Saturday, April 15, 2023

After regional daily closed 2 satellite papers in N.Y. county, locals pledged to support them, and they have come back

How can rural communities sustain local journalism that supports local democracy? That was the question posed by last year's second National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. The simplest answer, which is often the best answer, seems to be: with their money, spurred by leadership.

Adapted Google map highlights towns involved. Click to enlarge.
In 2019, the Johnson family of Jefferson County, New York, publishers of the Watertown Daily Times, stopped publishing the daily Ogdensburg Journal and one of its two weeklies in adjoining St. Lawrence County, citing economic difficulties. and saying "Readers in those communities had already chosen the Watertown Daily Times as their source for news and information."

But two years later, as the pandemic began to lift, the Journal was revived as a weekly after local businesses in the city of 10,436 pledged their support for it, and the next year the weekly St. Lawrence Plaindealer in the county seat of Canton (town pop. 11,638) was reborn in the same way. The leader of the effort was James D. Reagen, a county legislator and former Journal editor, who “cobbled together a group of civic and business leaders” who pledged to support the paper, Editor & Publisher owner Mike Blinder says in the latest edition of his “E & P Reports.”

Without the Journal, elected officials felt no one was watching them, and “A lot of poor decision-making occurred because there was nobody to help sort through” anonymous allegations on social media and blogs, Reagen told Blinder. “There was no one to sort out the truth from the fiction, there was no one to hold people accountable for what they were saying. . . . That is one of the important roles of a newspaper at any level . . . to be sort of the arbiter of fact, the voice of reason, the community rallying point.”

Reagen rounded up businesses who pledged to advertise in the Journal, said Tom Grazer, Johnson Newspapers’ managing editor for St. Lawrence County. “That was a key component,” he said. People in Canton “saw what was going on in Ogdensburg” and did likewise. “Both newspapers have done well.” The company also piublishes the twice-weekly Courier Observer, which serves the towns of Massena (pop. 12,883) and Potsdam (14,901), more distant from Watertown. St. Lawrence County has 32 towns (in New York almost all places are in a town or a city) and about 110,000 people, and is the state's largest county geographically, at 2,821 square miles.

Laura Pearson, executive director of the Greater Ogdensburg Chamber of Commerce, told Blinder that businesses were willing to support the paper because “They understand the value of promoting locally” and “the Journal takes care of everybody. . . . To lose the Journal really hurt the city a lot.” Now, she said, “Our community understands how important the Ogdensburg Journal is to us.”

Friday, April 14, 2023

4-day week helps rural Iowa school districts recruit and keep teachers; one feared child-care issues, but it worked out

Shelby Shull, a sixth-grade teacher in the Cardinal district, uses her off day to prepare
for classes, and thus has the weekend free. (Photo by Jim Slosiarek, The Gazette) 
A four-day school week has helped Iowa school districts attract and keep teachers, reports Grace King of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. "The WACO Community School District in Wayland, Iowa, first shifted to a four-day school week a decade ago for the 2013-14 school year. . . . Since then, three other school districts have joined WACO in the four-day school week experiment. . . . School officials are finding it makes it easier to recruit staff, especially in rural communities where it's hard to attract new talent. Educators in these districts said research shows the change does not affect students' test scores."

"WACO High School Principal Tim Bartels said the district has been able to more easily fill vacant teaching positions, and applicants mention the four-day school week drew them to opening. This year, Bartels said, one open teaching position received 14 applications," King writes. "This is especially notable with fewer people entering the profession nationwide. There are about 20 percent fewer people going to college for education degrees since 2000, according to Pew Research Center."

WACO, named for the towns of Wayland, Crawfordsville and Olds, includes five rural counties with two schools, but its four-day model is being considered by bigger districts.

Cardinal Community School District in Eldon, Iowa, serves 1,100 students, has also moved to the shortened week. "Supt. Joel Pedersen said the switch to a four-day school week this year was to 'stay competitive' with larger schools in more urban areas that can offer higher salaries to staff. Earlier this year, the school board approved continuing the four-day model for the 2023-24 school year." 

Before Wayland's switch, district officials anticipated a possible child-care crisis, but the issue resolved itself. King explains, "Child care providers, educators and residents said many families already had contingencies for days when children weren't in school during the week, including grandparents watching the kids and high school students earning money babysitting. . . . When WACO schools first shifted to a four-day school week, child care was offered to families on Fridays throughout the district. The child care option was discontinued after just two years because of lack of attendance."

At science teachers' meeting, a pro-CO2 comic book gets wide distribution, but then its distributors are asked to leave

Simon learns about CO2. (Washington Post image)
When Simon the Solar-Powered Cat was distributed at a recent science teacher convention, it didn't make waves -- until some teachers started reading it, reports Maxine Joselow of The Washington Post. The comic book was created and distributed by "the CO2 Coalition, a group that rejects the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are causing catastrophic climate change. . . . The group claims it distributed about 700 comic books to teachers at the National Science Teaching Association's convention last month before being kicked out of the event."

At first, the story of Simon seemed like typical cat-book fare, "but on Page 5, the story took an unusual turn: A 'friendly scientist' explained that Simon subsisted not on kibble, but on carbon dioxide," Joselow writes. "The scientist concluded that CO2 was a 'miracle molecule' that fueled all life on Earth by helping plants turn sunlight into food." In the book, the friendly teacher explains, "Simon's diet of sunlight, atmospheric carbon dioxide and water is similar to that of all other creatures, even children."

The book features a friendly scientist. (Washington Post image)
Joselaw notes, "A large majority of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming by emitting massive amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases." But despite that knowledge, the CO2 coalition claimed success with science teachers. Gregory Wrightstone, executive director of the CO2 Coalition, told Joselow, "We were overwhelmed by the positive response from the teachers at the convention. In fact, by the second day, we had handed out all of the comic books we had brought."

