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New West Daily Roundup for Mar. 28, 2016

Today in New West news: Vertical Harvest offers innovative produce solution in Jackson, EPA releases final water-monitoring plan for Gold King Mine spill, and Utah’s new “Road to Mighty” initiative.

When it comes to what you can get out of the ground, Wyoming’s more famous for coal and oil than it is for agriculture. That isn’t stopping the pair behind Vertical Harvest who are hoping to produce 100,000 pounds of produce annually. But rather than leave everything to the elements, Vertical Harvest is taking a different approach: hydroponic farming in a three-story greenhouse, located in downtown Jackson. From the New York Times:

The company employs 15 people who have conditions such as Down syndrome, autism, seizure disorders and spina bifida; they share 140 hours of work a week under a customized employment model. Vertical Harvest is a public-private partnership with the town of Jackson and it uses a low-profit business model, which means its investors will see a modest profit and it won’t come quickly.

“We’ve been calling it patient capital,” says Penny McBride, a company founder and its chief operating officer.

The farm began growing tomatoes in December and lettuce and herbs in February. By early May, Vertical Harvest’s greenhouse will be fully planted and producing greens. It will distribute them to restaurants and sell them at local grocery stores and in a retail market, inside the greenhouse, which opened this month.

The idea for Vertical Harvest came roughly eight years ago, around the time Ms. McBride and Nona Yehia met at a party in Jackson. Ms. McBride was a consultant working on a food-waste study and a commercial composting start-up, among other projects, and Ms. Yehia was an architect at the local firm E/Ye Architects who had recently designed a public rock climbing park and a private greenhouse that could withstand the harsh Wyoming winters.

The women were aware of the rising demand for high-quality, locally grown produce. Spurred by the organic and farm-to-table culinary movements, droves of professional chefs and home cooks had begun searching out better produce.

The Times notes that, in spite of the demonstrated need, some Jackson residents weren’t sold on Vertical Harvest, whether because said residents preferred other projects such as dog parks and affordable housing units or because they disagreed with Vertical Harvest’s philosophy. Indeed, Ed Cheramy (retired businessman and former vice president of the Jackson Tea Party branch) very vocally objected to the plan—until McBride and Yehia sat down with him to sell their plan over several months. From the NYT:

Eventually, Mr. Cheramy found he had no choice but to support the project. “When you strip away all of your objections, and they’d done all that, then what you’re left with is support,” he said. He added that he testified on behalf of Vertical Harvest at the Jackson Town Council, and at the Wyoming Business Council and the Wyoming State Loan and Investment Board, which together gave the project a $1.5 million grant.

“There’s a whole bunch of wonderful aspects of it,” Mr. Cheramy said, noting Vertical Harvest’s tall and narrow greenhouse design and its hiring of people with disabilities. “But it also makes good fiscal sense.”

Over in Colorado, the Environmental Protection Agency has released its final water-monitoring plan for the Gold King Mine spill, which we’ve been following for the past few months. As a refresher, the Gold King Mine spill happened in early August 2015, when the EPA accidentally 3 million gallons of contaminants into the Animas River during a cleanup. According to the Durango Herald, the EPA is planning to examine water at 30 points along both the Animas and San Juan rivers across several years:

The EPA on Thursday also announced that it would make $2 million available for additional monitoring needs designed to complement the yearlong effort.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation will monitor the spring runoff.
Spring 2016 is the first snowmelt season in the Animas and San Juan watershed since the spill. There is concern that heavy metal concentrations in the river may rise as flows increase, posing a risk to downstream communities and aquatic life. A large spring snowpack has increased those concerns.

The preparedness plan includes sensors providing real-time data, including turbidity and flow levels. The plan also calls for water quality sampling at regular intervals to track river conditions.

The San Juan Basin Health Department will rely on the real-time data, beyond the periodic sampling performed by the EPA.

“Based on currently available data, San Juan Basin Health believes that use of the river this year poses no additional health risks as compared to previous years, but as conditions change over the course of the monitoring program, we will assess data from all sources in order to improve our decision-making and keep the public safe,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of the San Juan Basin Health Department.

“EPA’s comparison of current and historic data at long-term monitoring sites will be essential for determining if the August incident has changed river conditions,” she added.

[…]

Fall data, also released on Thursday, showed that sampling from 27 locations were below “risk-based recreational screening levels,” according to the EPA. Officials added that the data were consistent with pre-event conditions.

Data are compared to recreational screening levels for long-term exposure. The analysis takes into account such things as how a person would contact the river and for how long.

An EPA spring sampling event is underway, which will be followed by additional sampling in June and again in the fall.

Finally, over in Utah, the state’s Office of Tourism has ramped up efforts to get tourists into the Beehive State with its new “Road to Mighty” TV spot, embedded above. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the $4.6 million campaign is meant to highlight the state’s “Mighty Five” national parks—Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches—as well as Utah’s general scenery and atmosphere. Currently, the spots are projected to run until mid-April. From the Tribune:

“We have something special here,” Gov. Gary Herbert said, calling the campaign a “great way to showcase the state” with its 43 “just gorgeous” state parks. He applauded the results of the “Mighty Five” campaign, which has helped significantly to elevate tourism’s contribution to Utah’s economy.

Since 2005, he said, tourism’s economic impact has grown 53 percent from $5.2 billion to just under $8 billion. State and local governments have collected almost $1 billion in tourism-generated taxes during that span, providing tax relief to Utahns.

Fred Hayes, director of the state parks and recreation department, welcomed the additional visitors who will be attracted by this new campaign. He contended the “Mighty Five” ads already have produced double-digit visitation increases at state parks since they first appeared.

Last year alone, he added, state parks experienced a 20 percent jump in visits.

Photo credit: Don Graham, Flickr.com.

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