Tag Archives: nebraska

The Midwest braces for yet another major storm

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It’s been less than a month since a bomb cyclone hovered over parts of the Midwest, dumping a mix of snow, sleet, and rain on the region. The system wreaked havoc on people, animals, infrastructure, and destroyed over $440 million in crops in Nebraska alone. Now, a similar weather event is headed that way again.

Wyoming and Colorado will get a healthy coating of snow in the mountains tonight and tomorrow, but the storm won’t get really worked up until it moves into the central portion of the country midweek.

Forecasters aren’t yet sure if we can call this storm bomb cyclone 2.0, but it will bring snow, high winds, and possibly thunderstorms to the Plains and Upper Midwest starting on Wednesday. Winter storm watches are in effect in six states. Folks in the High Plains, Northern Plains, and upper Midwest are bracing for what could amount to more than 6 inches of snow, though models show the heaviest band of snow potentially delivering upwards of 30 inches in some places.

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While the snowstorm itself is certainly cause for concern, it’s the snowmelt that will occur after the system dissipates that’s truly troubling for a region still struggling to recover from the March deluge.

Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. has experienced twice the usual amount of precipitation. More than 50 flood gages — devices that monitor water levels — across the country are at moderate or major flood stages. Many of those are located in the Midwest. (For reference, moderate flooding as defined by the National Weather Service is when some buildings, roads, and airstrips are flooded or closed.) April temperatures will quickly melt snow brought in by the storm, adding more water to already-saturated areas.

“This is shaping up to be a potentially unprecedented flood season, with more than 200 million people at risk for flooding in their communities,” Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, told CBS News.

An April storm on the heels of a March downpour isn’t just a bad coincidence. Research shows that spring flooding is one of climate change’s many disastrous side effects. As warmer springtime temperatures arrive earlier in the year, the risk of damaging floods worsens. Case in point: Over the past 60 years, “the frequency of heavy downpours has increased by 29 percent over the past 60 years” across the Great Plains, my colleague Eric Holthaus writes.


The Midwest braces for yet another major storm

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Climate change is overwhelming our crappy water infrastructure

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Most of Nebraska is a disaster area with 95 percent of the state’s population affected by flooding. According to FEMA, total economic losses are approaching $1 billion, including more than $400 million to agriculture and more than $400 million to public infrastructure. Cascading levee failures along the Missouri River have meant that, for the time being, there’s essentially nothing holding back the floodwaters.

Six Nebraska public drinking water systems went offline, and dozens of wastewater treatment facilities failed — including one for Omaha which officials say could take weeks or months to restore. In several cases, raw sewage is being discharged into streams and rivers.

For rural residents who get their water from private wells, that added pollution could prove dangerous. Emergency room visits for gastrointestinal issues increase after heavy rains.

As climate change makes rainstorms more intense, this problem will only worsen. Across the Great Plains, the frequency of heavy downpours has increased by 29 percent over the past 60 years. Flooding isn’t just a quickly damaging natural disaster that destroys roads, bridges, homes, and factories — it’s a lingering public health issue.

This problem isn’t unique to Nebraska. In recent years, floods in Texas, the Carolinas, and coastal Virginia have swept hazardous material from the petrochemical industry, hog farms, and agricultural land into waterways, threatening public safety.

As of 2015, there were 772 cities — mostly in the Midwest and Northeast — with outdated sewer systems that funnel waste directly into streams as a matter of course even without record-breaking floods. These systems were cheap to build in the 1800s, but now people are starting to reconsider “combined sewer overflow” systems.

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has campaigned on his record of using eco-friendly methods, like rain gardens and expanding parks near floodplains, and technology to deal with its combined sewer system. City officials say they’ve saved $500 million by adding smart sensors to its sewer system.

Cities are trying to hold polluters accountable for cleanup costs, too: A new wave of “failure to adapt” lawsuits might help put pressure on industry to put more foresight into how climate change might turn their infrastructure into toxic waste sites.

Lawsuits and tech aside, the most effective way of adapting to climate change may ultimately be a planned retreat from coastlines and waterways — giving more space for nature as a buffer.