"On the second day of the convention, an official with the NSTA asked members of the CO2 Coalition to stop distributing their materials or leave, according to a YouTube video uploaded by the coalition," Joselow writes. "When Wrightstone refuses to comply, NSTA chief operating officer Ryan Foley said, 'All right, then you're being kicked out. You should pack up and get out.'"

Joselow reports, "The coalition's efforts come as some states have failed to update their standards for teaching climate change in public schools, leaving students at risk of learning incorrect ideas. . . There is evidence that climate instruction is popular. About 77 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that 'schools should teach about global warming' in a 2021 poll by Yale University's Program on Climate Change Communication; about 22 percent disagreed. Tony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program, told her, "It's actually one of the most supported policies we have measured."

"The episode raised concerns among scientists and education experts that the teachers could spread climate misinformation to their students," Joselow reports. "It comes as states take divergent approaches to climate instruction in public schools, with New Jersey requiring students to learn about climate change in nearly every class and the Texas Board of Education calling for science textbooks to emphasize the 'positive' effects of fossil fuels." Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, told Joselow, "By focusing 100 percent on this idea that plants need CO2, they're intentionally misleading people by avoiding the real problems of CO2, which they didn't talk about at all. It's kind of like if you're talking about cigarettes, and all you talk about is how cool they make you look."

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Doctor shortages in rural America reduce access to care, and lack of rural residency programs adds to the problem

Dr. Bridget Martinez visits a patient in Elko, Nevada.
(Photo by Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, KFF Health News)
One of the best ways to encourage doctors to practice in rural areas is to get them to do their residencies at rural hospitals or clinics, but such residency programs are in short supply and some are closing, Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez reports for KFF Health News (formerly Kaiser Health News; KFF stands for Kaiser Family Foundation, which wants to seperate the news service from Kaiser Permanente, a health insurer).

In Elko, Nevada, a young resident physician, Bridget Martinez, has to leave June 30 because the program in the city of about 20,000 between Reno and Salt Lake City is ending for a variety of reasons, including financial struggles, lack of a united support system, and a historical lack of health-care investment in the area, Rodriguez reports.

That will reduce the number of doctors at the clinic to three from four, making it more difficult for residents to get primary care -- shortages of which affect more than 100 million people in the U.S., a number that has nearly doubled since 2014, Rodriguez reports, noting that rural health-care provider shortages only got worse during the pandemic.

"Researchers say the relative lack of providers is one reason people living in rural areas experience worse health outcomes than people who live in urban areas," Rodriguez writes. "Experts say expanding the number of medical residency training programs in rural areas is key to filling gaps in care because many doctors — including more than half of family medicine physicians — settle within 100 miles of where they train. And while the number of training programs has increased in rural areas during the past few years, research shows 98% of residencies nationwide are in urban areas."

Members of Congress have introduced bills to address the health care provider shortage, but to no avail. Meanwhile,  rural medical training programs need more state and federal investment to grow and remain sustainable, Dr. Emily Hawes, associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine, told Rodriguez. 

Hawes said there has been some progress, including a law that created more flexibility in funding and accreditation for rural hospitals wanting establish residency programs. Since 2019, the program "has given more than $43 million to 58 organizations in 32 states to launch rural medical residency programs, reports Rodriguez. 

But it’s still not enough, Hawes said. She said one of the main challenges is that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services don't reimburse rural hospitals for medical residency programs at the same rate they do urban hospitals, despite facing similar or higher costs. Hawes told Rodriguez that  rural medical training programs don’t have to end in struggle and that "part of her job with the Rural Residency Planning and Development Program is to ensure faculty, residents, and hospital leaders have the resources, support, and knowledge they need to sustain their programs."

Colorado becomes first state to pass 'right to repair' law for farmers; several other states are considering similar bills

Photo from Universal Images Group via Getty Images
In July 2021, President Biden issued an executive order supporting farmers' rights to repair their tractors. Twenty-one months later, one state has passed right-to-repair legislation for farmers.

"Colorado farmers will be able to legally fix their own equipment next year, with manufacturers, including Deere & Co. and CNH Industrial, obliged to provide them with manuals for diagnostic software and other aids, under a measure passed by legislators in the first U.S. state to approve such a law," reports Bianca Flowers of Reuters. "The Consumer Right to Repair Agriculture Equipment Act garnered bipartisan support as farmers grew increasingly frustrated with costly repairs and inflated input prices denting their profits."

The new law means that farmers or independent technicians can use manufacture's tools to repair equipment such as combines and tractors without waiting for an "authorized dealer representative," Flowers reports. A Deere spokesperson said the company supports "right to repair" but thinks the law will have unintended consequences. "Equipment makers worry the legislation may allow farmers to override certain safety systems or emissions controls, said Eric Wareham, a North American Equipment Dealers Association vice president."

The bill passed after "lawmakers amended the bill to include language that farmers and repair shops will not be authorized 'to make modifications' to functions related to security or emissions," Flowers notes. "Rep. Brianna Titone, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, predicted other states will follow suit." She told Flowers, "If there are no lawsuits or collapse of the industry, it demonstrates that the law is not going to cause chaos like many opponents think it will." Titone sponsored and passed Colorado's first right to repair law, which gave wheelchair owners the right to access tools and technology to fix their own chairs.

Deere and CNH tried to head off such laws applying to farmers with a memorandum of understanding with the American Farm Bureau Federation that allows farmers to fix their equipment or go to a third party, notes Leland Glenna, writing in The Conversation, a platform for journalism by academics: "At its most basic level, right-to-repair legislation seeks to protect the end users of a product from anti-competitive activities by large companies. New York passed the first broad right-to-repair law in 2022, and nearly two dozen states have active legislation – about half of them targeting farm equipment."

Disease-spreading arthropods are expanding, spreading diseases; awareness and precautions can help humans

Map shows counties with at least one case in 2001 or 2020 (Map by Carl Churchill, Wall Street Journal, from CDC data)

Would-be Jeopardy clue: "A small, wingless, bloodsucking arthropod. Response: What is "a tick?" Correct, for $400!

Speaking of ticks, "People won't stop mailing them to Griffin Dill. Ticks arrive in zip-lock bags, plucked from pets, hikers and homeowners from across Maine," reports Brianna Abbott of The Wall Street Journal. "Dill, manager of the Tick Lab at the University of Maine in Orono, said there used to be a lull from around mid-December to March. Now the ticks are showing up year-round. . . . More ticks are arriving from farther north in the state, and about two-thirds of them are found around people's homes."

That sounds disgusting. "Dill tests the parasites for infectious diseases including Lyme and babesiosis, a flu-like illness ranging from asymptomatic to life-threatening. He and his colleagues are also testing for diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which isn't commonly found in Maine. Dill told Abbott, "We wanted to make sure we're testing for the pathogens we know are here and the ones that might be knocking on our doorstep. . . .The lab isn't finding Rocky Mountain spotted fever, he said, but there have been increases in the prevalence of Lyme and babesiosis over the past five years."

What is responsible? "Ticks are on the move in the U.S., thanks in part to expanding deer populations . . . Shorter, warmer winters have lengthened the time ticks can be active, as places including New England and the upper Midwest become hotter and wetter. Many ticks and mosquitoes need a warm, humid climate to thrive," Abbott adds. "John Aucott has watched the geographic expansion of tick-borne diseases over the past two decades reflected in the patients who come to see him. When he arrived at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Lyme disease was mostly a coastal disease. Now, it is in eastern Ohio and West Virginia, he said."

Deer tick or Black-legged tick
Abbott writes, "Cases of tick-borne disease reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than doubled in the U.S. between 2004 and 2019, when some 50,800 cases were reported. . . . .The tick that carries Lyme disease, the deer tick or black-legged tick, lives throughout the eastern U.S. The number of counties where black-legged ticks are established has more than doubled in the past two decades, according to CDC researchers. Lone Star ticks, which can cause a red-meat allergy known as alpha-gal syndrome in people they bite, are moving up from the Southeast."

Because ticks are moving to new places, many people are unaware of the risks. "When Mary Black was told by an allergist that she should be tested for alpha-gal syndrome, she had never heard of it," Abbott reports. "The 37-year-old nurse and Oklahoma resident had been experiencing repeated bouts of facial swelling, hives and joint pain since summer 2022, with no discernible explanation. She was diagnosed in February and is adjusting to cutting out red meat and other mammal products."

How do you avoid ticks? To prevent tick encounters, humans can use good post-nature habits. Abbott adds, "Wearing long sleeves, using bug spray, doing tick-checks and showering soon after being outdoors can help prevent tick and mosquito bites, the CDC says. . . . [Should you find ticks] People should remove ticks with tweezers and clean the bite area and their hands with soap and water or rubbing alcohol, the CDC says. Flush ticks down the toilet or put in a sealed container and send for testing."

The Mississippi is awash in spring, but fears of another drought that will impede barge traffic are never far away

Lake Pepin, the river's widest natural section, is part of the MinnesotaWisconsin border. (Photo: Tom Peterson, Stateline)

A Wikipedia snapshot on how mighty the "Mighty Mississippi" is: The river has the world's fourth-largest drainage basin ("watershed" or "catchment"). The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles, including all or parts of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Wow.

Spring is here, melting ice on the Mississippi and snow in its watershed. "As state and federal officials prepare for the prospects of spring floods, last fall's drought, which stalled commercial boat traffic on the mighty river, is never far from mind," reports Tom Peterson of Stateline. "The drought provided an expensive reminder of just how vital — and how vulnerable — the economic thoroughfare is." Lou Dell'Orco, chief of operations for the Army Corps of Engineers, told Peterson, "It's a highway. If you haven't lived around it, you don't recognize it. But it's a major artery to move goods and commerce in a safe, efficient and cost-effective manner."

The river handles "92% of the nation's agricultural exports and 78% of the world's exports in feed grains and soybeans," Peterson reports. "Millions of barrels of crude oil and other petroleum products move on the river monthly, as do 35% of the nation's exports of thermal coal, which fuels power plants. . . . Eleven of the top 12 agriculture-exporting states in the nation lie in the basin. . . .When the river dropped precipitously last fall, it snarled barge traffic and delayed shipments, exacerbating supply chain problems and bringing the Mississippi River's role in the U.S. and global markets to the fore."

"What comes this spring is uncertain. The National Weather Service's spring flood forecast called the risk to the Mississippi main-stem 'well above normal,'" Peterson reports. "Since February, the service reported, at least one significant weather system has moved through the Upper Mississippi region each week, leaving an 'anomalously large snowpack.'" As of April 12, the service's website says, "Based on snowmelt alone, [they are] expecting the similar river levels that were seen in April 2019. . . . Based on snowmelt alone, we are expecting rivers to crest between April 19 to 26. Any additional precipitation may result in secondary crests or exacerbate ongoing flooding."

Olivia Dorothy, director for the Upper Mississippi Basin at American Rivers, told Peterson, "We've known for quite some time that climate change is going to be causing these pendulum swings between extreme drought and extreme floods." Peterson adds, "Ice, floods and low water made navigating the Mississippi difficult long before Mark Twain began chronicling its charms and dangers. The dangers are expected to become more frequent."

Quick hits: Every crisis needs a bird; Black gospel pioneer honored; 'How to thrive when everything feels terrible' . . .

