Letters

Other Departments -- November 1995

LETTERS

Ferocious Differences

Dam Problems

Structure of Success

It is refreshing to see a Latin American intellectual looking inward to explain the causes of social distress and injustice, as does Jorge Castañeda in "Ferocious Differences" (July Atlantic). It is encouraging to see a Latin American intellectual confront culture as a central factor in explaining the vast gap in human well-being that separates Canada and the United States from Latin America. One wonders how much that gap might have been narrowed had Latin American intellectuals --Castañeda prominent among them--and U.S. intellectuals not spent the past several decades contriving specious theories that blamed Latin America's ills on the United States.

Castañeda's plea to keep our border open to Mexican immigrants underscores the points he makes about Mexico's failures as a society. Try to imagine conditions in Mexico today with an additional 10 million people (more than a tenth of Mexico's current population), the vast majority with little education and few skills. That's the estimate of the demographer Leon Bouvier, of the Center for Immigration Studies, of the Mexicans who have immigrated legally and illegally into the United States since 1960, plus their offspring.

But in advocating immigration to the United States as a pressure valve for Mexico, Castañeda ignores the negative consequences of this enormous south-north flow for the United States, and above all for its own poor citizens, mostly black and Hispanic. Growing income disparity within the United States is not the result only of Reagan policies. Another contributor is the vast pool of unskilled immigrants (Mexico being the largest source of them) that has flooded our labor market, displacing poor citizens and driving wages and benefits down. Immigrants also compete with poor citizens for social services.

Immigration is thus relevant to "The Crisis of Public Order," Adam Walinsky's compelling article in the same issue. Immigration both aggravates the poverty that nurtures violent crime and diverts resources from programs to do something about it. And there is at least some evidence, which Walinsky's data do not address, of a disproportionate Hispanic (principally of Mexican origin) involvement in crime--for example, in Colorado, where in 1988 Hispanics accounted for 11 percent of the population and 25 percent of the prison population.

Lawrence E. Harrison
Cambridge, Mass.




Jorge Castañeda's description of the economically polarized Mexican society and its "informal" relationship to work, life, and love does help to explain the poverty and high birth rate of its underclass but in no way makes a reasonable case for addressing the ill consequences of this problem by shunting the unwanted masses onto the United States, as he attempts to do in his closing paragraph.

It is clear that the United States, acting as a safety valve for Mexico's unwanted, unsatisfied peoples and as a source of hope to all, has merely aided the Mexican ruling class in maintaining an exclusive grip on the nation's wealth. The unsatisfied can simply emigrate and send part of their paycheck home.

Apparently, what Mexico really needs is an outright revolution with a few ruling-class heads on the pikes to initiate change. This would be far more palatable to many in the United States than the social revolution we will experience at home if the gradual Mexican invasion of illegal immigration is allowed to continue.

Mark Fickes
Maple Grove, Minn.




Jorge Castañeda's main suggestion gave me pause, and I had to read it over several times to be certain I was not misinterpreting the author's advice. For Castañeda recommends that the United States allow huge waves of illegal Mexican aliens into the country in order to forestall a revolution in Mexico. He shows no concern at all with the impact on the U.S. labor market, school systems, or criminal-justice system (18 percent of prisoners in California are illegals).

Is Castañeda, who does not tell us which of Mexico's three racial groupings he belongs to, seeking to have the United States ally with a small racist group of millionaires and their assassination teams? I vote for a Mexican revolution. It may solve the immigrant problem in California, because many of la raza's militants could return to their homeland and fight for justice in a land in which Mexicans are genuinely oppressed (Mexico), instead of asking for special privileges in a tolerant country that unwisely admitted them (the United States).

Kenneth Barkin
Riverside, Calif.




Jorge Castañeda replies:

Mexico's current economic crisis is mentioned in the essay as an example of a much more atemporal and substantive problem: why Americans do not understand Mexico. Using the surprising--for many--nature of the crisis as an example, Itry to explain why Mexico retains an undeniable opacity for observers from abroad. I argue that it stems from the differences between Mexico and the United States, which stretch beyond levels of income and productivity and reach into the deeper realms of the soul, history, and society. No attempt is made to establish a causal relationship between Mexico's ills--economic, social, or otherwise--and those ferocious differences.