Climate change is overwhelming our crappy water infrastructure

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Record-breaking flooding in Nebraska is visible from space

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Governor Pete Ricketts has declared more than half of Nebraska’s 93 counties a disaster area as record-breaking spring floods have swollen into a catastrophe. “This really is the most devastating flooding we’ve probably ever had in our state’s history, from the standpoint of how widespread it is,” Ricketts told CNN on Monday. Even the National Weather Service in Omaha was forced to abandon their office due to flooding.

Here’s how it happened: Last week, a hurricane-strength storm system unleashed torrential rainfall over the deep Nebraska snowpack, flash-melting huge quantities of water and overwhelming dams and levees. Unusually warm temperatures have remained in place since the storm’s passage, worsening the runoff. The resulting flooding has been visible from space.

USGS Landsat Program

Spring flooding happens nearly every year in the upper Midwest, but current flooding has far surpassed previous all-time records on Nebraska’s major waterways. Climate change means springtime temperatures are arriving earlier with more intense early-season rains, worsening the risk of damaging floods. In one location, the Missouri River broke its previous record by nearly four feet.

The most spectacular flooding resulted from the failure of the 90-year-old Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska when it unleashed an 11-foot wall of water on Thursday. Before the flood gauge on the river failed, “it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” Jason Lambrecht, a Nebraska-based hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”

The flash flood destroyed roads, homes, and bridges before emptying into the Missouri River and joining with meltwater from South Dakota and Iowa. On Saturday, two levees breached on the Platte River, cutting off the town of Fremont, Nebraska — the state’s sixth-largest city. A volunteer airlift has been supplying the city over the weekend and performing rescues.

As of Monday, water levels have crested in most of the state, though major flooding will continue for several days. Offutt Air Force base near Omaha — the home of U.S. Strategic Command — remains inundated, a poignant sign of climate change as a national security risk. There are dozens of road closures across the area.

Eastern Nebraska is just the worst-hit region: Major flooding is currently underway in parts of seven states in the upper Midwest, with near-record flooding expected to spread northward into Minnesota and North Dakota in the coming weeks. In Minnesota, officials expect a greater than 95 percent chance of major flooding, possibly rivaling all-time records.

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Record-breaking flooding in Nebraska is visible from space

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This GIF shows how far the 100th Meridian has shifted since 1980

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Climate change works in mysterious ways; it isn’t limited to wildfires and melting ice. Today’s climate exhibit: The 100th Meridian — the famous dividing line that separates America’s wet East from the dry West — has migrated 140 miles east since 1980.

The boundary passes through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas — America’s breadbasket. Once you cross the divide, the rain-soaked grasses of the East turn into dusty plains, with the occasional cactus dotting the landscape.

“Passing from east to west across this belt a wonderful transformation is observed,” remarked John Wesley Powell, famous explorer of the West, in 1890. The conservationist was the first to mark the transition line, which became known as “100th Meridian” because it closely follows the 100th meridian of longitude (a vertical line that stretches from the North to South Poles).

But we may have to change the line’s name someday. The shift is the result of rising temperatures drying out parts of the northern plains and less rain falling further south, YaleEnvironment360 reports. This could be due to natural variability — changes caused by nonhuman forces — but the migration aligns with what researchers tell us to expect from global warming.

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This GIF shows how far the 100th Meridian has shifted since 1980

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Is the government planning a crackdown on Keystone XL protesters?

Based on newly released emails, the American Civil Liberties Union suspects the government plans to treat Keystone XL protesters with counterterrorism tactics.

The ACLU sued the Trump administration on Tuesday to turn over more records detailing cooperation between the federal government and state officials in Montana in anticipation of protests against the planned Keystone XL pipeline.

The reason the ACLU is suing? It recently obtained emails through the Freedom of Information Act that provide “substantial evidence of federal preventative measures against Keystone XL protests,” according to the ACLU’s press release. And it’s concerned that government plans to surveil and police indigenous and environmental activists infringe on their First Amendment rights.

TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, expects to begin construction on the pipeline expansion next year. The once-dead pipeline project, revived by President Trump, would transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day from the Canadian tar sands through Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, coming within a hundred miles of a dozen tribal lands.

The ACLU obtained emails revealing that federal employees discussed an “interagency team” to “deal with safety and security concerns related to the Keystone XL project.” It also found evidence indicating that the Department of Justice held “anti-terrorism” and “social networking and cyber awareness” trainings in Montana.

These records “suggest that additional documents documents exist, which the government continues to withhold, detailing plans for protests,” the ACLU said in a press release. The organization filed its original records requests in January, after it got its hands on Department of Homeland Security analysis that characterized pipeline opponents as “environmental rights extremists” intent on “criminal disruptions and violent incidents.”

During the Dakota Access pipeline protests in 2016, Standing Rock activists were watched over by drones and monitored on social media. The company behind that pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, hired the private security firm TigerSwan to launch a military-style surveillance and counterintelligence campaign against the activists, who TigerSwan labeled “jihadists.” Police used tear gas and water cannons against protesters. Some Standing Rock activists now face years in jail.

“Evidence that the federal government plans to treat Keystone XL protests with counterterrorism tactics, coupled with the recent memory of excessive uses of force and surveillance at the Standing Rock protests, raises immense concerns about the safety of indigenous and environmental protestors who seek to exercise their First Amendment rights,” writes Jacob Hutt, who filed the ACLU information requests, in a blog post.

There’s a long tradition of environmental activists facing charges of “ecoterrorism,” a word coined by libertarian activist Ron Arnold in the 1983. As we wrote last month, the term picked up steam in the ’80s and ’90s, and was eventually named the “the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat” by the FBI in 2004. Yet a 2013 study that found “there is no documented evidence of harm coming to humans as a result of actions by radical environmentalists.”

Despite their relatively peaceful protests, it seems that environmental activists are still viewed by the government — and by oil companies — as a threat.

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Is the government planning a crackdown on Keystone XL protesters?

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Hot weather strains the grid. Here’s how we could fix that.

Electricity crackled and arced between wires as Los Angeles residents watched, filming with their phones. And then the power died.

As temperatures have soared this summer, Angelenos have cranked up their air conditioners, straining power lines. On July 6, overloaded lines gave out and left 46,000 people sweltering in the dark.

Extreme temperatures lead to extreme electricity demand, so when sweltering weather settled over Texas in mid-July, the electric system that serves most of the state set three all-time records for power demand, one hour after another.

“This summer has been seen as a make-or-break test,” for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, wrote Joshua Rhodes, who researches energy at the University of Texas, Austin.

Tougher tests are sure to come. Summer temperatures usually peak in August or September for the most densely populated areas of Texas and California. Every year, Los Angeles seems to set a new electricity demand record, said Martin Adams, Chief Operating Officer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

“Until the last few years we haven’t had many hot days downtown,” Adams said. “People are starting to put in air conditioning where they’ve never had it before.”

As the planet warms, higher temperatures and extreme weather are becoming more common, and that puts more stress on electric systems. The heat is already severe enough that farm workers in Georgia and Nebraska, as well as a postal worker in California, have died during this summer’s heatwaves. Rising temperatures trigger a dangerous chain reaction: More people run air conditioners to keep themselves cool, which strains electrical systems causing blackouts, which exposes people to hazardous heat.

How do we snap that chain? Experts have a few suggestions:

Replace old wires

When electricity demand surged in Los Angeles, pieces of the electrical system started to blow up. “Every weak link in the system shows up in a case like that,” Adams said. “A lot of times the failures are kind of explosive in nature.”

The sun was cooking the system from the outside, and the electricity surging through the wires was cooking it from the inside. When workers went to fix fried wires in one underground vault, a wall of 160 degree heat turned them back. They had to wait until the vault cooled to 120 degrees to check out the problem, Adams said.

It’s better for both utility workers and customers if utilities can replace aging parts ahead of time. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is spending about a billion dollars a year upgrading equipment, Adams said. And they’ve focused efforts on areas that get the hottest, like the San Fernando Valley.

