February 26, 2021
More than 500,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 since the pandemic hit this country and the world just over a year ago. NPR is remembering some of those who lost their lives by listening to the music they loved and hearing their stories. We’re calling our tribute Songs Of Remembrance.
I don’t believe anyone could choose his favorite song; everything he wrote was a labor of love. The final gift he gave us was “I Remember Everything,” which turned out to be maybe his most prophetic. His music inspired millions of fans worldwide and leaves his family with a lasting legacy.
The song title says it all: “I Remember Everything.” It evokes so much emotion and so many memories, they’re truly hard to separate. My best memory of John is the last conversation we had — about six weeks before we lost him. It ended the way every one of our conversations ended: “Love you, Cuz!” —Jennifer Johnson,
Alberto, July 13
Photographs by Russell Monk with Text by Valerie Mejer Caso
Mr. Monk is a photographer. Ms. Mejer Caso is a Mexican poet and visual artist
Feb. 25, 2021
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — We Mexicans live behind masks of our own creation, even if in these portraits they are more a symbolic gesture of futility than protection.
They are like a garment that protects our vulnerabilities and allows us to express ourselves.
The city of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, where we live, was quick to enact a strong response to the coronavirus and, as a result, the city has one of the lowest case rates in Mexico. But its citizens, already economically battered, have been depleted by the pandemic.
“The red alert is ringing, and we’ve known this is coming for a long time.”
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News
Southern California farmers spend their winters watching the snowpack in the Colorado Rockies, and what they see is the climate crisis hitting hard. When it melts, the snow that falls on these peaks will, eventually, make its way into the Colorado River, which connects the Southwest like a great tendon, tying the Continental Divide in Colorado to Southern California’s hayfields, where the Imperial Irrigation District is one of the country’s largest, and pouring from the faucets of urban users in Los Angeles and San Diego.
From California’s perspective, the view upriver is not encouraging. More than half of the upper part of the river basin is in “exceptional drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while the Lower Basin is even worse off: More than 60% of it is in the highest drought level. In January, water levels in Lake Powell, the river’s second-largest reservoir, dropped to unprecedented depths, triggering a drought contingency plan for the first time for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.
Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has seen a sustained period of less water and hotter days. This is, as climate scientists like to say, the “new normal.” But within this new normal, there have been exceptional drought years. One of them was 2020. Last year began with an encouraging snowpack in the Colorado Rockies. But a warm spring followed, and, then the seasonal summer monsoons never came to drench the Southwest. The lack of precipitation persisted into the fall and early winter, leaving the basin in a condition dire enough that water policy wonks—not a crowd known for melodrama—have begun using words like “scary” and “terrifying.”“In the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.”
“In the 20th century on the Colorado River, nature was bent to human will,” the study stated. “Because we are now fully consuming its waters, and inflows are expected to decline, in the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature.”
The current version of the Colorado River Compact—the legal agreement that governs the river—expires in 2026. It will be renegotiated over the next several years amid a patchwork of interests, including seven Southwestern states, myriad agricultural districts, the Mexican government, some of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, including Las Vegas and Phoenix, and many tribal nations, whose legal claims hve historically been discounted. A compendium of policies, historic water rights, court rulings, laws and agreements, the Colorado River Compact allocates water for tens of millions of people and some of the most important agricultural regions in the country.
The impending renegotiation will determine how that water is distributed as the demand for water outstrips the river’s dwindling flow. Meanwhile, according to numerous models, the impacts of climate change will only intensify. A recent study from the Center for Colorado River Studies predicted that the Lower Basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona could be forced to reduce their take from the river by up to 40% by 2050.
“It’s a red alert,” said Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “Everyone knows the red alert is ringing, and we’ve known this is coming for a long time.”
OF ALL THE VARIOUS METRICS available to measure this challenge, storage capacity at the Colorado River’s important reservoirs is one of the most useful. In January, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation estimated that Lake Powell could dip below a crisis threshold by 2022.
This forecast is not the most likely one, but the study triggers a drought-planning process—an acknowledgement that the worst-case scenario could come to pass for one of the country’s most important water storage sites. In 2019, Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., hit its own version of this threshold, which led Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to voluntarily limit their Colorado River water use for the first time ever.
Put together, both Mead and Powell are on track to reach their lowest recorded levels ever in 2021, KUNC reported. Water levels in Mead and Powell languish at about 40% capacity, according to the most recent figures.
