest growing regions in the state with the population expected to more than double from 2000 levels to 771,501 in 2025.[5]  Due to current traffic congestion problems in the region, households in NWA spent more on transportation than on housing.[6]  Thus, households would gain significantly by the region adapting the EPA Smart Growth Program guidelines of reduced travel demand, increased walkability, increased mass transit, and zoning to reduce distance between home and work as well as school and home.[7]  Several of the region’s largest employees are centrally located including WalMart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt, and the University of Arkansas.  Increasing mass transit in the area around these employers as well as high density housing could significantly decrease traffic demand.

Bike lanes and bike pathways are found throughout the region, but mostly near the University of Arkansas’s Fayetteville campus.  Increasing bike paths could be done relatively cheaply by following many of the NWA stream channels for which right-of-ways exist due to potential flooding.  Bike lanes could be added to some primary roads, but mostly on secondary routes with lower traffic.  Neighborhoods should also improve walkability by increase sidewalks and by having mixed zoning so that some shopping would be easily reached by bike or walking.

Regional Mass Transit

NARP calls for development of a mass transit system starting with a bus system and moving to light rail that would be integrated with central parking lots (park and ride) reaching important employment and retail zones as well as the regional airport (Northwest Regional Airport) and the older Drake Field Airport now used many by small aircraft in the southern part of NWA.  Currently mass transit is comprised of the University of Arkansas’s bus system (Razorback Transit) which operates mostly in Fayetteville (parking.uark.edu), while the Ozark Regional Transit (ORT) which operates throughout NWA, but with limited cross-over among the few routes in runs (www.ozark.org).  Ridership is increasing on ORT with a 12% increase from fiscal year 2011 to FY 2012.[8]  With the University increasing in enrollment dramatically since 2000, total number of riders on the system in FY 2013 is over 2 million.[9]

Light rail systems have been proposed for NWA mostly to take advantage of current rail systems (Arkansas and Missouri Railroad).  A preliminary feasibility study for a light rail transit (LRT) system was done in 2005 that would extend from Drake Field in Fayetteville to Bentonville.[10]  The study suggested that the LRT is feasible, but would require both private and public support.  While mostly following the current Arkansas and Missouri Railroad line, the cost would be significant due to further land purchases for right-of-way ranging from $550 million to $1.24 billion depending upon land values.[11]  The Community Design Center at the University of Arkansas has proposed a plan to mobilize the financial and political support needed to enroll NWA in the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start program for public transit development and the Fayetteville City Council passed a resolution in 2009 supporting this initiative.[12]

The region is currently served by an active rail line – the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad – which runs 149 miles from Monett, MO to Fort Smith, AR,  This is mainly a freight line, but also provides a tourist passenger train, making day trips originating in Springdale to local areas of interest.[13]

Interconnectedness and Ridership

The transportation system should also be interconnected to allow for easy access by pedestrians, bike riders, and auto drivers.  Parking space for bikes and autos should be adequate for large special events in the region.  The system should reach across the entire region and include stops at major work, shopping, entertainment, and travel centers (airports).

Studies have shown that ridership on mass transit systems drop off sharply with distance.[14] The study suggested that most potential riders come from within half a mile from any transit line.[15]  A second study found that for older riders the distance travel dropped off faster.[16]  Thus effective zoning regulations would be needed to direct growth in a more efficient manner to help reduce growing GHG emissions.

Zoning Regulations and Building Codes

Fayetteville and the other cities in NWA seem to have developed much as other cities have.  Subdivisions spring up out of old farms separated from the downtown area and no real overall plan.  To reduce GHG emissions cities to have compact, high densities cores with businesses, stores and homes together.  This could be ringed by some subdivisions and further out would be agricultural lands and open space such as parks.  The core area should also maintain some parkland and strive to increase the number of trees to increase shading, reduce temperatures and uptake excess carbon dioxide.  A compact downtown with close in subdivisions would allow for greater usage of mass transit as few homes and businesses would be more than a few blocks from bus and rail stops.  Parking should be limited and expensive.   For example, parking in San Francisco was roughly $15 a day the last time I visited (around 2000).  The cities of the region will need to increase parking garages in order to utilize large surface lots for residential purposes.

