More Bang for Your Duck

California’s wild storms of January-February 2017 sure made this story for Comstock’s magazine a tough one to report: lots of canceled interviews, farms getting evacuated, levees needing to be repaired (and photo shoots rescheduled). But here we go! With photos by Ken James.

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On assignment at Rue & Forsman Ranch in the Sacramento Valley (photo by Sena)

More Bang for Your Duck

After a rough few years, Sacramento Valley rice farmers are supplementing crop profits with environmental stewardship

By Sena Christian

Rice farmer Michael Bosworth can easily recognize the distinctive “kla-ha, kla-ha” call made by white-fronted geese on his property. They always sound like they’re having a good laugh. The birds’ high-pitched yelps reveal their presence before we approach a flock of them among some wintering grounds on a December morning.

“These guys will hang out ’til we drain the fields,” he says, pointing to the geese. “We get bald eagles all winter long.” Swans, great blue herons, white-faced ibis and other waterbirds swim and wade around flooded paddies. A flock flies above in a V formation, each bird catching the updraft of the one before them.

Over the past few years, Bosworth has participated in programs to increase habitat for waterbirds along the 4,000-mile Pacific Flyway. At least one billion birds, representing 300 species, travel this journey from arctic Alaska to Patagonia, at the tip of South America. While that may sound like a lot, scientists believe it’s only a fraction of historic numbers. Along the way, millions of birds spend time in the Sacramento Valley, including at Bosworth’s Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst.

Bosworth has made his land a prime spot for the birds, and not just for the feel-good eco-vibes. Providing wildlife habitat actually boosts his bottom line.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Whenever I decide to write about water, I always think it’s such a good idea. Then the real work begins — breaking down and trying to make sense of the complexity around this limited natural resource in the American West, and telling a good story. And I’ll wonder, why did I do this to myself?! Writing about water isn’t easy. I took a solution-oriented approach in this story for Comstock’s magazine. Photojournalist Sonya Doctorian took the photos and created the video.

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A rainbow over an almond orchard in California’s Central Valley. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Sacramento water agencies work together, adapting to drought and planning for a future of growth

By Sena Christian

Dr. Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, is the godfather of research on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When he says it took John Sutter eight days to wind his way from San Francisco Bay through the Delta to find the narrow Sacramento River in 1839, you can bet that’s the truth. Not until 1913 was the mouth of the river dredged to make it a mile wide. Grizzly bears roamed the wildness, feasting on an abundance of native fish, until they were hunted to local extinction. Today in the Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of North America, only remnants remain of the natural landscape before it was irreversibly altered at the hands of people.

The Delta is a system of canals. In places, you can stand on a man-made levee with high water on one side and sunken land on the other. For 7,000 years, sediment accumulated to form deposits of organically-rich peat soil, but the last 170 years of farming have undone this natural process. About 2,300 dump trucks worth of soil is lost per day, oxidized as carbon dioxide and all told, about half of the Delta’s soil material is now gone, says Curt Schmutte, a civil engineer who specializes in Delta issues. We named plots of land in the Delta “islands,” but scientists refer to them — the majority below sea level — as “holes.”

I’m with a tour group on a hot September afternoon, and we hold onto our hats and brace ourselves as the boat tears through the water at 40 miles per hour, past invasive water hyacinth, tules, fishermen, houseboats, farmland and cattle. The Delta accumulates water from California’s largest watershed and acts as the hub of the state’s water supply system, linking water from the north to the two biggest water projects, which play a major role in sustaining the world’s sixth largest economy and much of its industry, agriculture and 39 million people.

But the Delta exists under unrelenting pressure: from land-use change, population growth, nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants, earthquakes, agriculture, sea-level rise and more. Even with money, there’s no silver bullet to fix this ecosystem — but there are plenty of battling sides. “It’s like a game of chicken,” Lund says. “How do you break a game of chicken?”

… Read the rest of the article here …

A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Ag

This summer, I returned to California’s Central Valley to report again on how the state’s historic drought is impacting farmers. Photojournalist Sonya Doctorian joined me. This time, I focused on how farmers are proactively responding and adapting. My story appears in High Country News, and you can read an excerpt below. A big thank you to the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for making my reporting trip possible!

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Chris Hurd has been farming for three decades in California’s Central Valley. He’s worried about the drought and high cost of water. (Photo by Sonya Doctorian)

A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Agriculture

Something’s got to give in Central Valley farming. The only question is what.