Photo by Salwan Georges, The Washington Post
In a world full of crisis, what can help? "From time to time, I read or hear reports that the world's birds are in crisis. . . . There's a cardinal outside my kitchen window, and I'm not sure how to feel about it. For a passing moment, mine were the only eyes and this was the only bird. My heart swelled, and I smiled at the bright red jacket and jet-black mask as if seeing them for the first time. Nature is such a snappy dresser. . . . One imagines all creatures in this violent world must be scrambling for camouflage or cowering in bunkers, then along comes this guy, flashy and unafraid," opines David Von Drehle of The Washington Post. "Here's where that cardinal finally lands: One cannot usefully address a threat to birds if they do not delight in individual birds. (Maybe not all of them, but some.) One cannot meaningfully answer the climate crisis if they lack excitement about the human capacity for invention and reinvention. One cannot make progress toward equality and inclusion if they don't see and love the potential of humankind — enemies included — and one cannot build the future if one fears the future."

Associated Press photo via University of Pittsburgh
"I didn't know it was going to be a legacy," Pace Barnes told Jessie Wardarski of The Associated Press. Her father was one of the nation's first African American composers of gospel music, "and the owner of one of the country's first independent, Black gospel music publishing companies," Wadarski reports. "Today, the University of Pittsburgh is restoring his work from the 1920s to the 1950s and cementing his place in the genre's history."

Meet David Mas Masumoto, a Japanese American peach farmer planning a world without him. "The legacy he'll leave behind, as a father and pioneering organic farmer, and all of the legacies that have quietly guided him here, to his family's 80-acre stone fruit and raisin farm is preserved in his book, Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm," reports Caroline Hatano of Civil Eats. "He explores the depths of his family history, uncovering long-held secrets and grappling with impossible decisions made when his family was imprisoned during World War II."

Oreo cow (Belted Galloway) with calf (Photo by Doug Young via Riversmith Farms)
Did you know that Belted Galloway is a breed of cow that looks like an Oreo cookie? And while the Oreo cookie is not a rural thing, American farmers help make them. Now American scientists have uncovered the best technique for getting to its delightful, creamy center. "MIT researchers twisted apart hundreds of Oreos to find the perfect method," reports Stacey Leasca for Food & Wine. "Who says science can't be fun?"

Rural life poses stresses and hazards that urban dwellers don't experience. This article, "How to Thrive When Everything Feels Terrible," by Christine Porath and Mike Porath in Harvard Business Review, hits the mark for people from all walks of life, particularly those in more isolated areas. "Research shows that we can protect ourselves from the damaging effects of toxicity by taking steps to ensure we are 'thriving' — a psychological term to describe the state in which people experience a sense of both vitality and learning."

In a shocking discovery, Superglue is more super than we originally thought. "Researchers turned superglue into a recyclable, cheap, oil-free plastic alternative," report Allison Christy and Scott Phillips for The Conversation, a platform for journalism by academics. "Unlike most traditional plastics, this new plastic can be easily converted back to its starting materials, even when combined with unwashed municipal plastic waste." It's a game-changer.

"Going, Going, Gone! One email to this Montana-based auction school later, I was connected with auctioneering instructor Nick Bennett," reports Caroline Carlson of The Daily Yonder. "A 2012 Western College of Auctioneering graduate, Bennett works as a professional auctioneer and appears to be the most decorated faculty member at the school. He's the 2021 International Auctioneer Champion, the 2017 U.S. Bid Calling Champion, and the 2014 Montana State Auctioneer Champion. . . . I talked to this industry legend about his rural roots, going to auction school, pre-auction nerves, and the first auction he ever called. Enjoy our conversation."

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Opinion: 'The devil is working overtime,' but where, exactly?

"Children are dying from gunfire in school. Waves of refugees uprooted by drought and famine are knocking at the door. And we find ourselves obsessed with drag queens and legislative decorum," Storm Lake Times Pilot Editor Art Cullen writes -- mainly about Iowa's Legislature but with references to smiliar goings-on in other states, in an editorial titled "The devil is working overtime."

Art Cullen
On the day "the Tennessee House expelled two Black representatives for staging a protest from the House well over a refusal by Republicans to consider gun safety laws following a mass shooting in Nashville," Cullen was invited to appear on "The 11th Hour" on MSNBC. Host Stpehanie Rhule "wanted to talk about the crazy things going on in state legislatures in Florida, Iowa and Idaho. The Iowa Legislature has been busy bashing gays and the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Waterloo native Nikole Hannah-Jones on the history of Blacks in America, The 1619 Project. . . . Pope Francis recently said that gays are not criminals, so why do we have to pass a law to preserve our moral order?"

Cullen writes that he "had just returned from a trip across the Great Plains, where the future of food production is under assault from decades of heat and drought. That’s the issue that nobody really wants to talk about. It cannot get a hearing in Iowa. Although transsexual rights had never been a political issue in Iowa, all the sudden I am on TV talking about it. . . . We did not have the chance to talk about how climate is driving a world food crisis, which drives refugee migration. That’s why Cubans and El Salvadorans are coming to Storm Lake, not because they are protected from being in the presence of gays."

New Office of Rural Health at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will address rural health disparities

Medical News photo illustration
The newly created Office of Rural Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will work to combat rural health disparities across the nation by addressing infrastructure needs and  creating a rural health strategic plan that ensures rural health interests are represented in all facets of health care, Maaisha Osman reports for The Nation's Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association.
Osman notes that the 19% of Americans who live in rural areas die earlier than their urban counterparts, and the Covid-19 pandemic added to this challenge, with rural residents less likely to get vaccinated and more likely to die from the disease. 

The national government has a Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, but Congress's creation of a rural-health office at the CDC and funding it with $5 million was "a massive victory," said Carrie Cochran-McClain, chief policy officer of the National Rural Health Association.

Cochran-McClain told Osman that the CDC needs a voice inside the agency to speak about the unique challenges of rural areas, and will be responsible for the maintenance and enhancement of the rural public-health infrastructure and for connecting and collaborating with other federal agencies and state offices of rural health. She said the goal is for the office to open this year. (Read more)

'Orphan' gas and oil wells are found 'everywhere,' as the federal government aims to plug these hidden polluters

Adapted screenshot of interactive map that has data by county; for the interactive version click here.

Workers cap an orphaned well in Louisiana.
(Photo by Cooper Neill, The Washington Post)
On its own, an orphaned oil or gas well (named so because often no viable owner exists) has little impact the planet; however, across the U.S., there are thousands of unplugged wells that "collectively account for a significant source of the potent greenhouse gas" and pollute water, notes Brady Dennis of The Washington Post. "Congress set aside an unprecedented $4.7 billion to fund the idea in late 2021. . . . Dedicating billions of dollars to target the most troublesome wells around the country has the potential to result in significantly fewer toxic substances, such as arsenic and benzene, polluting groundwater."

Dennis joined the Tolbert Construction crew in the piney woods of Louisiana to understand the "find-and-plug-well" process: "Merely locating orphan wells can be arduous, and plugging them is tedious, time-consuming and expensive. To follow a crew like Tolbert's is to understand how the work is a mixture of sweat, science and improvisation. They must navigate swampy roads or thick forests with heavy equipment to access the wells, remove miles of steel piping, set underground plugs to prevent fluid from flowing, fill straw-like holes with cement, remove the well head, and restore the land to something resembling normal. The whole endeavor takes days and can cost $30,000 to plug a single well — and sometimes far more."

Attempting to count abandoned wells is like counting stars. "The wells are everywhere. They're in backyards and buried under thorny thickets in suburban woods. Rusted pipes rise from the farmland of Texas and New Mexico, from an Amish community in Kentucky, from the bayous in Louisiana and the dense forests in Pennsylvania and Ohio," Dennis writes. "They have been found under sidewalks and driveways, houses and apartment buildings — and in at least one Wyoming schoolyard."

Adam Peltz, a director and senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund who has worked on the issue for years, told Dennis, "We really only know where a fraction of them are. We are only scratching the surface on this." Dennis reports, "According to its most recent national inventory, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the actual number of abandoned wells around the country could be in the millions and that the methane that leaks from them each year accounts for nearly 3 percent of the U.S. total."

Dennis explains, "Curtis Shuck, a former oil and gas executive, founded a nonprofit known as the Well Done Foundation, whose work has been funded primarily by philanthropic donors and corporate sponsors. . . . His foundation also has backed a carbon accounting methodology that, if adopted by the American Carbon Registry, could offer an incentive for businesses that want to offset emissions. Already, the nonprofit is plugging or monitoring wells in about a dozen states and has plugged 25 wells so far, with plans to keep expanding."

"Louisiana is home to more than 4,500 orphaned wells . . . . there are high hopes for the months ahead," Dennis reports. "With the federal money flowing, the state and its contractors have already plugged more than 100 wells this year, and some workers say 500 or more might be possible depending on the weather and any problems they encounter. Patrick Courreges, a Louisiana Department of Natural Resources spokesman, told Dennis, "We want to show bang for the buck."

Colorado River continues to dry as states fail to find a solution; federal officials step up with 'a shot across the bow'

Dark skies move over the Colorado River at Horseshoe
Bend, Arizona. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

How to share water from the drying Colorado River while addressing depleted reservoirs continues to be a quagmire for seven Western states and the federal government. 

Because the states have failed to find a solution, "U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials are considering whether to order Arizona, California and Nevada to take less water out of the river," reports Conrad Swanson of The Denver Post. "Federal officials must decide whether to impose cuts on the three lower Colorado River Basin states by either following the longstanding system of water-rights seniority or by spreading them across three states evenly."

"While federal officials consider their options, each of the seven states in the Colorado River basin will continue to negotiate water use for the long term. The first option would be to take no additional action, which means conditions along the Colorado River would worsen." Swanson explains. "The second option would cut water use from lower-basin states, based predominantly on the priority of water rights. Under the Colorado River's prior-appropriation legal system, those drawing water from the river the longest [primarily California] have a higher priority. So cuts would be imposed on those with the youngest water rights, like Arizona." Ian James of the Los Angeles Times reports, "The stakes in the decision are high for California, which receives the largest share of water from the Colorado River . . . Imposing an equal across-the-board cut would hit California harder, particularly in agricultural regions."

Swanson reports, "Federal officials expect to choose one this summer, and the plan would go into effect next year." By announcing two solutions, federal officials are "flexing their muscles over a problem they had hoped the states would solve themselves. . . . The move strengthens the federal agency's resolve to conserve water from the Colorado River as the seven states within its basin repeatedly fail to find common ground, said Rhett Larson, a water law professor at Arizona State University." Larson told Swanson, "I am reading this as a shot across the bow. The federal government is saying, 'Brace yourselves, because if you don't come up with something, we will.'"

This year's enormous snowpack did not solve the over two decades of drought. Swanson notes, "Water levels at lakes Powell and Mead — the country's two largest reservoirs — are still projected to diminish as they face historically dry conditions exacerbated by climate change." Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau told James, "The prolonged drought afflicting the American West is one of the most significant challenges facing our country today. We're in the third decade of a historic drought that has caused conditions that the people who built this system would not have imagined."

"Larson said he feels as though federal officials, particularly President Joe Biden, might ultimately lean further toward cutting water use across the board. . . . spreading the cuts more evenly would curry favor within the swing states," Swanson writes. Larson told her, "Realistically, there isn't a solution to this that doesn't require California to take some cuts. . . . Joe Biden needs Nevada and Arizona a lot more than he needs California. . . . You can't discount the politics."

