The most important science policy issue in every state

A state-by-state breakdown of policies that could change your community.

Wildfires burning around the West. Rising seas lapping at the East. Animal feces, coal ash, and fertilizer fouling waterways from the Carolinas to the Midwest. Bridges, roads, and pipelines crumbling across the country. With the midterm elections less than a month away, communities across the United States face some of the most formidable scientific, environmental, and technological challenges in decades. On November 6, voters from Alaska to Florida will choose not just their next governor, state representative, or member of Congress, but to some degree how we live for decades to come. “This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says Bill Holland, State Policy Director for the League of Conservation Voters. In the 36 gubernatorial and 470 congressional races around the country, some of these challenges, like opioids and fossil fuels, are campaign issues, while others, such as climate change’s role in severe wildfires, don’t appear on any candidates’ platform. But, whether these matters are on their minds, the victors will face them once sworn in. Their decisions will help shape how well storm-ravaged communities adapt, whether the water is safe to drink, how open our internet will be, and more. These are the top science, technology, or environment issues facing each state—plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Even if it never surfaces on the campaign trail, science is always on the ballot.

Scroll through, or use the links below to jump to your state:

Alabama: Keeping drinking water drinkable

With more than 100 mines, the Black Warrior River watershed is one of the largest coal-producing regions in the South. It also provides drinking water for Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and other Alabama cities. While the mines employ hundreds of people, runoff from the operations carries heavy metals, acids, and sediment into waterways. Strip mining—in which workers scrape the surface of a mine and dump waste rock into valleys that run into river valleys—is one of the worst culprits. Environmental groups, including the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, say the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has failed to enforce laws that would protect water quality in the region. They’ve filed several lawsuits to compel the department to address the issue.

Alaska: Guarding calving grounds

The 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to North America’s largest caribou herd. It also encompasses what energy companies believe is the biggest untapped oil and gas reserve left in the U.S. Companies have angled to drill in the refuge’s coastal plain for almost four decades, but congressional attempts to open the lands failed amid concerns that it would damage the caribou’s calving areas. Now, the industry might get its wish. Last year, Congress authorized drilling in the area as part of a tax reform bill, and directed the Bureau of Land Management to offer oil and gas leases to energy companies by 2024. BLM has received a proposal for seismic exploration of the 1.6-million-acre plain this coming winter. Longtime drilling proponent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other supporters say development would be limited to no more than 2,000 acres. But a U.S. Geological Survey study of the effects of such development on caribou found that the animals avoided calving in any areas with concentrations of drilling infrastructure, which could cause the mammal’s numbers to dwindle. Similar studies also found that the herd avoids areas near oil and gas fields in the Canadian side of its range.

Arizona: Water conservation

For decades, two massive reservoirs—Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border and Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border—have stored water from the Colorado River for cities and farms in Western states, including California, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as Mexico. But a triple whammy of prolonged drought, this past winter’s paltry Rocky Mountain snowpack (which feeds the river’s lower basin), and years of overuse by cities, farms, and factories have left levels low enough to risk a water shortage—the first ever—within the next two years. By the end of this year, Lake Mead will be at 1,080 feet above sea level, just 5 feet above the threshold that triggers the declaration of a shortage. If that happens, under agreements among the states that share the basin’s water, Arizona and Nevada, who have the most junior rights in the basin, would face the biggest cuts. Grand Canyon State water managers recently began drafting a drought contingency plan to soften the blow through conservation and other measures. The team hopes the legislature will approve the plan when it reconvenes in January.

Arkansas: Monitoring confined animal feeding operations

The animal waste and dirtied water flowing out of high-density hog farms, a type of confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), have troubled clean-water advocates for years. The fate of Arkansas’ largest—C&H Hog Farms, a 6,500-head facility in the Buffalo River watershed—could determine the collective destiny of all other CAFOs in Arkansas. In operation since 2012, the facility has been hotly contested by some residents and local environmental organizations, including the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and the Ozark Society. The groups worry that the estimated 2.5 million gallons of annual waste will leak into waterways and cause harmful algae blooms (rapidly growing colonies that produce toxins) downstream. The state Department of Environmental Quality suspended permitting of other CAFOs in the area, and, earlier this year, continued its crackdown by denying the facility’s renewed operating permit. C&H has appealed the decision.

California: Forging paths forward

To some degree, California and its nearly 40 million residents face almost every issue in the country. Where the Golden State sets itself apart, though, is in how its solutions to those issues can often set a national standard.