Thus the NARP would push for zoning that would require greater development in-fill to reduce the amount of agricultural land converted to subdivisions or strip malls all too common.  Zoning and building codes would also require better insulated homes and businesses.  Tax break and incentives would promote solar power and solar hot water heaters to reduce energy consumption from non-renewable sources.  The NARP would also promote purchasing more energy in the region from renewable sources.

The local governments should mandate LEED approved building codes on all city and county buildings.  They should also promote tree plantings along residential and city streets and well as in open spaces where possible.  These sustainability and in-fill goals have also been endorsed by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Plan Council.[17]

Current Fayetteville Mayor Lionel Jordan has requested that staff research options available for strengthening commercial and residential building code standards with a specific focus on energy efficiency and indoor air quality. This initiative is consistent with Fayetteville’s sustainability efforts as well as the Mayor’s endorsement.  The City also formed a residential building code task force comprised of local home builders, architects and energy performance consultants to research, model, and develop a recommendation for the adoption of energy code changes.   After some research on home energy modeling and national standards, the task force and City staff recommended adoption of the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for residential structures with the additional requirement for a Home Energy Rating (HERS) for all new residential structures.  This was approved by the City of Fayetteville in 2012.


The Northwest Arkansas Regional Plan would adopt a variety of new transportation, zoning and building code plans to address greenhouse gas emissions for the region.  The region is nested up against the Ozark Mountains which provide a natural sink for many GHG emissions, but the region needs to significantly reduce emissions related to transportation.  Currently, roads are over-utilized as any driver in the region could attest to.  Mass transit is minimal but has been expanding as Ozark Region Transit System has developed routes in all cities in NWA with ridership reaching 2 million for 2012.  However, the transit systems are not integrated and traveling across cities is not easily or timely done.  Roads that would move people around the city away from downtown are needed, similar ring roads are common in many municipal regions such as Phoenix, Arizona.  A light rail system could take advantage of current right-of-ways and the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad tracks, potentially moving people more rapidly across the region.  Mass transit to the Northwest Regional Airport would also greatly improve the transportation system as there is no current mass transit servicing the airport.  In all, these transportation improvements could reduce emissions from the sector which is currently the largest polluting sector for the region.

[1] EPA. Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/sources.html.

[2] EPA.  Smart Growth Program: Basic Information.  http://www.epa.gov/dced/basic_info.htm.

[3] EPA.  Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Transportation Sector Emissions.  http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/sources/transportation.html.

[4] EPA.  Smart Growth Program: Basic Information.  http://www.epa.gov/dced/basic_info.htm.

[5]  Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).  Driving up the cost of living – How Housing and Transportation Costs Pressure Economic Development in Northwest Arkansas.  http://www.cnt.org/repository/Driving%20Up%20the%20Cost%20of%20Living_final.pdf.

[6] Ibid.

[7] EPA – Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Transportation Sector Emissions, supra at 3.

[8] Ozark Regional Transit.  Key performance indicators.  http://www.ozark.org/images/pdf/System%20-%20Key%20Performance%20Indicators%20FY12.pdf.

[9] University of Arkansas.  Razorback Transit Ridership 2012-2013.  http://parking.uark.edu/RidershipJuly12-June13.pdf.

[10] City of Fayetteville.  City Plan 2030.  Rail.  http://www.accessfayetteville.org/government/strategic_planning/documents/CP2030/CP2030_Final_Draft_3_21_11.pdf.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Erick Guerra, Robert Cervero, Daniel Tischler.  UC Berkeley Center for Future Urban Transit.  The Half-Mile Circle: Does It Best Represent Transit Station Catchments?  http://www.its.berkeley.edu/publications/UCB/2011/VWP/UCB-ITS-VWP-2011-5.pdf.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Daniel Baldwin Hess.  Journal of Transport and Land Use.  Access to Public Transit and Its Influence on Ridership for Older Adults in Two U.S. Cities.  2009.  https://www.jtlu.org/index.php/jtlu/article/viewFile/11/39.

