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Detroit will stop shutting off people’s water — for now

water-protest
Light Brigading

Monday morning, the Detroit Water and Sewerage District (DWSD) announced that it would stop shutting off people's water, at least for now. What was it, in this infrastructural showdown I wrote about last week, that caused the change of heart? Was it the condemnation from the U.N.? The protestors blocking utility shut-off trucks? The giant march on Friday, featuring Mark Ruffalo and a megaphone? The children holding signs that read "We need water to brush our teeth”?

The DWSD isn't saying. Here's what it is saying: "We are pausing for 15 days to refocus our efforts on trying to identify people who we have missed in the process who may qualify for the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program." That's according to DWSD spokesperson Bill Johnson in a phone interview this morning.

The Water Assistance Program is a long-defunct but recently revived program that allows Detroit residents who are below the federal poverty line to keep their water running as long as they agree to pay a fraction of the overall bill each month. The program was suspended in 2012 when all of the people who managed it at the Detroit Department of Human Services were laid off. The program continued to accumulate money, Johnson says, but there was no one around to help pass it out. This June, DWSD signed a contract with THAW -- a nonprofit that helps Michigan residents with their heating bills -- to restart the Water Assistance Program.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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These amazing animated maps show cities on the move

It knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you're awake. It knows if you've been driving, biking, or walking, and it records it, for data's sake.

Human is an app that tracks activity with the goal of getting users to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. It uses the M7 motion co-processor, a handy little iPhone microchip with gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer sensors, to track and record your every move -- even while your phone is asleep.

Creepy? Maybe a little. But what with the NSA so busy looking at pictures of you in your underwear, maybe a device that tracks how you get around on a daily basis isn't all that bad.

This month, Human's parent company released a series of neat-o visualizations of walking, biking, running, and driving patterns for 30 cities around the world. Check out the video here:

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Let them drink olive oil

California’s next oil rush might be surprisingly delicious

olives
Gabriele Tudico

Olives trees have a lot to offer the United States. One of those things is water -- and this year, as California dries to a shriveled crisp, water is looking especially important.

Most olives grown around the world have no irrigation. The trees are built for drought: They have narrow, waxy, abstemious leaves. They’ve evolved biological tricks for going dormant when things get too dry; they hunker down and then spring back when the rains come. These skills are appealing to farmers, especially ones who have recently ripped out a drought-ravaged orchard, thereby walking away from a 20-year investment.

It’s nearly impossible to say whether California’s drought is linked to climate change. Current models suggest that the state could actually get a little wetter, but they also suggest hotter summers and greater extremes. When the droughts do come, they are going to be serious.

One projection is clear: There are going to be a lot more people sticking their straws into the communal cup. So, right about now, this tree that’s adapted for California’s Mediterranean climate, survives without irrigation, and produces food at the same time seems pretty cool.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Listen up, EPA!

Feds move to restrict neonic pesticides — well, one fed at least

Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Byron Chin

So far the EPA has refused to ban use of neonicotinoid insecticides -- despite mounting evidence that they kill bees and other wildlife, despite a ban in the European Union, despite a lawsuit filed by activists and beekeepers.

But if the EPA is somehow still unclear on the dangers posed by neonics, it need only talk to the official who oversees federal wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Ocean.

Kevin Foerster, a regional boss with the National Wildlife Refuge System, directed his staff this month to investigate where neonics are being used in the refuges they manage -- and to put an end to their use. Foerster’s office is worried that farming contractors that grow grasses and other forage crops for wildlife and corn and other grains for human consumption on refuge lands are using neonic pesticides and neonic-treated seeds. There are also fears that agency staff are inadvertently using plants treated with the poisons in restoration projects.

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Cargolicious

Whole Foods will bring you groceries by bike

peoples-cargo

OK, I'll admit right off the bat that I wasn't so excited when my editors suggested I write about Whole Foods making deliveries by bike. Now affluent people who can't be bothered to pick up their own groceries can have a slightly lower carbon impact -- I mean, where's the champagne!

