At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Gabrielle Gray’s Last ROMP

Phoebe Hunt (hat and fiddle) performs center stage at the 2015 ROMP fest with (l to r) Nathaniel Smith (cello), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Rachel Baiman (fiddle), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), and Luke Bulla (fiddle). Photo: Keith Schneider

Phoebe Hunt (hat and fiddle) performs center stage at the 2015 ROMP fest with (l to r) Nathaniel Smith (cello), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Rachel Baiman (fiddle), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), and Luke Bulla (fiddle). Photo: Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY. — Around noon on the last Saturday of Gabrielle Gray’s long run as the founder and director of ROMP, this Ohio River City’s signature bluegrass music festival, a moment of pure love and remembrance unfolded unexpectedly.

Standing alone on the festival stage with her fiddle, Phoebe Hunt, one of the singularly great young artists that ROMP has featured in the last several years, prepared to open her set as a solo. A striking dark-haired woman, Phoebe paused. Her shoulders seemed to fall. She bowed her head, struggling to compose herself. But the weight of her tears became overwhelming. Glancing at Gabrielle, who stood offstage nearby, Phoebe mouthed “I love you,” and almost stumbled.

A few more moments passed before Phoebe gathered herself and started to play, the sound of her voice and fiddle like a halting lament. When she finished, Gabrielle strode to center stage and wrapped Phoebe in a big hug, a warm embrace of kinship and confidence, which is how Gabrielle always treats Phoebe and the other uncommonly talented millennial generation musicians who play ROMP.

All of them – The Rigs, 10 String Symphony, Luke Bulla, Vickie Vaughn, Sam Grisman, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings, Alex Hargreaves, and many others — are shaping the fresh, ascendant sound of bluegrass music. Settled at last, Phoebe was joined by the two other virtuoso members of her trio, mandolin player Dominick Leslie and cellist Nathaniel Smith, and performed the rest of her flawless and stylish set.

Tears of An Artist
There aren’t many music festivals, or festival directors for that matter, that are capable of inspiring a performer’s tears. ROMP is one of those festivals and so is Gabrielle, its founder and director for the past 12 years. The 2015 ROMP fest was Gabrielle’s last. With new leadership deciding next year’s lineup of performers there’s no assurance that ROMP’s internationally distinctive musical center — the cadre of prominent young bluegrass artists that Gabrielle has recruited and cultivated — will still be featured in Owensboro.

That’s what drew tears from Phoebe Hunt, the awareness that it wasn’t just one era that was surely ending — Gabrielle’s sensational run as a festival director. So might another — the place ROMP holds for the emerging stars of bluegrass to perform during the last weekend of June and gather as friends to catch up and jam together. ROMP is what this generation calls its “hang,” and has been as important to elevating young careers as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado was in the 1980s for Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan and other artists who are now some of the biggest acts in bluegrass, and all of American music.

Eric Robertson, lead singer of The Rigs, performs Wednesday night at the 2015 ROMP with (l to r) Duncan Wickel (fiddle), Nathaniel Smith (cello), Nicholas Falk (drums).

Eric Robertson, lead singer of The Rigs, performs Wednesday night at the 2015 ROMP with (l to r) Duncan Wickel (fiddle), Nathaniel Smith (cello), Nicholas Falk (drums).

“ROMP was the first place that I could come to spend time with great musicians and hear their music,” Eric Robertson, the lead singer and mandolin player for The Rigs, told me. In 2013, Robertson was joined by fiddle player Duncan Wickel, drummer Nicholas Falk, and bassist Josh Hari at their first ROMP, performing a festival-best set that mixed bluegrass, soul, and New Orleans funk at an after party attended by a throng of dancers. Read More

Challenged By Drought, Fire, Earthquake, and Flood, California Departs On New Path

The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California's challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding  daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider

The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California’s challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider

OROVILLE, CA — Until visitors peer over the crest of 770-foot Oroville Dam, which stores the cold Sierra waters of the Feather River and is the tallest dam in the United States, it’s hard to tell a drought grips Butte County, or any of the other neighboring Central Valley counties in this part of northern California.

The dirt-lined transport canals are filled to the top with water that slakes the thirst of thousands of hectares of rice, sunflowers, peaches, corn, soybeans, and all manner of California’s agricultural cornucopia. Unlike the southern reaches of the Central Valley, there’s no sign of the empty spaces of brown dirt where tomato fields lie fallow, or laser-leveled orchards under moisture duress that have been ripped out.