Swanson notes that six of the seven states "found common ground this spring but couldn't set aside enough water. Plus, California — the wealthiest and biggest water user — wasn't on board, leading some water experts to suggest that filing lawsuits might be the only way to force progress. . . . Others have expressed hope that the increasing willingness of federal officials to force cuts will pressure the states into a deal."

Small banks have a lot to offer to their customers and communities; there's little risk and lots of service

Thanks the FDIC local banks are just as safe as larger ones.
(iStockphoto,WSJ Photo Illustration)
Remember Banking 101 from "It's a Wonderful Life"? "During the first bank run, George was able to convince people not to pull all of their money out and instead take out only what they needed in the short term so the bank could stay afloat," Bourree Lam retells for The Atlantic. "Instead of George Bailey, Americans have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which was created to insure bank deposits precisely so people wouldn't fear losing everything and pull cash out of the financial system in a panic, triggering bank failures."

"In the past few weeks, many small bank-account holders have gotten jitters: The surprise collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank has sent customers scrambling to larger competitors," reports Martha C. White of The Wall Street Journal. "Thinking of joining the stampede? Experts say now may be the time to consider what small banks offer. Thanks to FDIC insurance, they are just as safe as larger competitors. And right now, they're competing harder than ever for your dollars—many are offering deals for savers that leave their big-bank rivals in the dust."

It may be natural to leave what feels financially risky. "Depositors appear to be fleeing small banks because they fear problems in the banking sector could spread beyond the tiny number of troubled banks that have made headlines so far," White writes. "While many small and regional banks have seen their stock prices take a hit, the problems don't appear contagious." Michael Finke, professor of wealth management at the American College of Financial Services, told White, "A lot of the flight to capital to large banks is driven by emotion and not by true risk."

When offerings and protections are combined, reconsidering your small bank could yield good things. "Small banks tend to shine when it comes to being able to deliver personal, caring customer service and commitment to their local neighborhoods," White adds. "Just how much of your savings will be covered? FDIC insurance protects savings and checking account deposits up to $250,000—an amount much higher than most Americans keep as cash savings. Joint accounts, say between you and your spouse, are covered for up to $500,000. And if you have to protect still more than that, there are other simple strategies you can use to guarantee even larger sums." Finke told White, "The FDIC is going to protect you."

Opinion: Local news could be helped by more aggressive use of anti-trust laws, Steven Waldman writes

"Antitrust enforcers could have done more — and must play a bigger role — in saving local news," Steven Waldman, head of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, writes in The Washington Monthly.

"The Justice Department recently filed an important lawsuit against Google’s domination of digital advertising," Waldman notes, but "the role of private equity and hedge funds has prompted a collective shrug. No one likes what the financiers did, but there seems to be an air of inevitability, a sense that media consolidation just couldn’t be helped. That assumption is wrong. The crisis in local news stems primarily from the internet undercutting traditional business models. Advertisers reduced or eliminated their spending in local newspapers and instead placed ads on websites, search engines, or social platforms. The combination of factors led to a staggering 71 percent decline in newspaper ad revenue from 2006 to 2018."

Steven Waldman
Mergers and acquisitions, especially by private-equity firms and hedge funds, have played a big role in the decline of local news, Waldman argues, quoting Northwestern University newspaper scholar Penny Abernathy: “Massive consolidation in the newspaper industry has shifted editorial and business decisions to a few large corporations without strong ties to the communities where their papers are located.” Waldman cites a study by Michael Ewens of Columbia University and Arpit Gupta and Sabrina T. Howell of New York University, published by the Social Science Research Network, which "found that newspapers acquired by private equity firms were likelier than other papers to cut the amount of local coverage, and the number of reporters at those papers fell from roughly 7 to 5, compared to a more modest decline at other papers. . . . By contrast, the study showed that family-owned newspapers had higher levels of local news coverage. . . . Another study, by Benjamin LeBrun, Kaitlyn Todd, and Andrew Piper, in New Media and Society, examined 130,000 articles produced at 31 corporate-owned local newspapers. It concluded that “corporate acquisition leads to a significant reduction in the amount of local news.”

In Hedged, a former executive of Lee Enterprises says pressure to service the company 's debt "made it impossible for his company to invest in the digital makeover that would have given its papers a better shot at long-term stability," Waldman reports. He acknowledges that "acquisition by a private equity firm is, in the short term, sometimes the only way to keep the newsroom open.

"There’s one final, less obvious way consolidation has undermined local news: by reducing the number of advertisers," Waldman writes. "We have seen many grocery, health care, and banking mergers. If there once were five local bank branches and now there are two, that probably resulted in fewer local advertising dollars being spent. And then there’s the effect of Amazon on local retailers. I was at a gathering recently of local newspaper publishers in Wyoming, and they were complaining about the impact of the tech companies. To my surprise, they were mostly referring to Amazon rather than Google or Facebook. It is undoubtedly true that Amazon provides cost and convenience benefits to consumers. Still, we should at least acknowledge that one of the side effects is undermining the retail business whose advertising powered local news and strengthened democracy."

Waldman suggests that Congress "modify antitrust law to resemble the FCC’s approach to overseeing the broadcast industry," citing the FCC's delay of a merger between a hedge fund and Tegna, which owns 64 TV stations. "But localism need not be a consideration only in TV station mergers. The concept was once a vibrant theme in antitrust debates, too. When Congress amended the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act in 1950, it was concerned about the effects of business mergers on local control. . . .  Another theory—perhaps even one that wouldn’t require statutory changes—would be to look at the diversity of voices. . . . But blocking future mergers isn’t enough. We need a strategy beyond antitrust policy that can prevent more consolidation and trigger de-consolidation — 'replanting' newspapers back into communities. With papers already part of a chain, we could offer financial incentives to local nonprofit organizations or mission-oriented businesses that buy newspapers. . . . We should also amend the plant-closing laws to require that any chain planning to close a newspaper must give the community 90 days’ notice so they might organize a bid to buy the paper."