This future complicates the amalgamation of treaties, policies, laws at various levels of government, court decisions and agreements that make up the governance of the river, stretching all the way back to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the original interstate agreement. To give just one example, the Upper Basin states have long planned increased water use—water that the over-allocated basin can’t afford—thereby increasing the likelihood, according to the study, of a situation where the Lower Basin states would not receive their fair share of water. The result would be a “call” on the river, with the Lower Basin states demanding more water and legally mandated cutbacks for more junior water users higher on the river, including the city of Denver. The ensuing legal fights would be ugly.
This grim future hangs over the next several years, as both the Upper and Lower Basin states renegotiate the rules governing the Colorado River and work to reduce the water they use and keep crucial reservoirs filled. But these negotiations are difficult and political, with self-interest competing against the need to do right by the basin as a whole. Meanwhile, sensing profit in scarcity, Wall Street and hedge funds are pushing to privatize Colorado River water and allow markets to trade the resource as a commodity, according to a recent New York Times investigation.
The problem with vast water negotiations like the Colorado River Compact, said Marcus, the Stanford water policy expert, is that every entity, from governments down to people watering their lawns, come to expect the current amount of available water—even if that availability is an outlier or set to change. “Farmers can’t expect that they can plant whatever they want or not expect water to be expensive,” she said. “Urban areas need to get way more efficient, people need to ditch way more lawns.”
Note: This story was updated to clarify that states are renegotiating the rules that govern the river, not the Colorado River Compact itself.
crédito total de la foto, Edgar Boyles
These percentages are based on a 30 year running average.
We used to dream big. Now we’re increasingly thinking short term.
- Feb. 23, 2021
In the last six months I’ve heard one phrase more often than I had in my previous 66 years: “Can you believe this is happening in America?”
As in: “I spent the whole day hunting online for a drugstore to get a Covid vaccination. Can you believe this is happening in America?”
“Fellow Americans ransacked our Capitol and tried to overturn an election. Can you believe this is happening in America?”
“People in Texas are burning their furniture for heat, boiling water to drink and melting snow to flush their toilets. Can you believe this is happening in America?”
But, hey, all the news is not bad. We just sent a high-tech buggy named Perseverance loaded with cameras and scientific gear 292 million miles into space and landed it on the exact dot we were aiming for on Mars! Only in America!
What’s going on? Well, in the case of Texas and Mars, the basic answers are simple. Texas is the poster child for what happens when you turn everything into politics — including science, Mother Nature and energy — and try to maximize short-term profits over long-term resilience in an era of extreme weather. The Mars landing is the poster child for letting science guide us and inspire audacious goals and the long-term investments to achieve them.
The Mars mind-set used to be more our norm. The Texas mind-set has replaced it in way too many cases. Going forward, if we want more Mars landings and fewer Texas collapses — what’s happening to people there is truly heartbreaking — we need to take a cold, hard look at what produced each.
The essence of Texas thinking was expressed by Gov. Greg Abbott in the first big interview he gave to explain why the state’s electricity grid failed during a record freeze. He told Fox News’s Sean Hannity: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. … Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”
The combined dishonesty and boneheadedness of those few sentences was breathtaking. The truth? Texas radically deregulated its energy market in ways that encouraged every producer to generate the most energy at the least cost with the least resilience — and to ignore the long-term trend toward more extreme weather.
“After a heavy snowstorm in February 2011 caused statewide rolling blackouts and left millions of Texans in the dark,” The Times reported Sunday, “federal authorities warned the state that its power infrastructure had inadequate ‘winterization’ protection. But 10 years later, pipelines remained inadequately insulated” and the heaters and de-icing equipment “that might have kept instruments from freezing were never installed” — because they would have added costs.
As a result, it wasn’t just Texas wind turbines that froze — but also gas plants, oil rigs and coal piles, and even one of Texas’ nuclear reactors had to shut down because the frigid temperatures caused a disruption in a water pump to the reactor.
That was a result of Abbott’s Green Old Deal — prioritize the short-term profits of the oil, gas and coal industries, which provide him political campaign contributions; deny climate change; and dare Mother Nature to prove you wrong, which she did. And now Texas needs federal emergency funds. That is what we capitalists call “privatizing the gains and socializing the losses.” I don’t know what they call it in Texas.
But to disguise all that, Abbott trashed his state’s trendsetting wind and solar power — power it pulls from the sky free, with zero emissions, making rural Texans prosperous — in order to protect the burning of fossil fuels that enrich his donor base.
Abbott’s move was the latest iteration of a really unhealthy trend in America: We turn everything into politics — masks, vaccines, the weather, your racial identity and even energy electrons. Donald Trump last year referred to oil, gas and coal as “our kind of energy.” When energy electrons become politics, the end is near. You can’t think straight about anything.