By Sena Christian

On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children. “All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the shuttered building, closed in 2010. “I was on the school board, the grass was green, kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.”

Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry and farm-related jobs are running out. Many other places in the eight counties comprising the San Joaquin Valley have suffered similar fates. These areas were disadvantaged to begin with, rural and isolated, lacking infrastructure, public transportation and safe housing. Persistent drought has compounded the struggles of some of the poorest communities in the nation. As of late January, 64 percent of the state was experiencing extreme drought—down from 78 percent that time last year. But even a stellar El Niño year won’t undo all the damage.

Hurd, 65, who earned a degree in mechanized agriculture from California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in 1972, has farmed for the past 33 years. These days, he tends 1,500 acres and serves on the board of a local water district. Right now, he’s debating whether to rip out 80 acres of 20-year-old almond trees whose yields don’t justify the cost of the water. Three years ago, his annual water bill was $500,000. Now, he says, it’s $2.5 million; the price per acre-foot has sharply increased since the drought. Farmers like Hurd, who have junior water rights, are the first to see their allocations from the state’s two major water projects curtailed during shortages, forcing them to invest in new wells to pump groundwater or buy water on the market. In 2014, farmers with junior water rights faced an unprecedented zero allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. That happened again last year. In late February, the federal project will announce its water supply outlook for 2016. The State Water Project has also dramatically reduced its deliveries over the last two years.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, farmers escape Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl by heading west to California in search of jobs and fertile land. Hurd says his friends have begun joking, grimly, about the reverse scenario — California isn’t working out, so why not pick up and move back to Oklahoma? “Some are leaving, some are staying to fight, a lot of them are in flux,” he says. Yet while grit has something to do with who stays and who goes, it ultimately comes down to two main factors: water and money. The survivors will likely need senior water rights and money to spend on planting high-value orchards or implementing expensive technology. Economically, California remains the largest agricultural producer in the United States. But El Niño’s precipitation not withstanding, the prolonged drought is putting some farmers under heavy duress, and no one is sure how far California’s Eden will sink.

… Read the rest of the article here …

The ‘Microbial Clock’

Here’s my latest article for Newsweek, “Using the Human Microbiome to Predict Time of Death,” inspired by a seminar visit by Dr. Jessica Metcalf during my time in the Ted Scripps Fellowship for Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder. Read an excerpt below.

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Flickr Creative Commons photo by Brandon Anderson.

Using the Microbiome to Predict Time of Death

By Sena Christian

On a Tuesday evening in July 2013, a woman in her 50s was found bound, gagged, stabbed to death and wrapped in a carpet in the driveway of her Honolulu home. The woman’s ex-husband hadn’t heard from her since the two had dinner the Saturday before, and he grew worried, so he went over to her house. No one answered the door and her car was missing, so he flagged down a security guard from a building next door. They investigated and quickly noticed a foul odor emanating from around the back of the house. The police were called in and they soon discovered the decaying body, rolled up in a moldy rug tucked away out of view in the driveway. Then they started piecing together evidence about her murder.

In cases like this, in which the body is found in some state of decomposition, one of the key mysteries is the time line of the crime. Investigators may look at cellphone records to see when the deceased sent her last text message. Or ask colleagues when she left work. They might measure the corpse’s temperature to see how much it has cooled or examine insect infestations in a body found in a shallow grave. But these methods can’t be used in all homicide scenarios, and all have flaws. A body’s temperature, for instance, will cool differently depending on if it’s been left in a sunlit room or submerged in cold water. And the more days that elapse between when someone dies and the body is found, the more difficult deciphering the time of death becomes.

“A lot of estimates for time of death really aren’t scientific at all,” says David Carter, an associate professor of forensic science at Chaminade University of Honolulu. For most deaths that’s perfectly fine, because they’re natural, the result of aging or illness. With homicides, though, that detail can be critical, as detectives use it to substantiate witness testimony and determine a timeline of the crime and validate alibis, excluding people from the suspect list. Investigators may soon have a much better—and more scientific—tool at their disposal to help with all that: the “microbial clock.”

… Read the rest of the article here …

The Fort Knox of Food

In October, I visited the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks is part of a system that safeguards the American food supply. In November, I checked out another piece of that system — the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, California. Read more about gene banks in my Newsweek feature story, and check out an excerpt below.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. (Photo by Sena Christian)

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John Preece supervises the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Davis, California. (Photo by Sena Christian)

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One of the many pomegranate varieties grown at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository. (Photo by Sena Christian)

The Fort Knox of Food

In the bowels of an unassuming building in the Colorado Front Range is a vast library of plant and animal material that could keep humanity thriving for centuries to come.

By Sena Christian

In 1948, botanist F.W. Went began a modest experiment that has since grown and grown into what is now a massive science project networked across the globe with ambitions of saving humankind. But its initial goal sought to answer a remarkably simple question: How long do seeds survive?

The year the project launched, Life magazine wrote about the “wonderfully unhurried” experiment intended to last 360 years, complete with a photo of Went, a California Institute of Technology professor at the time, standing behind shelves lined with 2,400 slender glass tubes holding 120 types of dried seeds from California-native plants.

Sixty-seven years later, Went’s seeds reside in a beige multistoried building off the quad of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Its blandness masks the significance of the project it houses. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks—the nickname for the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—is designed to safeguard the American food supply from the numerous threats posed by a rapidly changing planet. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Droughts, floods, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and the resulting hunger, malnutrition and mass displacement of people will likely become more severe in coming years because of climate change. And though poor people in developing countries will be on the front lines, even wealthier nations like the U.S. are going to have to come to terms with the urgent need for action.

Additionally, the world is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. Many believe Earth has entered its sixth mass extinction: a human-induced and accelerated decline of animal and plant species of massive proportions. What remains needs to be kept alive and available for breeding. Otherwise, the material could be lost forever—and when crop and livestock diversity is lost, so is our food supply’s resiliency to environmental threats. We can’t let that happen because the world’s population is projected to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050. And that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

… Read the rest of the article here …

What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?

My latest article for Newsweek about “What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?” is now online. Read an excerpt below:

Lions Rey and Simba are among 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International as part of its Operation Spirit of Freedom. (Photo courtesy Animal Defenders International/Rex Shutterstock/AP)

Lions Rey and Simba are among 33 lions rescued by Animal Defenders International as part of its Operation Spirit of Freedom. (Photo courtesy Animal Defenders International/Rex Shutterstock/AP)

What Happens to the Animals When the Circus Leaves Town?

By Sena Christian

Smith was destined for execution. The lion had already been castrated, declawed, separated from his mate, Amazonas, and caged with another male’s offspring. He was agitated. Then one day in August 2014, during a circus performance in Peru, as he sat perched on a pedestal above a spectator’s head, which was lowered, exposing the back of her neck, the trainer commanded Smith to jump, and his natural instinct prevailed. He pounced on the audience member, grabbing her in his jaws and dragging her around the ring until a handler beat Smith into submission and forced him back into a cage.

The spectator survived, but the incident triggered an outcry for the lion to be euthanized, says Tim Phillips, vice president of Animal Defenders International. His group countered by pointing out how it was people, not Smith, who had acted recklessly and violated a law banning wild animals in circuses. ADI successfully pleaded with Peruvian authorities for Smith’s life to be spared and, with law enforcement’s help, the group returned a few days later to seize the lion from Circo de Monaco. “The world would be appalled if a lion is effectively murdered for what comes naturally when it was human beings and the circus being completely irresponsible and stupid,” Phillips says.

In addition to Smith, 32 lions and about 60 other animals have been recovered from circuses in Peru and Colombia over the past year—following bans on the use of animals in circuses in those countries—as part of ADI’s Operation Spirit of Freedom. In some cases, the organization and the Peruvian government worked together to accept and relocate recovered animals, while other times they had to free the animals from circuses that refused to let them go. The rescue portion of the nearly $1.7 million operation was completed this July.

But freedom isn’t enough. These animals need an adequate place to spend the rest of their lives, and one that’s not “in the wild.” Animal activists can expect to encounter this challenge more often as governments continue to crack down on the use of animals in circuses; 40 nations have now outlawed this practice to some degree. (In the U.S., circuses are allowed to use wild animals in acts, though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 provides some minimum standards for the care of animals in traveling exhibits.) The stakes are high: Without a rescue group such as ADI assisting with logistics, these animals would likely be euthanized or put in zoos possibly without the infrastructure to accommodate them, or bans would simply go unenforced by overwhelmed authorities.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Closing the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

I’m so happy that my piece on the adventure gap has finally found a home with Earth Island Journal! Read an excerpt below. And check out this photo taken by Sonya Doctorian during a rafting trip with cityWILD in Denver, when I totally almost died.

