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Five organizations in southern Ariz. continuing to pursue bold environmental projects amid the pandemic

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Quinn McVeigh | The Daily Wildcat

Roadside view of the Patagonia Mountains where both the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance and the Sky Island Alliance study wildlife and aim to protect through current projects

Recently, environmental organizations have had to slow down much of their efforts to promote the safety of staff and an awareness of other pressing societal issues. Some believe that this is even resulting in opportunities for the government to sneak in and break apart environmental regulations, without the defense systems of environmental organizations.

The New York Times recently reported the Trump administration is in the process of rolling back on 34 environmental provisions, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and multiple Obama-era rules.  

“With COVID-19 and also the protests, people aren’t necessarily as focused on environmental issues that are happening right now,” explained Harold Thomas, the associate director of the Watershed Management Group in Tucson. “So, it's an easy time for government to roll back a lot of legislation.” 

Still, environmental initiatives held by a diverse range of organizations in southern Arizona are proving resilience during these difficult times. Five companies, Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, Sky Island Alliance, the Sonoran Institute, Zero-Mass Water and Local First AZ are showing that environmentalists can feel some optimism despite the whirlwinds hitting American society and the environment. 

Patagonia Area Resource Alliance

In Patagonia, the environmental watchdog organization Patagonia Area Resource Alliance has a history of keeping an eye on industrial mining in the area. For years, PARA has taken steps to hold industrial mining companies to the highest environmental standards, and this has not halted in times of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, PARA staff are continuing to monitor mining activities in a variety of ways, according to Anna Sofia, the communications and outreach coordinator. Since 2012, PARA has been tracking animals in the Patagonia Mountains with cameras to see what effects industrial mining is having on the wildlife and ecosystems. Sofia and another staff member have been continuously going out into the mountains to check these cameras. 

Carolyn Shafer, PARA’s mission coordinator, explained the importance of wildlife protection and monitoring in the area. She said that poor industrial mining practices could be very harmful to the wildlife and that it is a human responsibility to ensure protection. 

“An important thing that we need to do as humans is to assure the longevity of all species,” said Shafer. “The Patagonia Mountains are part of a region that has been identified by scientists as one of the top areas in the world, most in need of protection and study for species survival.”

Similar to PARA’s own wildlife tracking project in the Patagonia Mountains, the organization is also partnering with the Sky Island Alliance and the Mexican organization Naturalia Sonora to track wildlife along the border of Mexico. This project is meant to study the biodiversity in the region of border-wall expansion. 

The organization has also been monitoring effects on the region’s waterways. For example, they recently found what seems to be a leaking mine site left from historical industrial mining. Sofia describes that they have found acid mine-drainage that is flowing across a road in a canyon in the area. PARA is trying to monitor what impacts this may have on the water and reporting on it to the U.S. Forest Service.

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“We are actively out in nature keeping an eye on things, which has been really good, and we have still been able to do that throughout the pandemic,” Sofia said. 

In light of pandemic safety precautions, Sofia said that PARA is also hoping to create a multi-platform online educational program to engage the public on the “risks and realities” of industrialized mining. They are looking to fund much of this program with a recent grant received from Western Mining Action Network.

PARA’s primary focus — acting as a watchdog against poor industrial mining practices — may be more important now than ever. Shafer explained that from the mid-1800s to around 1960, a total of 250,000 tons of ore was extracted from the Patagonia Mountains. Just one of the companies looking to mine now looks to remove about the same amount of ore from the mountains every 10 days. 

Shafer and Sofia identified some of the major dangers that PARA looks to hold mining companies accountable for. One risk of poor mining practices is the fracturing and scarring of mountains, which would allow water from the Sonoita Creek Watershed to be diverted into those areas. Then, as the water picks up residue from mining and extracted metals, water sources important for humans and wildlife can become highly contaminated. 

Additionally, Sofia noted that another worry is noise and light pollution from exploratory and underground drilling. These unnatural sounds and sights can negatively impact species in the area. For example, it can put burdens on threatened species of birds such as Mexican spotted owls and affect migration patterns, scattering populations and creating an inability to reproduce. 

With everything going on in the world from environmental pressures like poor industrialized mining practices to the pandemic, Shafer stresses that PARA and the Patagonia community are staying resilient. 