After examining some of the differences I consider paramount, I conclude with another example--of an upcoming surprise that should not be one. Mexican economic, social, and political stability will be seriously affected if emigration to the United States is curtailed at a particularly difficult time for millions of Mexicans. Again, this is simply an example, not a causal relationship or a policy recommendation. I do not know, and certainly do not presume to discover in a short essay, whether Mexico's ills can be or have been solved--or aggravated, as the case may be--by immigration; I certainly do not state that immigration is the answer, nor do I recommend "that the United States allow huge waves of illegal Mexican aliens into the country in order to forestall a revolution in Mexico" (though this is partly what the United States has done for half a century, rightly or wrongly). I only want to suggest, in passing, that Americans should proceed today on the question of immigration with their eyes open. Among the many factors that U.S. immigration policy should take into account is the effect on Mexico. After fully considering what impact a given immigration reform could have on its neighbor, the United States may decide to act regardless of that impact. And that impact may occur regardless of whether the United States takes it into account.




Dam Problems

In "The Trouble With Dams" (August Atlantic), Robert S. Devine laments the waste in pumping 43 million gallons of water to get a single pleasure boat through a lock: "water that could have helped dying salmon survive, or could have generated enough electricity (about $700 worth) to supply an average house in the Northwest for one year." Devine seemingly thinks that after water is pumped up to the lock's top level, it proceeds directly to the earth's core. But the next time the lock is lowered, that 43 million gallons of water will be returned to the lower level, as available for fish habitat, power generation, and other downstream uses as it ever was. (If the lock in question routes its downflows through a hydroelectric generator, that 43-million-gallon parcel of water will actually generate more electricity than if the lock had never captured it.)

Locking a single pleasure craft through a huge lock is wasteful, but only in the amount of energy consumed to pump the water uphill, less any energy generated when that parcel of water is returned. To the degree that Devine bids us squander our energies in mourning mythical dead salmon and darkened homes, he compromises the credibility of the rest of his article--and reduces the likelihood that the waste he decries will be addressed in less sensational, more effective ways.

Thomas W. Flynn
Buffalo, N.Y.




I have just read "The Trouble With Dams," and I am disappointed. The article concentrates on subsidy costs and wildlife impact, and as a result is superficially impressive. But that's all. One gets the impression that food supply, low-cost bulk transportation with minimal air-quality impact, and civilization itself are less important than wetlands and the fauna and flora they augment.

I really get tired of hearing that big banks, big insurance companies, and big business are the bad people of our society, and not the guardians of our savings, our insurance reserves, and our food supply. There are many obvious abuses of the subsidies, and I wouldn't pay a dime for flood damage to people who knowingly live in a floodplain (but that was a surprise to many honest people in 1993).

But the scale of the abuses in the use of food stamps and the endless array of welfare benefits are wrong too. Nevertheless, people have to be fed, housed, and clothed, and their children educated, no matter what. At least the cost of water supply and control has been somewhat quantified, and the costs mentioned are but a dot on our annual expenditures, whereas the philosophy of nature first, man second is an old philosophy almost from the beginning of recorded history, and is unquantified and an emotional reaction today.

Wilfred P. Juckem
Davenport, Iowa




"The Trouble With Dams" probably left many readers perplexed, wondering why they had not heard previously about the deleterious effects of dams on our nation's rivers and their own wallets. In a concise, uncompromising fashion, Devine reveals that the "federal" dams--those built and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, ostensibly for flood control and irrigation respectively--have lined the pockets of powerful economic interests at the expense of fish, wildlife, and the American public.

The megalithic federal "public works" dams showcased by Devine are, however, only part of the problem. America's rivers and streams are also obstructed by thousands of nonfederal dams that have been and continue to be constructed primarily for hydroelectric power, owing in large part to federal legislation enacted in the late 1970s to hedge against the vagaries of the world oil market. These dams have contributed greatly to the precipitous ecological decline of many U.S. rivers, and environmental degradation is particularly profound in river systems with multiple hydroelectric dams.

