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Alexis Madrigal's Posts


American aqueduct: The great California water saga

The San Luis Reservoir in the center of California is a key link between the State Water Project and the federally funded Central Valley Project.
Alexis Madrigal
The San Luis Reservoir in the center of California is a key link between the State Water Project and the federally funded Central Valley Project.

Hood, Calif., is a farming town of 200 souls, crammed up against a levee that protects it from the Sacramento River. The eastern approach from I-5 and the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove is bucolic. Cows graze. An abandoned railroad track sits atop a narrow embankment. Cross it, and the town comes into view: a fire station, five streets, a tiny park. The last three utility poles on Hood-Franklin Road before it dead-ends into town bear American flags.

b82dcc12aI've come here because this little patch of land is the key location in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $25 billion plan to fix California's troubled water transport system. Hood sits at the northern tip of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a network of human-made islands and channels constructed on the ruins of the largest estuary from Patagonia to Alaska. Since the 1950s, the Delta has served as the great hydraulic tie between northern and southern California: a network of rivers, tributaries, and canals deliver runoff from the Sierra Mountain Range's snowpack to massive pumps at the southern end of the Delta. From there, the water travels through aqueducts to the great farms of the San Joaquin Valley and to the massive coastal cities. The Delta, then, is not only a 700,000-acre place where people live and work, but some of the most important plumbing in the world. Without this crucial nexus point, the current level of agricultural production in the southern San Joaquin Valley could not be sustained, and many cities, including the three largest on the West Coast -- Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose -- would have to come up with radical new water-supply solutions.


Shooting the well: The petroleum torpedoes of the early oil fields


Before the fracked gas boom of the last 10 years, before the rise of mega oil companies, before the entire 20th century, actually, humans figured out how to increase the flow of fossil fuels from a well. It was simple: Take an iron container about the size of a large thermos, stick some black powder or other explosives into it, stick a blasting cap on it, send it down the well, and then send a weight down to detonate it. BOOM. They called this, "Shooting the well!" And I believe the "!" is required, as in Yahoo!

The process was first commercialized by Colonel E.A.L. Roberts in 1865, a veteran of the Civil War, and he soon formed the The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company. But his success spawned a host of imitators, and the whole thing devolved into a patent brawl out there in eastern Pennsylvania near Titusville in the region that was once known as Petrolia. (I told this story in my book on the history of green technology because ... well, I think because who can resist petroleum torpedoes?)


Let's get this party started

Debating new strategies for curbing global warming

The Climate Next essays we've been publishing have inspired a snappy discussion around the e-campfire about the future of climate policy. Our panelists exchanged nearly 7,500 words over email this week, and reading through their debate you realize that what starts as a discussion about climate ends up a discussion about things that are much more viscerally important to us: electricity, the United States' role in the world, how technology improves, and the health of people and their families. After more than a century of carbon-intensive development, any effort to turn away from fossil fuels will require a realignment of …


Speaking of Facebook...

Energy Secretary Steven Chu posts his nuclear rationale on Facebook

Originally posted at Inventing Green. Following the Department of Energy's announcement of a loan guarantee for a new nuclear plant, the Nobel Prize-winning head of the agency, Steven Chu, laid out his rationale for nuclear in clear and plain language. It's a pretty conventional argument: 1) "no single technology will provide all of the answers," which is obviously true, and 2) large-scale storage options are necessary for grid-integration. "[R]emember that wind and solar are intermittent energy sources. The sun isn't always shining, and the wind isn't always blowing," Chu wrote. "Without technological breakthroughs in efficient, large scale energy storage, it …