“I have lived in this community for more than 20 years, and given the chaos of the times, there is no place nor any other group of people that I want to be with as we move through these multiple crises,” Shafer said. “This community has every skill set needed to co-create a thriving and resilient community and we are determined to do so.”

Sky Island Alliance 

The primary actor in the aforementioned Border Wildlife Study initiative that PARA is participating in was launched by Sky Island Alliance. Sky Island Alliance is a nonprofit in Tucson focused on protecting precious water resources, wildlife and creating awareness around the Sky Island natural region. 

According to Emily Burns, the program director for Sky Island Alliance, the Border Wildlife Study was created in early March to document the wildlife community in the foothills of the Patagonia Mountains, the Huachuca Mountains and the San Rafael Valley. To do so, the organization and its project partners — PARA and Naturalia Sonora — have placed heat-activated and motion-activated cameras in the areas. Burns explained that these cameras are carefully arranged in a way that they can track both migrating species like black bears and mountain lions, and also the local diversity of animals. 

The Sky Island Alliance formed this project in response to the Trump administration’s border wall and its potential impacts on biodiversity. Burns explained that the federal government is furthering Trump’s border wall project, and new waivers have been issued, allowing the construction to proceed without any environmental review. 

“We felt it was imperative to step in and collect information about what animals are actually here in the path of the coming border wall so that we can share that information with the public and go forward with eyes-wide-open about potential impacts to species that we care about,” said Burns. 

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Though no border wall has been constructed yet in the region, Burns notes that past border wall studies have shown negative impacts on various species. She said that even flying species have been shown to be negatively affected, such as the once-endangered ferruginous pygmy owl.

Some of the negative effects described by Burns that could be the result of continued border wall construction include the division of natural habitats, an inability for migratory species to move and habitat fragmentation.

Burns said that in the short term, Sky Island Alliance hopes that this data can inspire people to stand up against border wall construction. In the long term, they hope that it will be baseline data that can help the public, voters and decision-makers be aware of the wildlife in the region. 

Sonoran Institute 

Another Tucson-based organization that has been quite active in environmental initiatives and projects in the recent past is the Sonoran Institute. According to the institute’s Senior Director of Programs, John Shepard, it is a community-based organization “focused on connecting communities to the natural resources that nourish and sustain them.” 

Recently, the Sonoran Institute has been active in three major projects. These projects include the restoration of the Laguna Grande, upcoming Growing Water Smart workshops and the Living River Reports. 

Since 2006, the institute has been partnering with U.S. and Mexican environmental organizations to restore Laguna Grande, a site on the Colorado River in Mexico. According to Shepard, it is the largest restoration site in the Colorado River delta. 

The Sonoran Institute was inspired to restore the flow of water through the site, the natural habitat for riparian species and the groundwater for nearby impoverished areas. These are all factors that have been damaged by the Colorado River degradation. 

“Over many decades as Colorado River water has been dammed and diverted, the connection between the river and the sea was lost, and over 90% of the original delta was lost as well,” Shepard said. 

The second initiative, Growing Water Smart, is a training program for cities, towns and counties focusing on water efficiency as the Colorado River and Lake Mead lose the capacity to provide for people. Shepard said that the Sonoran Institute has trained around 30 communities so far. Much of this training is targeted toward community water leaders and public utilities. 

“It tries to get the people who are responsible for water supply, which tend to be your utilities, to talk and plan in coordination with people who are making decisions that will affect water demand in the future,” Shepard said. 

The third major project that is being pursued by the Sonoran Institute is the continued production of Living River Reports. These are annual reports documenting the condition of the Santa Cruz River. 

For some time now, facilities have been restoring the flow of water in much of the Santa Cruz River by adding treated wastewater to it. The Sonoran Institute’s reports aim to not only examine the health of the river as treated wastewater is deposited but also to make the case for improvements of treated wastewater quality.

Shepard said that over time, as these reports have been produced and treated wastewater quality has been upgraded, they have seen promising signs of improvement in river health. For example, they have recorded the return of the Gila topminnow, an endangered fish, to the Santa Cruz River. 

Despite a series of changes that have had to be made, the Sonoran Institute and its initiatives have shown resilience during times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, Shepard urges people in the environmental field to maintain a sense of optimism during this time. 

