Mask mandates are back, baby. Beginning next Monday, Aug. 23, all Washington residents will be required to mask up indoors, regardless of vaccine status. And while anti-maskers getting extremely mad over the new rules ate up a lot of airtime and column inches, Axios and Ipsos released a poll showing nearly 2/3rds of people support mask mandates — including 40% of Republicans. Anecdotally, our service industry friends seem relieved to have a clear rule to follow.
Vaccine mandates are piling up, too. Hot on the heels of requirements for many state employees and virtually all healthcare workers, this week Gov. Inslee mandated vaccines for most educational staff, including not merely public schools, but also private and charter schools as well as early learning programs — teachers and staff alike including … wait for it … college football coaches. The mandate narrows what exemptions are allowable, and failure to comply could lead to termination. The New York Times called it the toughest school vaccine standard in the nation.
Even WSU Football Coach Nick Rolovich — much better known for his anti-vaccine stand than for his actual coaching — appeared to capitulate, saying “I plan on following (Inslee’s) mandate, for sure.” We are absolutely sure Rolovich chose this out of an immense sense of community solidarity and concern for the health of his players and colleagues, not because of the risk to his $3 million yearly salary. There’s also a pretty good chance he’s just biding time, looking for a celebrity pastor to give him a religious exemption. — Luke
FROM THE POVERTY DESK
It’s been a whipsaw couple weeks for poor folks.
First, some good news: the Biden administration approved what the New York Times believes is the largest permanent increase in food stamps ever as a way of helping ensure people at the economic margins can get a baseline of nutrition. The average increase in SNAP benefit will be around 25%, and every currently covered household will receive the increase. The expansion will bring an additional estimated $402 million to Washington and $68 million to Idaho — a 27% jump in both cases. We assume the extra 2% is to cover administrative costs.
Any boost is good, but over three-quarters of households report using up their benefit halfway through the month, so a boost that addressed the true need would have needed to nearly double current standards.
Households with kids should have received their first and possibly second expanded child tax credit payment by now (click here if you haven’t). The expansion is expected to cut childhood poverty nearly in half and cut deep poverty — defined as living at or below 50% of the federal poverty rate — by as much as 70% in some states. This is a one-year bump, but the $3.5-trillion dollar budget package under consideration would extend it through 2025 with key aspects becoming permanent.
That’s where the good news ends.
Plenty of people in the Inland Northwest are going to need that extra money, especially if they are renters. Rents continue their upward trajectory, a total increase of 32% since last March. That’s the second worst in the nation (behind only Boise) and nearly 5 times the state average.
The situation is worse for Washington’s unemployed. A package of federal pandemic-relief measures expire on Sept. 4 and, unlike a similar lapse last year, Washington State is not planning to plug the gap. The measures added $300 per week to individual benefits, but also extended unemployment to previously excluded groups like contractors, the self-employed, and those who had exhausted the usual 26-week unemployment limit.
In all, nearly a quarter million people are experiencing long-term unemployment in Washington, and of that number, the state’s Employment Security Department estimates 200,000 people — a full 80% — could lose all benefits come Sept. 4.
But hey! If you can’t find work and the benefits run out and your rent goes up and you have to move out of your home, at least take bitter, cold comfort knowing that the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled authorities can’t tow your vehicle if you’re living in it. — Luke
In the past six years, the Colville Reservation has been hit by at least three major wildfires. Multiple active wildfires are still burning on the reservation this summer. In 2020, flames ripped through 200,000 acres of Colville land and burned homes — many of which were uninsured.
But 2015 was a particularly destructive year: Close to a quarter million acres — 20% of the entire reservation — were decimated by intense fire. For two months, flames from the North Star/Tunk Block fires consumed 600 square miles of land, destroying about a third of Colville Tribes’ total commercial timber resource.
Now The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation is suing the United States for breach of its federal duties to properly manage forest health — through tree thinning and controlled burns — and provide adequate firefighting resources. The Confederated Tribes claims the US shifted firefighting priority away from tribal trust forests, to non-tribal lands.
Scorched trees meant lost revenue for the logging-reliant Tribes, but that wasn’t the only damage caused. Andrew Joseph, Jr., Colville Business Council Chairman, says:
“Tribal members hunt, fish, and gather food and medicine throughout the Colville Reservation. In many areas the fires burned so hot that they sterilized the soil and created a moonscape. It will take decades for our resources to completely recover in those areas.”
Earth’s climate crisis — confirmed in disturbing detail by the latest IPCC report — means wildfires like the North Star/Tunk Block blaze are becoming more frequent. While summer wildfires are a given, the extent of their harm could be reduced with more proactive measures.
Decades of forest mismanagement by Western settlers (near total fire suppression, even in forests like ours, where wildfire is a natural and necessary part of the local ecology, and outright bans on deliberate burns that tribes had practiced for millennia) have contributed to tinderbox-like forests, choked with overgrown underbrush and thickets of sickly trees. In recent years, California has begun to embrace the prescribed burns it once outlawed.
