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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Northern California sees driest winter on record

Drought eradicates the green

Nearly 100 years ago, Dust Bowl refugees from the middle of the country sought new lives and livelihoods in the Golden State. Now California is fixing to become its own damn dust bowl. The last two months in the northern Sierra Nevada, normally the wettest time of the year, have shattered an all-time weather record as the driest January and February in recorded history.

From The Sacramento Bee:

The northern Sierra is crucial to statewide water supplies because it is where snowmelt accumulates to fill Shasta and Oroville reservoirs. These are the largest reservoirs in California and the primary storage points for state and federal water supply systems.

If February concludes without additional storms -- and none are expected -- the northern Sierra will have seen 2.2 inches of precipitation in January and February, the least since record-keeping began in the region in 1921.

That is well below the historical average of 17.1 inches.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Piranha cover-up in South Carolina

South Carolina officials didn't want residents to know that they could soon be bitten by teeth like these
South Carolina officials didn't want residents to know that they could soon be bitten by teeth like these.

Piranhas could be poised to invade South Carolina.

Scarier than the possibility of being eaten alive while taking a dip in Palmetto State waters is the fact that government officials tried to keep the danger a secret from the state's people.

An onslaught of piranhas is one of many hazards South Carolina faces as the climate changes, according to a 102-page report drafted in 2011 by scientists working for the state Department of Natural Resources. The draft was shelved by department board members, despite earlier plans to distribute it for public review, meaning the scientists' warnings could have been kept from the public had The State newspaper not recently obtained a copy.


Cities compete to win Bloomberg funds for innovative projects

Last summer, New York mayor and soda-hating bazillionaire Michael Bloomberg's charity launched "The Mayors Challenge" to award $9 million to five cities "that come up with bold ideas for solving major problems and improving city life." The field has now been whittled down to 20 top concepts.

"From sustainability and public health, to education and economic development, cities are pioneering new policies and programs that are moving the country forward," said Bloomberg in announcing the contest. "Historically, cities have seen each other as competitors in a zero-sum game, with neighbors pitted against each other in a battle to attract residents and businesses. But more and more, a new generation of mayors is recognizing the value of working together and the necessity of borrowing ideas from one another."

Bloomberg seems to miss his own point, though, in setting up a battle for funds between cities, some of which have far more resources and innovation street cred than others (I'm looking at you, San Francisco). That's part of why I want to give a special shout-out to Milwaukee's entry for the city's HOME GR/OWN project.

Read more: Cities, Food


Shell to ‘pause’ Arctic drilling in 2013

After an epic string of screw-ups, Shell is pulling way back on its plan to conquer the far north frontier and drill the ever-loving hell out of it. Pause, baby, pause!

Shell's Kulluk drilling rig, which the company ran aground in Alaska in December.

Shell has spent more than $4.5 billion in its quest for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the north coast of Alaska and so far has nothing to show for it but a series of embarrassing mishaps.

"Our decision to pause in 2013 will give us time to ensure the readiness of all our equipment and people following the drilling season in 2012," Marvin Odum, director of Shell's "Upstream Americas" operations, said in a statement.


Can we afford to give a $40 billion gift to oil companies?

One of America's gifts to oil and gas companies: Billions of dollars worth of royalty-free drilling.
One of America's many gifts to oil and gas companies: billions of dollars worth of royalty-free drilling.

What present do you give to the corporation that already has everything?

In the case of Chevron, the U.S. has provided a gift of $1.5 billion in royalty-free drilling in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s.

That's according to a new analysis [PDF] of Interior Department figures by the office of Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. He is calling on his colleagues in Congress to end the handouts.


BP testifies: We knew about ‘big risk’ of explosion

BP knew this could happen before it happened
U.S. Coast Guard
BP knew this could happen before it happened.

BP knew. BP didn't care.

The company was aware that there was a "big risk" of an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig before that very disaster unfolded, an executive acknowledged Tuesday in court.

"There was a risk identified for a blowout," Lamar McKay, who was president of BP America at the time of the 2010 explosion, said Tuesday during a civil trial that could see the company forced to fork over tens of billions of dollars in fines and damages to the U.S. government and victims of the oil spill. "The blowout was an identified risk, and it was a big risk, yes."


Why shouldn’t you eat horse?

From Tesco to Burger King to IKEA, the horse-meat saga has gripped the western world for the past month. Horse hasn't even made it into stateside meaty meals, but you wouldn't know it from our outsize horror at the idea of chowing down on lovable ponies.


As someone who hasn't eaten animals in a really long time, I've been kind of confused about all this. Why the moral panic about this four-legged mammal and not all the other ones that end up in sandwiches? This isn't a modest proposal -- I'm genuinely trying to understand.

"The unfolding drama around Europe's horse-meat scandal is a case study in food politics and the politics of cultural identity," Marion Nestle wrote at Food Politics. "They (other people) eat horse meat. We don't. Most Americans say they won't eat horse meat, are appalled by the very idea, and oppose raising horses for food, selling their meat, and slaughtering horses for any reason."

Raising horses for meat was re-legalized in the U.S. in late 2011, against the wishes of the Humane Society, which argued that horses shouldn't be eaten because they're considered "companions." But since then, no horse slaughterhouses have actually managed to open their doors in the U.S.; one would-be horse-meat purveyor recently sued the government for moving too slowly on inspections.

As Cord Jefferson points out at Gawker in a post entitled "You should eat horse," horse meat is cheaper than beef, comparable in terms of calories and protein, and has way more omega-3 fatty acids. But he notes that there's some legit cause for concern:


From red to black: How Philly remade its transit system

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority has come a long way, baby. Back in the '90s, it was mired in $75 million in debt and under investigation by the FBI. Now it's being honored [PDF] as one of the top transit agencies in the nation.


The Philadelphia Daily News has the story of how SEPTA was turned around over the last two decades, in large part thanks to board chair Pat Deon. After years of operating in the red, Philly's transit systems added revenue-generating advertisements, balanced its budget, and drove right into the black.

SEPTA's chief financial officer, Richard Burnfield, said the Deon-era board's commitment to running SEPTA like a business with balanced budgets has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding that riders enjoy through new Silverliner V regional-rail cars ($330 million), 440 new hybrid buses ($232 million) and beautifully rebuilt subway stations such as Spring Garden and Girard ($30 million).

There were also some notable cultural shifts at the agency.

A big accomplishment during Deon's tenure has been the cessation of hostilities between the 15-member board's 13 suburban members and two city members.

Read more: Cities


Pesticides are killing off America’s birds

This adorable burrowing owl could be killed by agricultural pesticide
Flickr: Len Blumin
This adorable burrowing owl could be killed by agricultural pesticides.

Q: How are burrowing owls like honeybees?

A: Both are being inadvertently slaughtered by massive applications of pesticides.

OK, so that wasn’t a funny joke, although it might have been nuanced enough to land me a job at The Onion. And truth be told, it wasn’t actually a joke.

A study published in the online journal PLOS ONE finds that the use of pesticides is the leading cause of a decline in grassland bird species in North America. From the Twin Cities Pioneer Press outdoors blog:


Global food giants get bad grades on environment and ethics


They may have located our ideal bliss points, but multinational food companies are far from hitting the mark when it comes to treating workers and the environment decently.

A new "Behind the Brands" report from Oxfam rates "10 of the world's most powerful food and beverage companies" on their ethics: Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestle, Kellogg's, General Mills, Associated British Foods, PepsiCo, Unilever, Danone, and Mondelez International (previously known as Kraft). Surprise: They didn't do very well. The highest grade was a 38 out of 70.

From the report: