Best of the West: Adapting to drought conditions; building affordable housing in 16 days; listen to a black hole; thrift shopping for ancient history

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 9, 2022. (Photos courtesy Associated Press/John Locher, NASA and San Antonio Museum of Art)

As the West experiences historic drought, states are successfully adapting to the conditions by limiting outdoor watering, implementing water-efficient protocols for landscaping new developments and offering financial incentives for transforming lawns into water-smart landscapes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, outdoor watering accounts for an average of 30% of household water use. In drier areas like southern Nevada, that number is up to 60%.

City Commissioners in a Montana town unanimously passed an ordinance to establish permanent watering restrictions because of drought and population growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2010 to 2020, the state’s population grew by 10%. Despite the increase, watering restrictions that went into effect last July resulted in a 20% reduction in water use. A town in Wyoming also implemented outdoor watering limitations to address the drought.

Utah’s Washington County — one of the fastest-growing areas in the U.S. — will restrict the amount of water new commercial and residential developments can use by limiting the grass at planned developments. Guidelines will show developers where to plant trees and the type of water fixtures needed and the size of fixtures. New car washes can only use 35 gallons of water per car, and golf courses must use non-culinary water to care for grass. Additionally, the county will require misting sprinkler systems between May and August, or any time the temperature is above 90 degrees.

Other cities are offering incentives for residents to reduce outdoor watering. Two decades ago, the Southern Nevada Water Authority created the Water Smart landscaping program that provides homeowners financial help to replace grass with desert landscaping. The program has saved 152 billion gallons of water and continues to conserve water as the population grows. Building upon those efforts, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation that requires the removal of decorative grass at businesses, complexes, streets and traffic medians over the next four years. In Colorado, the High Country Conservation Center received a $76,000 grant to reduce wastewater from landscaping. Residents who install water-efficient irrigation systems will receive rebates. The program will primarily focus on reducing water use from sprinklers, and landscapers could become certified Qualified Water Efficient Landscapers.

The Energizer Bunny of Power Grids: Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington created a freeze thaw battery with a molten salt solution that could store energy longer than a conventional battery, which lose surplus energy over time — even when not in use. Using this new technology, utilities can cheaply store energy for weeks or months, which could help sustain the power grid and store excess wind and solar power generated at peak times. 

European-Inspired Affordable Housing: A group of investors in Colorado plans to build a $45 million automated modular housing factory. The project could ease the workforce housing crisis by producing 100 apartments each month. While the concept is new to the U.S., it takes after a model in Sweden that can build 16-story apartment buildings in days. “No one has ever built something like this in the U.S.,” said Ted Steers, a project investor. “This is a key part to solving the workforce housing crisis.”

Listen to a Black Hole: NASA recently released audio of the black hole at the center of the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. The Chandra X-ray Observatory, which California and Colorado-based Northrup Grumman designed and built in 1999, discovered the eerie sound when it ‘sonified’  a pattern of ripples in the X-ray glow in the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. 

A Rewarding Conservation Effort: The endangered Hawaiian monk seal population has increased to a level not seen in two decades over the past two years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate the population has grown by more than 100, bringing the total population to 1,570. In the 40 years that the NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has monitored the population, this is the first time it’s surpassed 1,500. The species is a vital part of the ecosystem because it plays a critical role in the food chain and can indicate the ocean’s health. "We're starting to really see that continued payoff of intervening to save animals' lives," said Michelle Barbieri, the lead scientist at NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

Thrifting for Ancient History: A Texas woman scored a 2,000-year-old marble bust for $35 while thrift shopping at a Goodwill. At the time, she didn’t know the piece's significance but sought out an auction specialist who discovered that the find was 2,000 years old and came to the U.S. from Germany. It went missing around World War II, but its location before the thrift store is unknown. Another expert believes that the piece originally belonged to the Roman military leader Sextus Pompey whose father became a political enemy of Julius Caesar. The piece will return to Germany in 2023 because it technically still belongs to the country. 

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