[17] Northwest Arkansas Sustainable Mobility Guidelines – http://www.nwarpc.org/pdf/Transportation/Sustainable_Mobility/Sustainable%20Mobility%20Guidelines%20for%20NW%20Arkansas.pdf.  See also Green Building Codes – http://www.accessfayetteville.org/government/strategic_planning/Current%20Projects/Green_Building_Code.cfm.

Dilemma of Climate Activists

Climate Activists Dilemma

Climate activists face an uphill battle against climate deniers usually associated with the coal, oil, and natural gas industries and groups on the Republican side of the aisle funded heavily by Koch brothers and associates. However, there are enough climate deniers on the Democrat side as well, including Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) who is introducing a bill to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. This failed in the last session when the Senate vote ended in a tied 50-50. Thus, in the coming 2014 elections for US Representatives and roughly a third of the Senators the choice will be between climate deniers in the Republican and Democrat parties. The choice for Arkansas’s Senate seat that is up in the 2014 election is a prime example of this dilemma facing climate activists. Mark Pryor is an incumbent Democrat US Senator from Arkansas and is being challenged for his seat by Tom Cotton, a Republican US House Representative from Arkansas. Given the Senate seats are for 6 years, the winner will occupy the Senate seat until 2020. For climate change initiatives to work, they MUST begin well before 2020 meaning we need the winner to be an active player in abating climate change and carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) releases.
Due to the importance of this seat, questions arise concerning the voting record of both candidates for climate change initiatives. Pryor is a Dixiecrat voting more closely with the Senate as a whole versus the Democratic Party. Pryor has a weak record for voting for climate change initiatives and is pro-energy for Arkansas. Pryor has even voted for the Keystone Pipeline which will help move oil from the north to refineries in Texas and to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.
Major donors to Senator Pryor’s prior elections and the 2014 Senate race are a mixed bag of climate deniers and climate activists. His campaign has received donations from Koch Industries, Entergy, and many other corporation entities. Many of these are strong climate deniers – especially Koch Industries which is an oil, coal and gas corporation heavily interested in seeing the Keystone XL Pipeline get approved. The Koch brothers are strong supports of activists and Congressmen that work again any climate change initiatives. Senator Pryor needs to make a strong commitment to climate adaptation and mitigation strategies which will reduce the impact of climate change.
The voting record of Representative Cotton is even worse in regards to climate change and for progressive change for women and minorities. Major donors for Representative Cotton include the Club for Growth, Devon Energy, Defend America PAC, and many other corporate interests. Club for Growth according to Daily Kos came out against relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy and has stated that they do not believe climate change science. Representative Cotton has also voted against regulating gas pipelines, abortion rights for poor women, and The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
Why is this race so important? Already the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide in nearing 400 ppm when James Hansen, the leading US climate scientist and head of NASA’s climate program, has strongly stated that we need to have the CO2 level below 350 ppm. Some climate scientists believe we need to reduce CO2 levels even further to around 270 ppm, the level at the beginning of the Industrial Age. The path we are on is for CO2 levels to reach 450 ppm by 2050 and will lock us in to a 2° C increase in global temperature. We are already seeing the effects of global temperature increases in droughts (California this year), stronger storm systems, and warming of the oceans. Many major economic and infrastructural systems are already being impacted.
Agricultural systems are highly susceptible to changes in environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture levels. Climate change is reducing snowpacks and glaciers so that spring run-off in the world’s major agricultural regions is significantly reduced and will be further reduced over the next six years. Rainfall patterns are changing with increasing rain in tropics regions and reduced rainfall in more temperate regions. Crops will be impacted by rising temperatures and planting or crop selections will have to be altered for better adaptation to changing regional climate. Potentially northern regions in North America will have better conditions and agriculture can be expanded in these regions. However, this will also lead to increased breakdown of tundra and peat bogs releasing high levels of methane, a more intense greenhouse gas.
The Environmental Protection Agency can regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. However, there is a push in Congress to bar the EPA for regulating these compounds. Senator Pryor is one the few Democrats who voted to bar the EPA from this critical regulating function. The vote ended in a 50-50 tie and the measure was defeated. However, with support for Senator Pryor this issue will likely face another vote in the next Congress, especially if Republicans win the Senate. Representative Cotton also voted to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. Thus if Senator Pryor is re-elected we need to pressure him to change his vote.