Zero Mass Water 

Zero Mass Water, a Scottsdale based company, has been advancing the usage of hydropanels to provide “safe, clean drinking water for industrial, commercial, residential and community applications.” They mention how access to safe water is a human right for every community throughout the world. 

Hydropanels are machines that collect water vapor from surrounding air, and then condense the vapor by increasing the humidity once it reaches the hydropanel. Panels are then arranged in such a way that it allows vapor droplets to collect and provide water. This water is then purified, ozonated and mineralized. This essentially makes the production of water an infinite and renewable source.

Zero Mass Water’s initiatives look to provide the world with clean drinking water through a renewable energy source thus the “Zero Mass” title. 

These hydropanels built by Zero Mass Water help provide water to areas across Arizona, even when various environmental challenges plague the community.

CEO of Zero Mass Water, Cody Friesen, stated that “access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right that is often too expensive, too wasteful, too extractive, and too scarce.” Their hydropanels have helped to slow this problem by providing clean water to areas of Arizona that needed them the most.

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With major burgeoning environmental challenges hurting Arizona such as excessive heat and water shortages, implementing a plan to obtain drinking water is important. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, water resources in the Southwest have already declined because of the “growing population, deteriorating infrastructure and groundwater depletion,” as well as human-induced climate change. Zero Mass Water is working to combat these challenges in an eco-friendly and cost-effective way.

Zero Mass Water looks to help communities not only in Arizona but across the world. With the climate changing the environmental frontier, it is uncertain to say what will happen to the main water sources that feed into major cities and rural areas.

This will be a risk for many due to the lack of availability of freshwater. Already, the United Nations indicated that “2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress.” In response to these growing concerns, Zero Mass Water has implemented hydropanels in more than 40 other countries. 

The pandemic has not slowed the company’s bold efforts. Recent funding and expansion efforts with help from several organizations like BlackRock, Duke Energy and Breakthrough Energy, have allowed Zero Mass Water to further its hydropanel endeavors. According to Business Wire, they recently raised $50 million. 

Local First AZ 

Phoenix-based organization focused on uplifting and empowering local businesses Local First AZ has partnered with the Tucson 2030 District, to launch a significant initiative for Tucson businesses. On May 20, Local First AZ helped to launch the Southern Arizona Green Businesses Alliance

In recent years, Local First AZ has taken big steps to try and foster sustainable transformation in the southern Arizona economy. In 2018, the organization helped to launch Scale Up, a program for businesses to enrich sustainable actions through green workshops, networking and projects. In 2019, the organization launched the Arizona Green Business Program, a certification process aimed toward reducing environmental footprints. 

Now, the introduction of the green alliance is a further step for Local First AZ. This alliance allows businesses to engage in three parts. The first part is the Green Business Leaders Program. This entry-level program provides a checklist for sustainable practices that will end with a follow-up consultation, recognition for sustainable leadership and more benefits such as marketing. 

The next part is Scale Up, adopted from the original program started in 2018. This is an intermediate level program with more interactive learning opportunities. 

The last part is the involvement in the Tucson 2030 District. Tucson’s district is part of a collaborative effort among national districts to reduce water and energy consumption and emissions from transportation by 50% as soon as 2030. 

According to Claire Kaufman, the sustainability program manager for Local First AZ, the program has been adjusted in many ways to adapt organizations to current circumstances. 

“COVID hit and we did a lot of adjustment on the programs to focus them even more on resiliency, so how businesses can be prepared in cases of disaster,” Kaufman said. 

Kaufman also described that adjustments have been made to the programs to integrate a more holistic education, including lessons on equity, social justice and environmental justice. 

“It’s about making an economy that is environmentally resilient, economically resilient and socially resilient,” Kaufman said.

A wide range of environmentally-concerned organizations are continuing to take strides toward improving the health of ecosystems, important natural resources and communities during the times of the pandemic. 

The Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, the Sky Island Alliance, the Sonoran Institute, Zero Mass Water and Local First AZ are only five of the many organizations fighting against the odds to ensure environmental resilience despite everything that is happening.

For example, Watershed Management Group launched an initiative called Steward in Place, with the goal of connecting people to projects they can do from home that can help with an array of Tucson’s environmental concerns. 

According to Shepard, this resilience is at the core of environmentalism.

“To be an environmentalist means you’re an optimist."


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