Only a few minutes before, I’d been pleasantly surprised at how easy I’d found rafting to be on this, my first time doing the activity in 33 years of life. I’m in the front, peering back out of the corner of my eye to Doctorian, who’s been tasked with setting our pace.

I'm on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid in the South Platte River in Denver on a rafting trip in May (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

I’m on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

We bunker our heads down as we approach the first set of rapids, Nicastro directing our maneuvers. I clench my lips tight and paddle hard, exhibiting laser-vision focus on the task at hand, when suddenly, my butt slipped. I’m sitting too close to the edge. Too late now to reposition, our raft tipping as we whirl backward. My butt slips and then slips again until nothing is underneath but dirty, city river water, probably rife with all strains of Hepatitis. My ankle hangs precariously on the raft’s edge, causing my head to sink below the water. I reach up to release my foot then grab ahold of the chicken line around the boat’s perimeter. Sonya and Elise extend their arms as I grip my paddle. They heave ho me up to safety (Sonya, later: “The classic photojournalist’s dilemma: help or photograph? Easy decision.”). I pat the top of my head, indicating to the lead guide in another raft that I’m fine; the two other rafts, filled with cityWILD kids, had paddled furiously over to provide assistance.

“Kevin fell out too!” Sonya shouts, above the ruckus of the moving river. His head surfaces about 10 yards behind us. With Nicastro back aboard, I’m laughing inside in a delirious, adrenaline-drunk way, seeing the look of bewilderment on the faces of these kids staring at this inept woman who fell overboard on the very first rapid. I’ll never be as good at rafting as them, I think. It makes me really happy, for them, to realize that. And I’m willing to bet most of them will love rafting for the rest of their lives.

Now, here’s that excerpt:

Colorado Outfit Works to Close the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

America’s wild places need urban youth and minorities to get interested and invested in nature

By Sena Christian

Students scurry around the decrepit warehouse, pulling up the legs of their waterproof pants and zipping up splash jackets, strapping on life vests and organizing themselves into two river-rafting teams. This isn’t just a typical summer afternoon at cityWILD in Denver, Colorado. This is race day, when the kids will demonstrate their abilities on the water with speed and technical skill. They’ll have a three-mile stretch to strut their stuff, and the South Platte River is flowing abnormally high today — running at 2,320 cubic feet per second instead of the usual 800, following a week of steady rain and snowmelt.

Anticipation builds, prompting the program director Kevin Nicastro to issue reminders about sportsmanship. “We don’t normally do competitions like this. There will be people who win and people who lose today. So I want you to strategize how you want to win, and how you want to lose,” Nicastro tells the students, who don’t look like the typical whitewater rafters. Most are multi-ethnic and come from poor neighborhoods in northeast Denver where violent crime and gang-related activity are rampant. Since 1998, cityWILD has been getting these kids out of the concrete jungle and on camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowshoeing trips. The nonprofit recognizes that starting with youth is key because when kids play around in the outdoors they tend to carry this enthusiasm into adulthood.

Students with cityWILD had spent the month before their big May race learning how to raft the South Platte River, which flows through downtown Denver past homeless encampments, an REI outlet, an amusement park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Broncos play. On race day, 18-year-old Tim Smith paddles a raft confidently through rapids. He joined cityWILD as a seventh grader and by the time he was 14 years old had achieved the status of a junior raft guide, meaning he could help lead excursions. Now he’s about 6-feet tall and a high school graduate with a firm handshake, and preparing to enter the US Army National Guard.

“Before I became a student here, I had no experience (with nature),” Smith tells me. “I went walking once in awhile with my grandma, but that wasn’t really hiking. I went way out with cityWILD to places with no city lights, no cars within a mile.” The organization also paid for him to attend a month-long National Outdoor Leadership School program in Wyoming.

Youth come to the organization primarily from school referrals, outreach at community events and word-of-mouth. These youth are marginalized, whether socially, culturally or behaviorally, some with tumultuous home lives, others who have survived violence. Most have never gone on a trip with their families, says cityWILD executive director Jes Ward. Over spring break, several students camped in Moab, Utah.

… Read the rest of the article here …