Under federal law the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that regulates the construction and operation of nonfederal dams, cannot license the construction of a new dam or relicense existing dams unless, after giving equal consideration to power values and to environmental quality, it determines that to do so will be in the public interest. Unfortunately, the FERC continues to approve new dam construction in degraded river basins and appears poised to begin relicensing existing projects without due regard for river health or adequate protection and mitigation for fish and wildlife. Until the FERC takes its legal charge seriously, the deplorable state of many American rivers will persist.

Rob Masonis
Seattle, Wash.




"The Trouble With Dams" obviously was never intended to balance the many benefits of dams with the problems they pose. Suffice it to say that your readers got only one side of the story.

The article, however, was totally off base on the prices that irrigators in Westlands Water District pay for water from the federal Central Valley Project, in California. In reality they pay from $34.00 to $45.00 per acre foot, even though the federal government originally contracted to deliver water for $8.00.

The prices have been substantially increased by legislation passed by Congress in 1982 and 1992. For example, the prices failed to include the $6.35 per acre foot paid into an environmental-restoration fund by CVP contractors. It is indeed true that Westlands' farmers pay more than most for their water.

The author also used an apples-and-oranges comparison: for Westlands he used the range of basic prices paid by the district to the federal government, rather than the cost delivered to the farms. For avocado growers in San Diego, however, he used the delivered price.

Comparing prices paid by farmers with those paid by cities is another apples-and-oranges situation. Water prices are driven by four major factors: how far the water must travel, how high it has to be pumped, whether the water must be treated for human consumption, and the expense of distributing the water.

Farmers generally (the San Diego avocado grower is one exception) are close to the source, don't have to pump their water over high mountains, don't have to treat their water, and have low distribution costs. Water from northern California must be conveyed more than 400 miles, pumped more than 3,000 feet uphill, and delivered through a very expensive urban-type system in order to reach the San Diego avocado grower. That's why it costs $300-$400 an acre foot; water from the same project (California's State Water Project) is currently delivered in the San Joaquin Valley, adjacent to Westlands, for $47.00 an acre foot.

David Yardas, of the Environmental Defense Fund, was correct in saying that most farmers can afford the state-project water. He was dead wrong on two counts: Westlands and other CVP contractors pay much more than he said; and he neglected to mention that full cost in the federal project is much higher than the state-
project rate. The current CVP full-cost rate of $75.00-$94.00 an acre foot is unaffordable for growers of most crops. The huge difference in water cost is due to an arbitrary interest-rate formula, written into the 1982 legislation, that is much higher than the state-project interest rate.

The article also repeated a common misconception about cotton, calling it a plant that "guzzles" more than thirty inches of water a year. Water requirements for cotton are more accurately described as moderate. Cotton uses about the same amount as grapevines, but a third less than fruit or nut trees and other field crops grown in the area. Cotton requires less than half as much water as alfalfa or irrigated pasture (or, for that matter, many lawns, parks, and golf courses).

Farmers in Westlands are switching to vegetable crops, including tomatoes, garlic, onions, and lettuce, as rapidly as the markets for these commodities expand. Since 1980 vegetable acreage in Westlands has increased from 70,000 to 180,000 acres. The major reason is economics; these crops provide a higher return than the crops they replace. As a group the vegetables also use about six inches less water than cotton.

Cotton acreage, on the other hand, has remained static or declined slightly. This trend demonstrates clearly that somewhat lower water prices and the existence of a commodity program don't encourage farmers to grow, much less "lavish" water on, cotton or any other crop. Farmers fully realize that water is too scarce to waste. Many of them choose the crops they grow on the basis of net income per acre foot of water.

For the record, Westlands does not have leaky canals. Water is distributed through underground pipelines and metered at each delivery point. More than half the acreage is irrigated by sprinklers, and almost all the permanent crops have drip or micro-sprinkler irrigation systems. Several farmers conduct field-scale trials in an effort to find a cost-effective way to use expensive subsurface drip irrigation on annual field crops--another way to get the most out of every drop of water.

David Orth
General Manager
Westlands Water District
Fresno, Calif.




In addition to the ecological impact that all kinds of dams have, outlined by Robert Devine, the thousands of hydropower dams nationwide cause their own unique kind of damage to the aquatic environment. For example, hydropower dams divert water away from the river for power generation. Stretches of river between the dam (where the water is diverted from the river) and the powerhouse downstream (where the water is spun through turbines and released back into the river) are often totally devoid of water, destroying the continuity of the river as a migration corridor for plants and animals.

Many hydropower dams also store the river's flow in their reservoir and then release the water for power generation at times of peak electricity need. This is called peaking-power operation, which produces much costlier electricity than regular operations. Peaking power causes both the reservoir created by the dam and downstream stretches of river to fluctuate between low and high water, degrading shorelines and disturbing fisheries, waterfowl, and bottom-dwelling organisms, especially during nesting or spawning periods. Irregular releases of water by a peaking-power dam also destroy the river's natural seasonal flow variations, which trigger growth and reproduction cycles in many species.

In addition, the flow of water into a hydropower dam's turbines draws fish into the spinning blades. The fish are often killed by the turbines. Those that survive are often injured or stunned, making them easy prey below the dam for flying predators such as gulls and herons. Thus the area below a dam is nicknamed "chowder alley."

Fortunately, the means are at hand to reduce the environmental damage caused by many of the nation's hydropower dams. In the next fifteen years the operating licenses will expire on more than 500 nonfederal hydropower dams (owned by private developers, utilities, municipalities, and others). The relicensing of these dams is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which can condition the relicensing of these dams on improvements to reduce environmental damage. Because hydropower-dam licenses last thirty to fifty years, this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how the nation's hydropower dams are managed.

Margaret Bowman
Director of Hydropower Programs American Rivers
Washington, D.C.




As Robert Devine observes in his generally perceptive article, "Sometimes, in some places, some kinds of dams will make sense." It is unfortunate that he did not heed his own conclusion when he decided to lump all inland-waterway transportation in his criticism of indiscriminate damming of America's rivers.

Few Americans perceive how critical the nation's inland waterways are to our commerce. Well over 1.1 billion tons of bulk commodities will move over our nation's rivers in 1995, primarily the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries. Coal from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania can move to electric-power plants, chemicals and a variety of petroleum products are delivered from refineries to wholesale and retail distributors, and grain from farms is shipped to millers and processors. In each case these commodities move with greater safety, less pollution, greater efficiency per unit of energy consumed to move each ton, and at less cost than they would by competing modes of transportation. Even with taxpayer support the inland waterways bring economic benefits to everyone in the form of cheaper electricity and lower prices on finished goods.

Pointing out the $1.5 billion authorized by Congress for capital improvements on the Ohio River system over the past ten years is particularly misleading. Virtually all these lock and dam projects have replaced or will replace existing facilities that are decades old. Moreover, shippers pay to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund an excise of twenty cents per gallon of fuel used in barging operations. This excise supports 50 percent of the cost of studies and capital improvements to the locks and dams and related infrastructure.

Steven F. Leer
Inland Waterways Users Board
St. Louis, Mo.




The trouble with "The Trouble With Dams" is its clear view against water projects. Robert Devine claims that public funding of water projects, particularly in the West, has had little benefit. Nothing could be much farther downstream from the truth.

A cursory glance at the history of the U.S. West reveals a struggle between supply and demand. With a large influx of easterners before the turn of the century and after the Great Depression, common sense demanded the means necessary to survive.

An example is the federal Central Valley Project, built under Franklin Roosevelt's authority in the 1930s. Prior to the development of the project, California land was largely barren. Under the CVP, however, a wide variety of crops was produced, providing economic sustenance and stability. It is a perversion of the truth to state that dams "impoverish" citizens. In fact, those within the CVP and other federal projects welcomed the chance to "make it." Dams change the ecosystem--but for the benefit, not to the detriment, of taxpayers.

Flood control is another area in which focusing on hard costs makes little sense. Population growth, much as we are loath to admit it, has interfered in the marketplace. Devine recognizes this fact but ignores its effects. He suggests building in areas outside floodplains--but it is not that simple. Areas outside floodplains are often already developed or protected, limiting residence choices. Perhaps cessation of building altogether is the unstated solution--a novel idea, but one with little practicality. Until our economy can be sustained without depending on growth, building is the unfortunate reality.