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Why U.S. rural policy matters: An essayist's response to readers, and thoughts on 'rural rage' and anti-rural rage

By Anthony F. Pipa
Brookings Institution

On Dec. 27, 2022, the New York Times published an essay I wrote calling for a renaissance in federal rural policy. My motivation for writing the article was borne from a frustration of the media’s obsession with rural politics—that is, who in rural America is voting for whom, and why—with little regard or attention to rural policy, or how federal, state, and local governments could do things differently to help rural places to thrive.

Federal policy has historically played an important role in helping rural places contribute to American economic and social life, but it is no longer fit for purpose. This is leaving rural places starved for investment as they navigate 21st century shifts in the economy and seek to become more vibrant, inclusive, and sustainable. The essay included a call for a national rural policy to help “put local assets to creative use, unleash entrepreneurial activity, share the benefits widely and retain the value locally.”

Tony Pipa
It resulted in almost 1,700 comments from readers and a flood of reactions in my inbox. “Don’t read the comments,” counseled colleagues, warning against the rabbit hole of negativity. Yet many comments surfaced thoughtful questions and gaps, and in the spirit of advancing a policy discourse, I offer responses to several of the themes that emerged:

1. “Ask rural places what they want.”

Some commenters read my call for a more active and effective federal role as a recommendation to overtake and usurp local agency and authority. To the contrary: Sustainable development frameworks are most successful when local people design, direct, own, and execute the solutions to the problems they are facing.

So I wholeheartedly agree with asking rural people, and ensuring that the federal government invests much more directly in local leaders and their innovation. But the federal government should also provide incentives or boundaries to ensure maximum public benefit in line with national policy priorities. This might mean incentivizing cleaner energy sources or ensuring that minority populations who have been politically marginalized in the past are included in the design or decision making of new development efforts, so the benefits are widely shared.

2. “What about the role of state and local governments?”

Several commenters rightly surfaced questions about the importance of state and local governments to the well-being of rural communities. State governments set the parameters of their local jurisdictions’ taxing and legal authorities, provide revenue, and are often the decision makers on how federal funds are spent. For example, about 45 percent of the resources in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will be decided by state and local governments.

States are increasingly limiting the flexibility of local jurisdictions and sharing less of their resources, moves generally attributed to political differences between state leaders and large metros. Yet such shifts can have negative consequences for local rural governments, as evidenced by the impact of the tax cuts enacted in Kansas. Some rural leaders are recognizing that state policies driven primarily by culture wars could have negative consequences for their communities. The impact on local rural governments of state policy changes driven by tensions with metropolitan governments is an area ripe for further research.

In general, the capacity of local rural governments is significantly constrained, especially compared to their suburban and urban counterparts. In a recent survey of rural county officials, fifty-two percent reported that their governments experience “moderate” or “significant” levels of fiscal stress. Rural governments are often led by volunteer, part-time elected officials and thinly staffed town halls, struggling to provide basic services and possessing limited ability to respond to major economic or social shocks. For more rural places to succeed, we must strengthen the ability of local governments to govern.

3. “Big business is killing rural.”

Readers pointed to the impact of big-box chains and national franchises on locally owned businesses. Yet national retail and restaurant chains are simply emblematic of larger trends toward financialization and corporate consolidation that have challenged many local institutions that traditionally create a sense of security and self-sufficiency.

Sixty-eight percent of counties without a daily or weekly newspaper are non-metro. Forty percent of rural counties lost bank branches between 2012-2017, and 190 rural hospitals have closed or converted since 2005. Local leaders in rural communities now try to attract stores such as Walmart and Dollar General, not only to improve access to groceries, but because it provides jobs and a signal to the market that their community is worthy of investment.

4. “It’s not just rural: What about other places that are lagging?”

Many small and mid-sized cities in former industrial centers are also facing challenges, leading some to suggest less focus on rural and more on lagging places overall. Indeed, the future of many rural places will be linked to their nearest metros. But rural places are often minimized in regional efforts, resulting in distrust and approaches that fail to meet their unique challenges related to governance, distance, workforce, and access to capital. Perhaps a national rural strategy would ultimately be a subset of a national economic strategy—but leveling the playing field depends upon articulating one.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the comments expressed negative views dismissive of rural America, with many opposed to any targeted policy.

One set asked “Why should we care about those people and places?” This ignores the important inter-dependencies between non-metros and the rest of the country. As the country seeks to address climate change, for example, and shift to a clean energy economy, rural places will be where the solar and wind farms are sited, the minerals for batteries are mined and the batteries themselves produced, and where agricultural practices evolve to reduce methane gases.

Indeed, rural places are implicated in many dimensions of the 21st-century economy, from data processing to fabrication plants to cryptocurrency mining to online retail distribution. How these economies evolve, who benefits, and how well communities manage them—these are clear and present policy issues that are receiving little attention, leaving rural places to their own devices and offering few guardrails to prevent a modern version of the extractive arrangements prevalent throughout history.

Even more heated were the comments suggesting “it’s their own fault:” i.e., that rural people are getting what they deserve, their votes the primary cause of what they are experiencing. This has odd echoes of the arguments wielded against single mothers during welfare reform debates—ascribing all bad outcomes to bad choices—an argument that was dehumanizing then, and is dehumanizing now.

Several weeks after my essay, the Times published an editorial by Paul Krugman asking what could assuage “rural rage”? While the essay made a tentative foray into exploring the implications of, and offering support for, newly enacted policy, the image that rural residents go through their daily lives filled with fury left even local Democratic leaders in so-called Trump country shaking their heads. Such a broad brush conveniently thwarts consideration that policy decisions associated with trade agreements, the movement of capital, enforcement of anti-trust legislation, and regulation of transportation may have played major roles in abetting the challenges rural places now face -- p olicy decisions, I might add, that many rural people didn’t control or necessarily vote for.