As people around the country draw more electricity to cope with extreme weather, utilities will have to install thicker wires and quickly replace old transformers.

Let the market work

As demand for electricity soared in Texas, so did prices: A megawatt hour of power — which goes for $40 to $80 in normal conditions — went for more than $4,000. The maps charting prices in California and the Southwest turned from mellow green to high-alert red, indicating unusually high rates. That alert triggered power plant operators across the region to fire up generators that had been sitting idle until electricity prices went high enough.

“There are some power plants that operate basically only on the very hottest day of the year,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University. “These are basically aircraft engines on cement pads that can be turned on within five minutes. And they might need to earn their entire revenue in a few hours of a hot July afternoon.”

High prices also send a signal to solar companies to build more panels, especially in Texas, where the peak demand for electricity comes roughly at the same time as the sun is highest in the sky.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of solar built in Texas in the next few years,” Rhodes said. “By 2020, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had double the solar we have now.”

Although prices influence production of power, they don’t do much to change how people use electricity. “When there’s a shortage of electricity, the prices go up, but customers are mostly still paying the same price they would at any other time,” explained James Bushnell, an energy economist and the University of California, Davis.

Even if people were more exposed to electricity prices, it might not be enough to get them to run around the house unplugging appliances, Wara said. If we could get people to use less energy for non-essentials during peak hours, it could prevent blackouts before they happen. But how?

Manage demand

A while back, Rhodes’s electricity provider made him an interesting offer: Austin Energy wanted permission to control his thermostat for 15 minutes at a time, four to six times a year, when electricity demand was peaking. (Rhodes has one of those smart thermostats, so the company could adjust it remotely.) In return, Austin Energy, would pay him $85 a year. Rhodes took them up on the offer and has no regrets. He doesn’t even notice when they take over. But by making tiny adjustments to thousands of thermostats like his, the power company is able to ramp down its power demand.

In most places however, utilities haven’t gotten this sophisticated. In Los Angeles, the utility asks customers to raise their thermostats a few degrees, and to avoid doing laundry during peak times. The utility can also make a dent in demand by turning down its own machines. When things started heating up in mid-July, the utility turned off some of the massive pumps it uses to suck water hundreds of miles over mountains and hills. That alone accounted for drop of 60 megawatts, Adams said.

In the future, utilities will likely get better at strategically curbing consumption, said Mary Anne Piette, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Utilities might even be able to make surgical tweaks like preventing a neighborhood blackout by moderating its electric demand as its wires start to overload, she said. For instance, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power might see the temperatures rising toward 160 degrees in that underground vault, and react by turning down the air conditioners of the customers downstream, allowing the equipment to cool before it blows up and leaves them with no air-conditioning at all.

The more the climate changes, the more people need electricity to cool them down. Unless we upgrade our electrical systems to prepare, there will be a lot more people sweating in the dark.

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Hot weather strains the grid. Here’s how we could fix that.

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Nebraska gives the green light to Keystone XL — with a twist.

In a long-awaited decision, the Nebraska Public Service Commission announced its vote Monday to approve a tweaked route for the controversial tar sands oil pipeline.

The 3-2 decision is a critical victory for pipeline builder TransCanada after a nearly decade-long fight pitting Nebraska landowners, Native communities, and environmentalists activists against a pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

After years of intense pressure, President Obama deemed the project “not in the national interest” in 2015; President Trump quickly reversed that decision earlier this year. But TransCanada couldn’t go forward without an approved route through Nebraska, which was held up by legal and political proceedings.

In the meantime, it’s become unclear whether TransCanada will even try to complete the $8 billion project. The financial viability of tar sands oil — which is expensive to extract and refine — has shifted in the intervening years, and while KXL languished, Canadian oil companies developed other routes to market.

The commission’s decision also opens the door to new litigation and land negotiations. TransCanada will have to secure land rights along the new route; one dissenting commissioner noted that many landowners might not even know the pipeline would potentially cross their property.

Meanwhile, last Thursday, TransCanada’s original Keystone pipeline, which KXL was meant to supplement, spilled 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Due to a 2011 Nebraska law, the commissioners were unable to consider pipeline safety or the possibility of spills in their decision.