Quite the contrary. The region’s bullet-straight two lane highways pass by new orchards under cultivation, the roots of each infant tree politely dressed in swirls of drip irrigation line, and saluted by the short red plastic stake of a single spray irrigator. More surprising are the throngs of sunburned bathers and jet ski operators enjoying the deep cooling depths of two blue and bountiful manmade lakes that flank Highway 162. The highway is the primary route to enter this city of 16,000 residents, and to climb the Sierra foothills to reach the dam and its visitors center.

The sight from the trail across the dam’s spillway describes a much different story. The Lake Oroville reservoir, California’s second largest, is 42 percent of capacity, according to the state Department of Water Resources. It looks it. Two million of its 3.5 million acre-feet of water are gone. A bathtub ring of rock and soil, 200 feet wide, circles the lake like a light brown rebuke to the will of its essential purpose.

A Drain on Storage
Week by week the ring grows a little wider as the reservoir drains to irrigate fields and supply thirsty towns across the state that receive Lake Oroville’s liquid offering. The steadily receding water level is intently followed along the Sierra front like the won-loss record of high school football teams. “What’s happening is kind of out of our hands,” said Karen Wilson, a mother of two young children, who works part-time at an Oroville convenience store. “We do what we can. Don’t wash the car. Short showers. Live with brown grass. Dishwater on the gardens. You kind of hope the people in charge of the big stuff know what they’re doing.”

Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider

Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider

In much of the skeptical, government-suspicious United States that’s an odd appeal — looking to the authorities for guidance. In its matter of fact way, though, Wilson expresses the conviction held by most Californians that the authorities are actually capable of responding well to urgent conditions.
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Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country's allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country’s allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

Earth Day, first celebrated 45 years ago in the United States, is now a grown-up international convergence that joins a reckoning with ecological deterioration to the panorama of human activity devoted to improving the planet’s condition. What’s inspiring about Earth Day is that the same principles of responsibility, collective action, pollution prevention, and natural resource conservation that informed the first Earth Day in 1970 have proven to be the durable foundation of 1) ecological repairs on every continent, and 2) social movements that are fostering public pressure and government action to solve the tough threats that remain.

My personal Earth Day history encompasses nearly all of the modern environmental movement and its myriad transitions. I was 14 years old on April 22, 1970, an eighth grader in Highlands Junior High School in White Plains, New York. Earth Day was such a big national event that the White Plains Public School administrators called a school holiday to allow students to participate in organized activities, most of them focused on some sort of clean-up. I organized a few of my friends to join me in painting the White Plains train station, and dragging old tires and appliances out of the Bronx River, which ran close to the station. Our work attracted notice from The New York Times, which reported on our work in the second to last paragraph of a front-page article on Earth Day in the April 23, 1970 edition of the newspaper.

The path I chose to embed my life in environmentalism was through journalism and story-telling. As a student at Haverford College in the late 1970s I studied chemistry and biology, literature and history, which provided the research skills required of environmental reporting and knowledge of the arcane language of two of the galvanizing threats of that era: managing toxic and nuclear wastes. Very soon after the start of my career the Love Canal toxic waste site was discovered in upstate New York, and half the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor melted during an accident in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River, downriver from my first newspaper job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades the risks that attracted the country’s attention, and the focus of my own reporting, steadily evolved. Water and air pollution. Conserving wild lands, wild habitats, and wild species. Activism to curb pesticide use in food production. The advent of genetic engineering in agriculture. Disastrous oil spills. The push-back from property rights groups and conservative activists about government authority to regulate wetlands, private lands, and business. Ocean pollution and the decline of coral reefs and fisheries. Suburban sprawl as an environmental problem and smart growth urban redevelopment as its cure. Climate change. Fracking. The global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of declining freshwater resources.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

There’s no end to the reasons for pessimism about our planet’s condition. In Asia, rising coal consumption in China and India warms the atmosphere and is causing eight-year-olds in China to develop lung cancer. In South America, gold mining and forest cutting are wrecking the Amazon. In North America, unconventional fuels production is torturing the forests and water of northern Alberta Canada, contaminating drinking water and causing earthquakes in the United States, and pouring explosive fuels into flimsy rail cars for transport to coastal refineries. The planet’s population continues to grow 80 million people annually.

Yet what keeps me and so many other people devoted to the principles of Earth Day is the progress that’s been made, and the convergence of powerful trends motivating big changes in how we operate.
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Lower Subansiri Dam, Unfinished and Silent, Could Be Tomb For India’s Giant Hydropower Projects

Construction of the Lower Subansiri dam stopped in 2011 and hasn't restarted. Photo/Keith Schneider

Construction of the Lower Subansiri dam stopped in 2011 and hasn’t restarted. Photo/Keith Schneider

ITANAGAR, India – With all the immediate distress and hopeful fervor that has greeted Narendra Modi’s new administration, one of the government’s unyielding themes is the prime minister’s allegiance to running water. Specifically, the swift currents that pour from the steep flanks of the Himalaya range as a cure for the country’s endemic electricity shortages.