While Arkansas is not a coastal state facing rising sea-levels or increased deep zones and ocean acidification, it is heavily dependent upon agriculture – especially in the southern part of the state. Rising temperatures could strongly impact rice, cotton, and vegetable production in the southern part of the state along with increasing drought frequency and intensity. Soil carbon levels will decrease with greater drought conditions impacting soil fertility and crop production levels. The potential for pest outbreaks will rise with greater winter survival and increased stress on agricultural crops. These types of impacts on agriculture will be seen across the state and country. Forests will also face similar impacts and the need for fire management under drought and storm conditions will also be important.
Senator Pryor has come out in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline suggesting that it will create jobs in Arkansas. However, these jobs will be only temporary lasting until the pipeline is finished. No permanent jobs will be created for the pipeline. The pipeline is fraught with many potential problems including long-term damage to agricultural fields and forest patches. Potential leaks could impact water resources further impacting drinking water and water for agricultural usage. The Keystone XL pipeline will be used to move diluted sand oils which are carbon-rich fuel stocks. James Hansen has stated the XL pipeline and its diluted sand oils will move the US and the world in the opposite direction of reducing greenhouse gases as much of the sand oils will be exported. The significant taxes breaks and incentives for Keystone would be better put to use to develop and implement renewable energy sources such as solar or wind systems.
The bottom line is that we cannot wait for the next election to pursue a more environmental friendly candidate, we need Senator Pryor and other Democrat climate deniers (as well as the larger number of Republican climate deniers) that are re-elected to help us protect the environment and our economic systems. By 2020, the climate situation may be so deteriorated and hostile to human life, that there is no denying global climate change. But by that time it may be too late to preserve life as we now know it. Polar ice caps, including the Greenland sheet, may be gone with a rise in sea level of 5-8 meters, increased ocean acidification would greatly the ability of many life forms to persist including coral reefs, crabs, lobsters, and any shellfish cutting off key food resources for many fish species. Many coastal cities and regions will face rising sea levels and greater waves impacts. Increased storm frequency and intensity will greatly impact much of the planet while other regions will face prolonged and severe droughts. In general, we cannot wait until 2020 to act, we need those elected in this Congress to act to support key mitigation and adaptation strategies including the use of carbon based energy systems. As noted by researchers and the central theme of 350.org’s “Do the Math” program, there is 5 (565 gigatons of carbon dioxide can be released to limit global temperature increases below 2° C but there are known reserves of 2,795 gigatons based upon oil, gas and coal company reserves) times the amount of carbon based energy in current reserves that will cause a rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius.
To prevent the consequences of climate change, we need to act now and cannot wait for 2016. We need President Obama to step up and follow the advice of his lead scientists to kill the Keystone XL pipeline. Stopping the XL pipeline would also give encouragement to many Congressional climate deniers to shift their positions and work to protect any potentially impacted environmental and economic resources (especially coastal cities and industries) from the impacts of climate change. Strong action by the President on climate issues will help convince the public and many Congressmen, including Senator Pryor, the climate change is real and will critically impact the US and its environment and economy. Thus we need to re-elect Senator Pryor, but with a push towards greater realization of the importance of climate change.

Pres Obama’s Environmental Speech

The President stated that he would not leave current and future generations saddled with serious environmental problems especially focusing on global climate change.  Pres Obama said the he would BLOCK the Keystone XL pipeline if it would lead to increased greenhouse emissions.  The only way it would not is if there were significant offsets to the construction of the pipeline and to the emissions from the dirty tar-sand oil.

I hope that the Pres will work towards restoring our National Park system to its former status as a premier ecological system.  Pledges of increased wind and solar power go a long way in fulfilling the promises and desires of Pres Carter back in the 1970′s in response to oil embargoes.  We gain much by reducing our dependence upon foreign and even domestic oil by increasing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.  Cheaper electricity and gasoline prices in the future as demand for oil and coal decrease.  Cleaner skies and improved health as a result of less atmospheric pollution.  Cleaner water and land with less drilling, fracking, and spills.