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Nebraska gives the green light to Keystone XL — with a twist.

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Oil companies are just not that into Keystone XL.

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Oil companies are just not that into Keystone XL.

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The newly revived Keystone XL’s future is in the hands of a red state.

Politico reports that senators from California, Vermont, Colorado, and Hawaii came out with legislation to give undocumented agricultural laborers a “blue card” — a sort of talisman to ward off deportation.

To qualify, immigrants would need to have worked at least 100 days on farms in each of the previous two years. They would have the opportunity to convert their blue cards to some form of legal residency later on.

This would come as welcome relief to workers who produce labor-intensive products like milk, fruit, and vegetables. On the other hand, it’s an example of government trying to keep farm labor semi-legal and cheap. Because most farmworkers live in a legal gray zone, they have little bargaining power and few options, which keeps wages from rising.

It’s a tough deal: We’d be asking immigrants to keep our food prices down by taking hard, low-paying jobs, and in exchange they’d get an anti-deportation card.

On yet another hand — we need at least three hands to juggle this one! — that kind of tradeoff is inevitable. For now, Congress is unlikely pass any immigrant protections unless the farm lobby can pull in Republican votes.


The newly revived Keystone XL’s future is in the hands of a red state.

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A Federal Judge Just Ignored Jeff Sessions and Approved Baltimore’s Police Reforms

Mother Jones

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Despite the opposition of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a federal judge in Baltimore on Friday locked in place a consent decree between the city’s police force and the Department of Justice. While local officials cheered the order, which seeks to reform the troubled Baltimore Police Department after the Obama Justice Department found widespread unconstitutional and discriminatory practices, Sessions issued a blistering statement predicting that crime would rise as a result.

“I have grave concerns that some provisions of this decree will reduce the lawful powers of the police department and result in a less safe city,” Sessions said. “Make no mistake, Baltimore is facing a violent crime crisis.”

The Justice Department opened an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department in 2014 after the Baltimore Sun revealed that the city had paid out millions in more than 100 civil suits alleging police misconduct and brutality. That investigation expanded the following year after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Under Sessions, the Department of Justice has begun to walk back its commitment to federal oversight of police departments with discriminatory patterns or practices, a priority of the Obama administration. Earlier this week, Sessions ordered a review of all consent decrees between police departments and the Justice Department. Department lawyers asked the US district court in Baltimore to put off approving the consent decree for at least 30 days so the new administration could review it.

But in his opinion Friday, US District Judge James Bredar said the time for reviewing the agreement had passed. “The case is no longer in a phase where any party is unilaterally entitled to reconsider the terms of the settlement; the parties are bound to each other by their prior agreement,” Bredar wrote. “The time for negotiating the agreement is over. The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.” The 227-page consent decree, which places new rules and limits on how officers can interact with the public and mandates training in de-escalation tactics, among other areas of training, will take effect immediately.

Sessions’ statement suggests he is wary of the comprehensive oversight of the city’s police department mandated by the decree. He even appeared to question the allocation of resources for what he described as a “highly paid monitor,” who will ensure the decree’s provisions are met. This puts Sessions at odds with the Baltimore Police Commissioner and the city’s mayor, both of whom are highly supportive of the consent decree and spoke out against a possible delay in implementing it. The decree “will support and, in fact, accelerate many needed reforms in the areas of training, technology, and internal accountability systems,” Commissioner Kevin Davis said in a statement Friday. Despite Sessions fears, as Mother Jones previously reported, a recent study by police reform expert Samuel Walker at the University of Nebraska in Omaha found that consent decrees are largely effective in achieving long-term reforms.

Sessions claimed the agreement had been hastily put together in the final days of the Obama administration—and indeed it was finalized shortly before President Donald Trump was inaugurated. The Justice Department had issued its final report last summer, but Baltimore officials reportedly hurried the final agreement after Trump’s election. This ultimately prevented Sessions from halting its progress.

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A Federal Judge Just Ignored Jeff Sessions and Approved Baltimore’s Police Reforms

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