In the three months after his election last May the 64-year-old leader personally dedicated three new hydropower plants and a 375-kilometer (233-mile) transmission line in Jammu and Kashmir, a Himalayan state in northwest India bordered by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China.

Modi visited Bhutan, which shares a border with several northern Indian states, to lay foundation stones for the 60-megawatt Kurishu hydroelectric project and the 600-megawatt Kholongchu Hydel Power Project.

In August, Modi became first Indian prime minister to visit Nepal since 1997. While in Kathmandu he negotiated an agreement to finance the construction of two transmission lines and to set up a project office for the 5,600-megawatt Pancheshwar hydropower station on the Mahakali River. The immense electricity-generating installation, close to two decades in planning and development, is more than twice the size of India’s largest operating hydropower project, the Tehri hydropower station in Uttarakhand. “Nepal can free India of its darkness with its electricity,” Modi said.

Modi’s run-of-the-river diplomacy culminated in February when an advisory committee overruled a previous government decision and approved construction of the 3,000-megawatt Dibang power project in the wild and steep Himalayan highlands here in Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern India state bordered by Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Not since 2003, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee directed India to generate 50,000 megawatts of power by constructing 162 big new hydropower stations — most of them planned for the Himalayas — has an Indian leader exhibited such fealty to the kinetic energy from damming fast-moving mountain streams.

Yet just as the hopeful current of Vajpayee’s ambitious program for diversifying India’s electrical power was slowed by rampaging floods and landslides, rising costs, and powerful civic opposition in the Himalayan states, Modi’s dam building campaign is not at all assured.
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Owensboro Will Build International Bluegrass Music Center

Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, led the work to promote bluegrass as a signature feature of the city's cultural and economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, led the work to promote bluegrass as a signature feature of the city’s cultural and economic development. Photo/Keith Schneider

In the week that America expressed its disdain for Indiana’s spiteful political fanaticism, and its new “religious freedom” statute that would allow business owners to discriminate against gays and lesbians, comes a much more responsible story of what’s possible in public policy.

On April 1, Kentucky Democratic Governor Steve Beshear teamed up with Owensboro Republican Mayor Ron Payne to advance the economic and artistic interests of the mid-size Ohio River city. The two found a way to direct $5 million in public funds to complete the capital campaign and build the $15 million International Bluegrass Music Center.

It’s another of the astute steps Owensboro is taking to make the river city a showcase of public policy and economic innovation. I’ve followed the city’s development since 2011, when I wrote a new development strategy for Owensboro that included focusing on bluegrass music as a piece of the city’s 21st century economy. I’m also in a relationship with Gabrielle Gray, who as director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro led the work to promote bluegrass as a centerpiece of the city’s cultural and economic development.

Few small cities in the United States or globally are evolving with as much understanding of the new market conditions of this century. Even fewer are commanding the needed fiscal tools, or building the political alliances, with as much skill as Owensboro. The result is a city transformed.

Owensboro has the most inviting waterfront on the Ohio River now. For a few dollars increase in annual insurance tax premiums, premiums that rebuilt the core business district, nearly every homeowner within a two mile radius of the new construction is experiencing five to seven percent annual increases in the value of their residences. For a $190,000 home, that amounts to $9,000 a year or more.

It’s important to recall that Owensboro once approved $100 million in public tax benefits (worth $200 million in 2015 dollars) to attract a single manufacturer and 350 jobs. The roughly $8 million to $9 million in public investment for the Bluegrass Music Center could generate comparable numbers of jobs at much lower expense.

As a journalist deeply interested in public policy, it’s also vital to commend one more vital principle underlying all of what’s occurred in Owensboro — the idea that public investment for public purposes makes enduring sense. That’s how we built the country. That’s how Owensboro rebuilt itself.

It takes great leaders to break through the shackles of fiscal austerity, the dogma that government can’t perform well. Owensboro has a great leader in its capable mayor.

Bluegrass music has capable leaders in Gabrielle Gray and in Terry Woodward, an Owensboro business owner and bluegrass music lover who consistently added his voice, generous finances, and time to bluegrass and to the city for decades.

Having watched some of this take shape up close, and knowing how challenging it is to achieve goals of this magnitude in a frustrating, even depressing era of austerity and resistance, it needs only to be said that what has been achieved with the Bluegrass Music Center is a fine, fine accomplishment.

Congratulation to everyone involved. Plus one question — what’s next?

– Keith Schneider