Most disturbing is Devine's evaluation of agricultural water practices. The wide variance in water costs between cities and agriculture apparently bears explanation yet again. Municipal and industrial water prices are (comparably) higher for several reasons: filtration and disinfecting facilities, water meters, underground pipe, and in California extensive transportation facilities. The water that farmers receive is untreated and unsuitable for human consumption--"raw" and less reliable, because city and environmental water uses have priority in times of shortage.

Yet an image of wasteful water practices by agriculture has long been cultivated, particularly by David Yardas, of the Environmental Defense Fund, and by other environmental groups. Even at a cost of less than $20.00 per acre foot, farmers would be shooting themselves in the proverbial foot by wasting water--in essence, only costing themselves more money. There is also the question of why agriculture would use up a necessary yet limited resource so quickly.

Devine states that "a great deal of water vanishes from fields. . . . surrendering a huge volume of water to evaporation and seepage." Groundwater aquifers in California can be drawn down and recharged. Once water is in the ground, minimal loss occurs, making unlined canals a component of groundwater recharge. Lining canals, using low-flow systems, and making other costly improvements do mean that less water is used--but less water is stored underground.

In the past decade California agriculture has invested some $300 million annually in micro, drip, and other advanced irrigation methods, negating Devine's assumption that farmers "still rely on inefficient" methods. Considering that most irrigation improvements have come in the past ten years, relying on studies from the 1970s hardly seems accurate or fair.

Is there some waste? Unfortunately, yes, but simply jacking up the price of water will solve only a portion of the problem. Working through programs (like those of the California Department of Water Resources) to educate farmers to alternatives is far more efficient and effective.

The diversity of fruits, nuts, and vegetables that are grown in California as a result of the Central Valley Project has benefited the nation. Even cotton, the undeserving poster child of crop-choice critics, is virtually never in surplus and contributes significantly to the national trade balance. All of this bounty, using only 30 percent of the developed water supply, leads one to conclude that a wise investment was made in building water projects.

R. Brad Shinn
California Farm Water Coalition
Sacramento, Calif.




Robert S. Devine replies:

Thomas Flynn is misinformed about lock operations at Lower Granite Dam. The lock draws its water from the upper reservoir. When a boat headed downriver is lowered, or the water level is lowered to accept a boat going upriver, that 43 million gallons, otherwise unused, drains into the downriver reservoir. Locks waste significant amounts of water; during drought years the Army Corps of Engineers restricts lockages in an effort to conserve.

Wilfred Juckem correctly notes that the many benefits that dams provide were not the subject of my article. However, in many cases the benefits aren't nearly as great as advertised. When one also considers subsidies, industries hurt by dams (such as commercial fishing), and environmental harm, many dams don't appear to provide net benefits to society. I appreciate that Juckem is tired of the phrases "big banks," "big insurance companies," and "big business"; I hope he appreciates that I didn't add to his burden by using any of those phrases in my article. Juckem also refers to the costs of dams and dam-related subsidies as "but a dot on our annual expenditures." Well, to paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen, a billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

Steven Leer makes it sound as if barging is clean and green because it pollutes less and uses proportionately less energy than do competing means of shipping bulk commodities. But dredging, the disruption of natural river flows, and other measures that serve shipping cause extensive environmental harm. Leer also states that barging deserves taxpayer support because it's cheaper than competing modes of transportation--but in many cases it's cheaper precisely because taxpayers support it. He justifies the $1.5 billion that Congress has doled out to the Ohio River system for upgrading its locks and dams on the grounds that the existing facilities are decades old. Perhaps their age makes rehabilitation necessary, but their age hardly justifies the use of taxpayer dollars, especially considering that federal money built those locks and dams for bargers in the first place. Leer closes by pointing out that shippers pay a fuel tax that covers 50 percent of capital improvements to waterways. Such a tax was imposed in the 1980s (over the fierce objections of bargers), but loopholes greatly reduce the amount shippers pay; in fiscal year 1995 the fuel tax covered only 23 percent of capital improvements. Leer forgets to mention that the federal government pays 100 percent of the annual operation-and- maintenance budget for inland waterways, an amount that usually exceeds the money spent on capital improvements.