Getting past the “anti-rural rage” and the vitriol reflected in the reactions to my essay will be as important as addressing whatever resentment rural people are harboring. When I listen to the stories of real people in rural places working to provide the best for their families and communities, I find commonalities that cut across the divisions defined and deepened by the obsession with rural politics. So my final response to readers is where I began: We urgently need a constructive bipartisan dialogue to consider policy solutions that can enable thriving, sustainable economic and social structures and create opportunity in all sizes of places across America—and specifically rural ones.

Rural residents slightly less likely to vote; experts say one cause is equal access to 'civil infrastructure and broadband'

How easily can you vote? That depends on many things, including whether you live in a rural or urban area. "Researchers from the Population Health Institute say that lack of access to infrastructure like broadband, recreation facilities, and public libraries hurts voter turnout in rural places," reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "The lowest voter turnout in the U.S. is in rural counties and small metropolitan areas, according to new data from County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, an annual report published by the Population Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin."

The overall difference is small: 65 percent rural turnout compared to 67 percent overall, but suburbs of major metropolitan areas averaged 71 percent, and many local variations are greater. The story has an interactive map that displays county-by-county data.

"The program's goal is to create awareness about the many different factors that can influence community health. One of those indicators is voter turnout, calculated as a percentage of voting-age residents who cast a ballot," Melotte writes. "In 2023, the report focused on the connections between infrastructure, civic participation (like voting), and community health. Experts say that communities with better infrastructure have higher scores on measures of public health and higher rates of voter turnout."

Resources such as libraries and recreation centers are "what public-health professionals call civic infrastructure or the amenities that help a community provide services to its residents," Melotte adds. "Civic infrastructure provides spaces 'where people organize around shared issues,' said researcher Michael Stevenson. He told Melotte, "One of the connections we see is that civic infrastructure is not equally distributed."

Unequal access penalizes less populated areas. Melotte reports, "Research shows broadband internet access is one aspect of civic infrastructure that is particularly important in influencing turnout. Experts from Harvard and the University of Virginia, who used data from the 2016 and 2018 midterms, found that people with better internet access were more likely to vote, even when they accounted for demographic factors like age and race."

What can more rural areas do to help close the gap? "Automatic voter registration and mail-in ballots could help improve voter turnout in rural places, Stevenson said. A 2022 report from the nonprofit Secure Democracy shows that restrictions on voting by mail hurt rural voters more than other Americans," Melotte adds. "Half of rural polling locations serve an area greater than 62 square miles, compared to 2 square miles in urban settings. Eliminating the burden of traveling long distances by allowing mail-in ballots makes it easier for many Americans to cast their vote."

Over-the-counter naloxone will help stop overdoses; rural communities in N.Y. report success with involving citizens

Rural places can already provide Narcan rescue boxes. (PBS image)
If you could, would you save someone from a fatal drug overdose? Most people would answer, "Yes." In the coming months, that chance will become a reality. The Food and Drug Administration has cleared the path for the prescription nasal spray naloxone, know by the brand name Narcan, to be sold over the counter. Narcan reverses opioid overdoses and has already made its way to many rural communities. "Overdose epidemic touches every part of the country, but rural areas have special challenges, like fewer providers who treat people with substance-use disorders and long wait times when people call for help after an overdose. That underscores the importance of Narcan," reports William Brangham for PBS NewsHour.

Real-life examples are a scary and vivid. Julia Wilson of  Cato, N.Y, pop. 2,500, retold her experience with Narcan: "My dad comes running in my room, and he's like: 'Something's happening at the neighbor's house. And so I was like, 'Yes, very funny.' He goes: 'No, I'm serious, I think there's an overdose.'. . .I look out the window and see this man lying on the floor in a shed. And I can see two people trying to do CPR on him. . . . I run back into my room, grab my Narcan kit and get in there. And this man, he's just laying there, not responding. . . . I check for a pulse. He didn't have one. I just put one dose in his nose. He still wasn't breathing. . . . I put in the other dose. When I seen him sit up, it was kind of just like a — like, all I could think was just wow."

PBS's William Brangham reports, "Julia learned what to do in a health class called 'Bones, Bodies and Bandages'." Teacher Donna Cappellano told him, "This is a skill. And kids love hands-on things. And so this is just one other avenue to keep yourself healthy or to — or to be able to help a friend. If you know that you can do something to help somebody and you can get the skill, do it because, otherwise, you're going to feel — you're just going to feel bad that you didn't help."

In Auburn, N.Y., Monika Salvage runs "Healing Cayuga," a county program to fight addiction and overdoses. She told Brangham, "Obviously, it's still important for first responders to come and to have that follow-up care. But those few minutes are really important. And it's even more critical in rural areas, where it's not just a few minutes until first responders arrive."

Cayuga County's outreach includes community advocates. "This county's pied piper is Wally Meyers. Going door to door, Meyers preaches and teaches overdose prevention to anyone who will listen," Brangham reports. "Meyers tries to make sure that government buildings and private businesses have Narcan kits on the wall. They're free, available to anyone who opens up the box. . . . Healing Cayuga has put more than 3,000 Narcan kits into the community. At least 113 people here have been revived by bystanders with Narcan. . . . Since 2020, even as fatalities hit new highs all over the country, in this rural county, they are down by a stunning 43 percent."

Randy Smith is also a community mentor who offers peer support. "Smith ended up in jail  after developing a fierce addiction to painkillers. . . He offers moral and practical support to people who are just starting their recovery," Brangham reports. "Now he's leading a women's support group. . . . Nationwide, women in rural areas are more likely to die of an overdose than women in cities. Smith knows the challenge is keeping people alive long enough that they can find their way to a new path. And that takes everybody pitching in."