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Summit spotlights climate crisis, focusing on southern US

An initiative focused on the Interstate 10 corridor from Los Angeles to Jacksonville has taken a leading role in the fight against climate change.

HOUSTON (CN) — Arizona is grappling with how to do without one-third of its water supply. Lake Charles, Louisiana, residents are struggling to recover from back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes. Climate change is here but addressing it can be overwhelming.

An initiative focused on water, energy, heat and equity in U.S. cities “on the same street,” the Interstate 10 corridor from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, has taken a leading role.

Wellington “Duke” Reiter, senior adviser to Arizona State University’s president and former dean of its College of Design, considers New Orleans a second home.

He obtained an architecture degree from Tulane University in the early 1980s and his thesis on disaster housing opened his eyes to the risks of climate change. He moved on to Harvard but the focus of his graduate work was how New Orleans could prepare for a worst-case-scenario hurricane.

After Hurricane Katrina swamped the city in August 2005, Wellington, then an ASU dean, offered a refuge for Tulane students who had fled the biblical storm.

“We hosted about 60 students, half a dozen faculty, put them up immediately and they had a spectacular semester here in Phoenix,” Reiter said in an interview. “So that relationship with cities and institutions across the country was something of an inspiration for the Ten Across project.”

Moved by his belief the southern United States “offers a compelling window on what lies ahead for the nation” Reiter, backed by ASU, founded Ten Across in 2017 to bring together academics, environmental leaders and city officials to forge networks and share ideas.

After holding its first summits in Baton Rouge and Phoenix in 2018 and 2019, the group came together for its third one this week in Houston.

Arizona and six other Western states that depend on water from the Colorado River are facing a crisis in a drought that has substantially diminished its flow. So why not build a pipeline to move water from the Mississippi River across Texas to Arizona and the rest of the Colorado River Basin?

A panel including Cynthia Campbell, water resources management advisor for the city of Phoenix, discussed the idea Wednesday at the Ten Across Summit.

While the pipeline concept may sound outlandish, Campbell noted people also rolled their eyes when the possibility of diverting Colorado River water to Arizona was first broached in the 1930s.

“Representing the city of Phoenix, you never say never,” Campbell said. “We’re the recipient of probably one of the most recent engineering feats in that sense. The Central Arizona Project carries water from the Colorado River 336 miles uphill through central Arizona in a canal.”

Colorado River water flows through a canal that feeds farms operated by Tempe Farming Co., in Casa Grande, Ariz., Thursday, July 22, 2021. The Colorado River has been a go-to source of water for cities, tribes and farmers in the U.S. West for decades. But climate change, drought and increased demand are taking a toll. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to declare the first-ever mandatory cuts from the river for 2022. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

The project was commissioned in the 1980s, but the Bureau of Reclamation is now effectively turning off the spigot, directing Arizona and other states in the basin to conserve 2 to 4 more million acre-feet in 2023. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to supply a family of four for a year.

Campbell said the cuts have forced Phoenix to take an all-of-the-above approach and consider desalination, more groundwater usage and advanced water purification, in addition to demand management.

Campbell stressed such a pipeline should only divert excess floodwaters from the Mississippi and not diminish its regular flows. And the Mississippi is also struggling with droughts.

Just last year the river’s barge traffic dropped 30% with water levels in some parts of the watershed falling to their lowest levels in their recorded history back to the late 1800s.

While a pipeline project of this immensity would take decades, some innovations on adapting to a warming planet are happening today beside the nation’s interstate highway system.

Allie Kelly is executive director of The Ray, an organization that manages an 18-mile stretch of highway in Georgia. The nonprofit and roadway are named after the late Ray Anderson, who turned his modular carpet company Interface Inc. into a billion-dollar enterprise within 20 years and was a climate pioneer who set goals for the business in 1994 of zero carbon emissions and zero waste to landfill.


Kelly said Anderson’s vision inspires her work at The Ray, where she sees America’s highways as “a layer cake of goodness,” and fertile ground for innovation given state transportation departments own vast swaths of roadside land.

The Ray helped implement 12 projects on the small stretch of Interstate 85 under its management, including roadside solar arrays, a rest stop with an electric vehicle charging station and smart road striping that enables autonomous vehicle operation, according to Kelly.

She noted the Biden administration is also onboard for multifunctional roadways, as Energy Department Secretary Jennifer Granholm recently said her agency supports burying power lines and broadband fiber adjacent to highways to create a national grid and improve internet access.

“Our big bet, our gamble, is that we can facilitate an accelerated transformation of infrastructure from state to state,” Kelly stated. “Using that 18-mile test bed we are now facilitating projects for 32 agencies … and 25 states, including here in Texas.”

Kelly’s fellow panelist Robert Bullard, an urban planning professor at Texas Southern University in Houston, balanced her enthusiasm.

He said U.S. states are still getting highway construction wrong today despite the well-documented history going back to the 1950s of projects ripping through poor, minority communities, bringing pollution and leaving residents without adequate mass transit to get to suburban job centers.

Bullard, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said every project must be analyzed from a justice-equity point of view.

Sick at home with Covid in August 2020, Roishetta Sibley Ozane, a single mother of six from Lake Charles, Louisiana, said she had no money to evacuate with Hurricane Laura bearing down on the city of 78,000.

She saw an online post from a lady at her church asking if anybody needed gas to evacuate and reached out.

“And immediately she sent money to my CashApp [account],” Ozane said, speaking on a stage at the Ten Across Summit Wednesday.

She described how that generous act led her to launch The Vessel Project of Louisiana. Using money from the federal government’s Covid stimulus checks, she started paying for hotel rooms for people displaced by Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta which struck Lake Charles within six weeks of each other.

“And as I was doing it other people from the community were like, ‘We see you paying for hotel rooms. How can we donate?’ And they started sending money to CashApp, PayPal, Venmo,” Ozane recounted.

She said the movement grew so much that during an Arctic freeze that enveloped the Southeast in February 2021 her group put more than 300 people in hotel rooms in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

She compared the ease of that aid with the red tape she had to negotiate to secure a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after one of the storms knocked a tree over on her house.

“I was like why doesn’t the government work like this? Why aren’t we meeting people’s needs immediately and efficiently? Here’s the need, here’s the money, the need is met, let’s move on,” she said.

While Ozane’s initiative arose from hurricanes, experts say the direst effect of climate change is the heat.

Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, said a visit to Phoenix on summer day so hot he felt like “he was going to die” inspired him to write a soon-to-be-released book called “The Heat Will Kill You First.”

Goodell has written other books about the coal industry and rising sea levels but said he had never really thought about heat despite its obvious link to global warming.

Speaking on a Ten Across panel titled “Boiling Point” on Wednesday, Goodell said his book’s basic argument is that as the Earth heats up it will imperil all creatures and plants because it is moving out of the “Goldilocks Zone,” a distance from which planets orbiting stars may potentially have liquid water necessary for life.

“If it’s too hot water vaporizes,” he warned.

“Heat kills people. It’s very different from other climate impacts that way … sea level rise doesn’t kill people per se. You don’t stand on the beach, Antarctica melts and you drown,” he said.

The three-day summit ends Thursday.

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