“For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself — reference points of truth and a conception of the common good,” explained the Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”
Making everything politics, added Halbertal, “totally distorts your ability to read reality.” And to do that with Mother Nature is particularly reckless, because she is the one major force in our lives “that is totally independent of our will.” And if you think you can spin her, Halbertal said, “the slap in the face that she will give you will be heard all across the world.”
You don’t have to listen too carefully to hear it. Although it is still too early to say for sure, the Texas freeze fits a recent pattern of increasingly destructive “global weirding.” I much prefer that term over “climate change” or “global warming.” Because what happens as average global temperatures rise, ice melts, jet streams shift and the climate changes is that the weather gets weird. The hots get hotter, the colds get colder, the wets get wetter, the dries get drier and the most violent storms get more frequent. Those once-in-100-years floods, droughts, heat waves or deep freezes start to happen every few years. That’s how we will experience climate change.
According to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “The U.S. has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (including C.P.I. adjustment to 2020). The total cost of these 285 events exceeds $1.875 trillion. … The years with 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events include 1998, 2008, 2011-2012, and 2015-2020.” This year, after this Texas disaster alone, could set a record — and we’re only in February.
If global weirding is our new normal, we need a whole new level of buffers, redundancies and supply inventories to create resilience for our power grids — and many more distributed forms of energy, like solar, that can enable households to survive when the grid goes down. Looking to maximize profits around fossil fuels in an age of global weirding is just begging to get hammered.
As Hal Harvey, C.E.O. of Energy Innovation, remarked to me: “Cavemen understood that you have to store things up to be secure. Birds know that. Squirrels know that. So, what are we doing? And what was Texas doing?”
Every leader needs to be asking those questions. Leadership always matters. But today, it matters more than ever at every level. Because in a slower age, if your city, state or country had a bad leader and got off track, the pain of getting back on track was tolerable. Now, when climate change, globalization and technology are all accelerating at once, small errors in navigation can have huge consequences. They can leave your community or country so far off track that the pain of getting back on track can be excruciating.
Just look at Texas and you’ll know what I mean. And just look up at Mars, and think of the mind-set that got us there, and you’ll know what needs to change.
Housing crisis intensifies in the West
|Jonathan P. Thompson|
Feb 24, 2021
I’m worried. Maybe a bit disgusted, too.
It’s no secret that housing prices in many of the “best” places—particularly those at the gateway to public lands and outdoor recreational opportunities—have been climbing for years. Nor is it news that homeownership for the working folks in these places grows more and more elusive with each passing year.
Now, on top of that, there’s the Zoom Boom. Pandemic-spurred remote work is freeing folks from the office and the cities and they are buying up remote work-centers, aka houses, in places far away from cubicles. The effect has been akin to throwing gasoline on an already raging fire, and real estate markets from Bozeman to Bend to Tucson to Truckee have exploded.
I wrote about this phenomenon for High Country News a couple of months ago. With more end-of-year data available, it’s clear that the phenomenon is more than a momentary flare-up, that it goes deeper than a mere Zoom invasion, and that the real estate fire appears to be getting hotter and even spreading to previously lower-priced markets.
It’s the spread that has me worried.
I resigned myself a long time ago to the fact that I may never be able to afford to buy a house in my hometown of Durango, Colorado, and that I will always be an economic exile from the place of my birth. In the years since I made that realization, home prices have continued to flame uncontrollably (my income, meanwhile, is burning about as hot as rain-sodden cardboard).
But I could always find a little bit of comfort by moving that Zillow mouse a few miles away from Durango proper, as home prices tended to drop in direct proportion to the distance from the town’s historic center. Things would always be affordable over on the Dryside, I thought, or out Arboles-way, where my wife and I bought a very groovy home twenty years ago for a whopping $84,000 (but sadly had to let it go). It’s the old “drive till you qualify” non-policy of affordable* housing, leaned on by communities from Jackson to Aspen to Durango to ensure that they have workers to keep the places running.
But now even those far-out places are getting pricey. According to the latest statistics, prices are going up everywhere, and the stock of affordable** homes throughout the entire county is vanishing. The following graphs really drive it home, so to speak:
In other words, you could drive all night and still not qualify unless you make significantly more than the median income for the region. Even a couple of veteran Durango school teachers making a combined salary of $100,000, and with $500 in additional monthly debts, such as kids’ college tuition or student loan payments, only could afford a $370,000 house—far below the median home price—and that’s only with a $20,000 down payment. And who has $20k lying around?
Similar patterns are appearing everywhere, not just in so-called Zoom towns. The median home sales price in the Los Angeles metro area climbed from an already astounding $644,000 at the beginning of last year to over $720,000 now, out of reach of even relatively well-paid Angeleno workers; Denver’s prices shot up by 11 percent over the last year. Rental rates follow home prices.