But after I sat with this for a second, I decided there is reason to celebrate. Cargo-bike deliveries make a lot of sense for companies, even if they don't care about the environment: They don't get hung up in traffic, they don't require parking spaces, they don't guzzle fuel, they're cheaper than delivery vans, they are easy to repair ... The list could go on. But they are still pretty rare because, basically, change is hard.

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Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

solar panel rainbow
Steve Jurvetson

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being -- essentially -- appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can't show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

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Past gas

Living next to natural gas wells is no fun

fracking protestors holding hands
Brett Rindt/Erie Rising

Driving around the rural back roads of Garfield County, Colo., you don’t see many cars. But one type of vehicle keeps popping up, often the only one you’ll see for hours: the white pickup trucks favored by gas drilling companies. Here in the central western part of the state, the rolling fields of scrubby yellow-green vegetation are frequently punctuated by natural gas wells. Even after a well has stopped producing gas, big cylindrical tanks of waste water and natural gas condensate remain, sitting behind low fences by the roadside. Too often those tanks emit toxic substances into the air or leak their contents into the ground, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene.

Are these ones leaking?
Are these ones leaking?

People who live on or near properties with gas wells say they have experienced an array of health effects from exposure to high concentrations of these chemicals. The known immediate effects of exposure to high concentrations of benzene, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include headache and drowsiness. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, as well as fertility problems in women.

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Sierra Club chief weighs in on conservation heroes, green energy, & Bruce Springsteen

michael-brune
Sierra Club

We have a new game we like to play with famous (and infamous) visitors to Grist World HQ. It's called Vs., and it goes something like this: Famous person sits down. Gristers present visitor with two related words or ideas or songs. Gristers then force visitor to choose one over the other -- and explain why he or she chose it. Visitor squirms, Gristers giggle, repeat. It's fun!

This time around, our lucky guest was Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. And it turns out this is a game he's already pretty good at: Not only did he somehow manage to get through our questions without offending anyone (does that mean we lost?), he flipped the table around by saying a few things that got our wheels turning.

Natural gas vs. nuclear? Pounding the pavement vs. cutting a trail? Thunder Road vs. Ghost of Tom Joad? Watch the video to find out!

Read more: Climate & Energy

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This crusty activist gave up on playing by the rules. What are they gonna do, arrest him?

Alec Johnson
Tar Sands Blockade

It’s been over a year since Alec Johnson was arrested for locking himself to an excavator sitting on a pipeline easement in Atoka, Oklahoma. He’s still waiting to go to trial. Rural Oklahoma communities only hold jury trials once or twice a year, and every time a new court date comes up, Johnson gets bumped – priority goes to anyone charged with a felony or presently cooling their heels in jail, which Johnson is not.

A lot has changed in that year. The protest around U.S. energy policy and climate change has shifted fronts – coal terminals, oil-by-rail, divestment, solar, and a massive climate rally planned for this September. Keystone XL South (now renamed the Gulf Coast pipeline) is up and running and being monitored by an ad hoc group of volunteers. Keystone XL is on hold until after the November U.S. elections -- possibly for good, though Johnson has his doubts. “In my experience, the ruling class pretty much gets what they want when they want,” he says.

Johnson has been arrested seven times, though there’s a gap of several decades in the sequence. The majority of his arrests happened in the mid-'70s, outside of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Johnson was a member of a direct-action group called the Clamshell Alliance, and getting arrested was a whole different business then. “I got the shit kicked out of me,” he said. “They had their badge numbers taped over. A lot of white people that doesn’t happen to, but it happened to me.”

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Mailed it

This rogue bicycle pony express delivered mail in 1894

If any of the cyclists who participated in the great bicycle messenger mail route were still alive to tell the tale, it would make the ultimate "when I was your age story."

Picture this: San Francisco, 1894. The Pullman rail strike in Illinois cuts off all rail service west of Detroit, leaving California train-less and thus, mail-less. One "enterprising citizen" and bicycle salesman Arthur C. Banta decides to create a fixie chain gang relay along a 210-mile stretch from San Francisco to California's Central Valley with eight primary riders. He charges $0.25 for stamps, 10 times the price of standard mail at the time.

I can just hear the conversation now:

Read more: Living