This month, The Nature Conservancy announced a plan to treat forests in Cle Elum, Washington, with tree-thinning and controlled burns to reduce megafire fuel. The efforts also aim to retain snowpack and water sources.
But is the organization partnering with any area tribes for the burns? Robin Stanton, of The Nature Conservancy’s Seattle office, told me, “We probably will not be.” Stanton said that though the non-profit sometimes partners with tribes on a national level, for this project, “We don’t have a tribal burn team that we work with routinely. The burn isn’t gonna happen for a while.”
Seems like a missed opportunity for real environmental justice, but at least an increase in prescribed burns is a start.
Check out this video from California’s KCET to learn more about cultural burns. —Elissa
EARMARK OF THE BEAST
Remember the Bridge to Nowhere? After a series of mid-aughts scandals (some more scandalous than others), earmarks — the process of national lawmakers appropriating federal funds for local projects within their constituencies — became a convenient illustration of out of control government spending for Republicans during the 2008 presidential election.
Democrats, as they frequently do, took the bait and, despite having large majorities in House and Senate and being in the middle of a catastrophic fiscal crisis — exactly the time you might want to do some big, targeted local spending! — both parties agreed to ban earmarks altogether in 2011.
Well, what a difference a decade (and an entirely new financial crisis) make. Much like the mask mandate, earmarks are also back, baby! And our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are all-in to the tune of 460 million dollars in Washington alone. According to the Times:
“The funding would go to hundreds of varied projects, from low-income housing in Seattle to…a new drinking-water system for Airway Heights”
Water system in Airway Heights you say? What’s that all about? Well get comfortable.
Earlier this spring, the city had asked the state legislature for $16 million of a total $22 million, to replace their tainted water system. Compared to that Ketchican bridge, this isn’t close to the biggest example of government largesse in the history of pork barrel politics, and it might be one of the more uncontroversial uses of federal funds we can think of. Especially because it was the feds at Fairchild who contaminated the city’s water in the first place.
Kind of odd that they haven’t already footed the bill, actually.
The contamination is so thorough that remediation hasn’t worked, and Airway Heights has been buying its water from Spokane for four years now, at tremendous expense to them and at the expense of our own aquifer levels. In a geological fluke, the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer that hydrates about 370 square miles of Kootenai, Bonner and Spokane Counties, terminates almost exactly at the western edge of Spokane city limits.
So getting Airway Heights its water back would mean keeping more of ours, too. This is increasingly important as we face our area’s first exceptional drought in recorded history, and unless we want our water to go the way of the Odessa Aquifer, which is nearly depleted.
As of 2015, according to the sporadically updated aquifer atlas, our water usage was at equilibrium with the natural flows of the aquifer. Each day 985 million gallons flowed into the system and 980 gallons flowed out — around 206 million gallons of which was human use. There are, of course, seasonal variations, with water use spiking during summer.
The area of the aquifer maps more or less exactly onto the areas of highest migration to our region. Our region being, as we’ve discussed before, one of the fastest-growing in the nation.
Given this migration, the aquifer atlas is in desperate need of an update, but in the interest of being good stewards of this resource, we can assume usage has jumped with our population, and we have to be close to consuming more water than flows in, meaning we are in danger of drawing on the aquifer’s reserves.
It wouldn’t deplete over night — the aquifer has a capacity of 10 trillion gallons — but unless we get in the habit of reining in our consumption, it could be gone before we know it. And what then?
Huh. Guess this wasn’t a story about earmarks after all. — Luke
What a difference a week (and rising ICU numbers!) makes. Following up from our last newsletter’s Will They Or Won’t They?! COVID Mandate Edition coverage, Mayor Nadine Woodward late last week decided to bring back the ol’ mask mandate for Spokane city employees. This week, Inslee’s statewide mandate made Woodward’s narrow action irrelevant, though we did take note of how the dear mayor’s response to Inslee’s decree couldn’t help but slather her statement with profit-centric verbiage just to choke it down, saying:
“It is more important than ever that our businesses can remain open, and wearing masks is an important collective behavior to keep the momentum moving forward.”
Over in Montana, Whitefish City Council is preparing to set clean-energy goals that exceed its 2018 Climate Action Plan. In light of this month’s harrowing, fossil-fuel-damning IPCC climate report, White Fish has blown past denial and is settling into acceptance of what already is our new reality. The City Council is looking to create a full-time sustainability coordinator position, a move which might improve Whitefish’s chances of securing green infrastructure grants. Other cities in Western Montana — Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, and Red Lodge — have set similar goals.
We’ve seen N95 masks pulling double duty in the Northwest this summer, protecting lungs from both COVID and wildfire smoke. Turns out, there’s a direct link between the two. Tracking 2020 data from California, Oregon, and Washington, researchers from Harvard found fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) significantly exacerbated COVID symptoms, writing:
“Wildfires amplified the effect of exposure to PM2.5 on COVID-19 cases and deaths for up to four weeks after the exposure … In some counties, the percentage of the total number of COVID-19 cases and deaths attributable to high PM2.5 levels was substantial.”
Take care out there. —Elissa