Something is bound to break. As housing costs climb further out of reach of the average worker, the abyss between the wealthy and the poor widens. When drive-till-you-qualify breaks down, the non-Zoom workers have little choice but to crowd into substandard housing, move into tent-towns, or set up camp in the backseat in the Wal-Mart parking lot. And even those who already own a home see their property taxes rise, making it more and more tempting to sell out, take that equity, and hightail it to Greece, thereby gutting the community of its core members.
Perhaps the most maddening part of all of this is that the Zoom Boom isn’t the half of it: The biggest real estate action is happening in the ultra-high end luxury markets. Given the prices folks are forking out, it’s hard to imagine that these are one-time office workers becoming telecommuters. The Aspen market saw 90 sales over $10 million last year and the average home price shot up to more than $11 million. San Miguel County, home of Telluride, had a record-smashing year for real estate sales volume. “The lifestyle provided by our quaint town in the San Juan Mountains … was the prevailing force driving an extraordinary influx of demand,” crowed the Telluride Properties real estate activity report.
Half a million people have died in the U.S. due to complications from COVID-19 and the U.S. economy shed nine-million jobs during 2020. Yet the super-rich kept getting richer (WARNING: clicking this link may result in rage). And many of them, apparently in search of that “quaint” lifestyle, spent their excess cash on palatial resort-town refuges, even as businesses in those same communities struggled and local governments suffered from revenue shortfalls.
There is no vaccine against unfettered greed and Congress long-ago abandoned the progressive tax policies that kept runaway-wealth in check through the 1970s. Given that many members of Congress are multi-millionaires, meaningful change on that level may prove elusive, no matter which party is in power.
But there is a local and/or state level policy tweak that could, at the very least, allow communities to capture some of the huge volumes of cash being shuffled around in real estate deals: a real-estate transfer tax on high-end sales. It would have to be progressive. So, for example, the rate would be 0% for sales below $300,000; 1% for $300,000 to $500,000; 2% for $500,000-$800,000; and then the rate would ratchet up from there.
Naysayers will try to claim that this will dampen sales. It won’t—Aspen and Telluride both have one†. Nor is it a radical idea. A number of states have implemented them and others are considering it. Meanwhile it would bring in millions of revenues that could be used for affordable housing. A 2% tax on Teton County property sales would have brought in nearly $50 million last year, which could build a lot of affordable housing units.
Such a tax is not the solution. It merely would be an incremental step toward the massive overhaul of policy, tax structure, and even worldview that is needed to tackle the twin crises of unaffordable housing and wealth inequality that threaten to crush our communities, especially the “best places.”
On a somewhat related note: More than two decades ago, some New York real estate folks proposed building Cloudrock, a new town of sorts at Johnson’s Up on Top, a swath of mesa-land southeast of Moab, Utah, with stunning views of the La Sal Mountains. It would be anchored by a luxury “wilderness” lodge and include pricey condominiums, some of which would be Tuscan-themed, others built in the “spirit of the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde,” according to marketing material.
Cloudrock got mired in controversy and court cases and seemed to have vanished after the financial crisis of 2008. But then, a couple of months ago, it emerged from the dead, sort of: Sotheby’s International “marketed for the first time” Cloud Rock-Parcel One, a 175-acre “cliff edge development opportunity, ideally suited for a luxury wilderness resort or private estate.” It goes on:
In the center of our mesa, world-renowned Urban Planner Andrés Duany has designed our small village in the wilderness, a jewel in our landscape. A center for makers, creators & dreamers and the best off-the-grid coffeeshop in the world, for when you just want to take a short bike ride for good coffee and conversation.
Apparently it’s up to the purchaser of the land to build this stuff. Anyway, if that description makes you a bit nauseated, I’d suggest not looking at Cloudrock’s Instagram bio (close your eyes now!)
What the … !? Anyway, if you’re interested, the parcel’s asking price is a mere $22.7 million. But hey, that’s a small price to pay to be “Connected to the Stars,” no?
*It’s no longer so affordable when the costs of commuting long distances are factored in. In the Durango area, for example, the average person spends more than half of their income on housing + transportation.
**For this post I’m using the standard definition of “affordable,” meaning that no more than one-third of one’s total income is spent on housing.
†Colorado lawmakers prohibited communities from implementing real estate transfer taxes as part of the short-sighted, fiscally-idiotic TABOR reforms of 1992, which continue to plague state and local budgets. It’s time to throw TABOR out, for once and for all. Arizona also has a ban on transfer taxes.