News Roundup: Ditches, smoke, and population decline

The ditches in Western Colorado’s North Fork Valley—at least the ones with senior water rights—are running full this August, fields are lush, and the milkweed is healthy. I even saw a monarch butterfly or two. Earlier this summer it looked like the ditches all would be shut down by early August, causing crops to wither. But the monsoon came in early July with a vengeance, filling up Paonia Reservoir and extending the irrigating season. One major ditch, the Fire Mountain Canal, did shut off earlier this month because most of its water rights are tied to the construction date of Paonia Reservoir, and therefore are junior to other rights in the Valley. However, consistent rainfall is helping those farmers weather the lack of irrigation. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

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The massive Caldor, Dixie, and several other fires continue to rage through drought-addled forests of eastern California and the Northwest, with the Caldor—which at 140,000 acres already has burned nearly 500 structures—now moving toward Lake Tahoe. And where there’s fire, there’s smoke, billowing into the sky and wafting across the West. Reno, just downwind from both fires, has recorded the worst air quality in the nation this week and folks further eastward have been dealing with everything from a vista-blotting haze to a lung-searing blanket of smog. 

It’s against this backdrop that a slew of grim studies on the health-impacts of wildfire smoke come to light, including: 

  • Stanford University researchers found exposure to wildfire smoke during pregnancy increases the risk of premature births, and an estimated 6,974 excess preterm births in California were attributable to wildfire smoke exposure between 2007 and 2012.

  • Recent studies have shown that short-term exposure to air pollution—including wildfire smoke—is associated with increased risk of COVID-19 and exacerbation of the symptoms. Harvard researchers looked at 92 counties across California, Oregon, and Washington to quantify the increased risk during the 2020 fire season. They found “strong evidence that wildfires amplified the effect of short-term exposure to PM2.5 on COVID-19 cases and deaths.”

  • Mark Jaffe and the Colorado Sun report on findings suggesting smoke from distant fires is just as, if not more, harmful than that from nearby fires, in part because the smell of the smoke drops out as it blows across the country while the toxins and small particulates do not. So next time you’re tempted to go for a run on one of those hazy days? You might want to just stay home and read a book, instead.

  • And Kylie Mohr, of High Country News, reports that wildfire smoke is coming for your Cherry Garcia, too: Idaho researchers have found that wildfire smoke significantly hampers dairy cow milk production in the Northwest.

If the smoky skies of the West are triggering a mass exodus or even a mellowing of the Zoom Boom influx and real estate frenzy, it’s not showing up in the stats yet. Both Truckee, California, and Reno continue to see real estate sales prices shoot into the stratosphere. Ditto with Bend, Oregon, which has had a number of fires nearby this season, as well as almost every halfway desirable town in the West, it seems.


Well, not every community. The population of San Juan County, New Mexico, which was one of the fastest growing places in the nation during natural gas booms in the 1950s, 70s, 90s, and 2000s, has fallen by nearly 10,000 over the last decade in sharp contrast to its burgeoning neighbors. Also losing population between censuses:

  • Rio Blanco County, Colorado, losing 2 percent of its population;

  • Sweetwater County, Wyoming, with a 3 percent population loss;

  • Converse County, Wyoming, losing 1 percent; and,

  • Sublette County, Wyoming, which lost nearly 15 percent of its population over a decade.

The common link: natural gas. All of these counties were methane-drilling hotspots until the so-called shale revolution, a.k.a. fracking, opened up vast new stores of natural gas, glutted the market, and drove prices into the dumps, where they remain today. When the price fell, the industry collapsed, . And since most of these places had failed to diversify their economies, the workers in the industry had little choice but to leave.

That’s not to say that every community in the gas patch shrank. Some exploded with growth, thanks both to the presence of relatively easy-to-recover oil, which kept the pace of drilling up, and a greater diversity of economic drivers. Weld County, Colorado, with natural gas and oil in abundance alongside other industries, was one of the fastest-growing places in the nation.

Since the data only go up to 2020, it does not account for the Zoom Boom, which surely will slow the decline these places if not reverse it. After all, each one has ample recreation opportunities and public land nearby, which attract telecommuters and second-home owners.

Other big population losers include counties on the Eastern plains of Colorado and New Mexico; La Paz County, Arizona; Modoc County, California; and Lincoln County, Nevada, which, oddly enough, is sandwiched between two growth giants: Las Vegas and Utah’s Washington County, which has gained more than 40,000 people since 2010, a 30 percent increase.

The West is often perceived as a place of unhindered population growth, but over the last decade dozens of Western counties actually lost population. Whether that continues during the Zoom Boom era remains to be seen. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.



A shocking, but not all that surprising, report from Zak Podmore at the Salt Lake Tribune revealing a campaign by oil and gas and mining industry officials to pressure Utah regulators to blame Salt Lake City pollution on China and other Asian countries. It provides yet another example of industry attempting to dodge accountability by obfuscating the issue and shifting blame. The stakes are high: If the Environmental Protection Agency accepts the industry’s argument, it would allow Utah to continue to exceed ozone limits, at the expense of human health.


Quote of the day, from a short piece by Dan Farber at Legal Planet:

The modern West is a human construct, dependent on a massive rearrangement of water availability across large areas. The physical and legal infrastructure of the West is geared toward a certain climate regime.  At great expense and effort, dams, canals, and irrigation systems have been carefully engineered for a climate that no longer exists. To make things worse, the legal architecture is designed to favor whoever used the water first.


CORRECTION: In a recent Dispatch, the Land Desk wrote that he saw a deer chomping away at a stunted cornfield near Pleasant View, Colorado, and included a photo of the deer and alleged corn. A dear reader, Kelly, gently corrected us: That was Sudan grass (or possibly sorghum x Sudan grass), not corn. I apologize for the error and appreciate being kept on my toes.

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