Brad Shinn writes that I pervert the truth when I state that dams "impoverish" citizens. No such statement appears in my article. But dams do inflict economic harm on many citizens, such as farmers whose fields are encrusted with salt owing to upriver irrigation practices, persons displaced by reservoirs, and those whose livelihoods depend on fish populations that have been devastated by water projects. Shinn grossly overstates the case when he declares that we must develop floodplains because builders have nowhere else to go; usually other land is available. His assertion that before the coming of industrial agriculture the Central Valley, in California, was "largely barren" reveals a narrow utilitarian perspective. The pre-Columbian Central Valley was a grassland of immense biological wealth, home to clouds of waterfowl, salmon, and even tremendous grizzlies and wolves.

Shinn's argument that farmers cost themselves money if they waste water is specious; some irrigators receive water that is so heavily subsidized that it's cheaper to use it profligately than to pay for improvements that conserve it. Shinn says I'm way off the mark in stating that the U.S. Department of Agriculture almost always declares cotton a surplus crop; the USDA says I'm right. Shinn writes that California irrigators use only 30 percent of the developed water supply; a variety of authoritative sources put the figure at about 80 percent.

Shinn and David Orth rightly challenge my unintended implication that farmers should be paying the same price for raw water that others pay for treated and arduously delivered water. However, I stand by the pivotal comparison that reveals a large part of the subsidy that irrigators enjoy: the Westlands Water District pays only $8.00-$31.00 per acre foot (not $34.00-$45.00, as Orth states) for Bureau of Reclamation water, although it costs the bureau $61.00-$80.00 to make that water available. Orth's figures are inaccurate in part because he includes the $6.35 per acre foot that gets paid into the environmental-restoration fund. That $6.35 pays (or barely begins to pay) for the environmental degradation caused by irrigation, not for water per se. Orth defends using more than thirty inches of water a year to grow cotton in a desert by observing that some Westlands growers raise crops that require even more water. I'm glad he's not my attorney.

Finally, several of the respondents employ a peculiar bit of reasoning often used by the benefactors of dam-related subsidies; they boast of the economic good created by the taxpayer money that has allowed them to prosper. But as they're now so prosperous, why should the government continue to subsidize them? Should we also give entrepreneurial seed money to Microsoft? Instead of asking for more, these fortunate businesses should thank the taxpayers for giving them a great start and begin making it on their own.




Structure of Success

I found "The Structure of Success in America," by Nicholas Lemann (August Atlantic), to be an extremely interesting history of an institution of which I previously knew nothing but which I have dutifully served in my student career. I am entering my second year of graduate school at Columbia University; thus I have taken, and paid for, almost every test issued by ETS, including the PSAT, two SATs, achievement tests, advanced-placement tests, and the GRE. While reading your article I was struck by two thoughts. First, that I have harbored resentment toward ETS since my high school days, because it has tried to quantify me in order to determine where I fit academically among my peers and has corroded the ideal of learning for learning's sake. Ultimately ETS has made some of my life decisions for me, and has made reality what Carl Brigham predicted: "the inevitable distortion of education in terms of tests."

My second thought is that ETS is based on a dead philosophy, a casualty of the Second World War, which holds that meaningfulness and usefulness can be charted and graphed and numbered and analyzed. Why does the American university find it too difficult to rid itself of false idols: logical positivism and ETS?

Sergia Nasby
New York, N.Y.




Nicholas Lemann's fascinating review of the history of academic aptitude testing left out one significant factor: high school rank (HSR). Aptitude-test scores when combined with HSRpredict better than HSR alone in the liberal arts, but are not as helpful in predicting success in engineering schools as performance on a mathematics test combined with HSR.

Ray H. Bixler
Jeffersontown, Ky.




Nicholas Lemann replies:

Ray Bixler overstates high school rank's lead in the predictiveness race. Yes, it's generally more predictive of college grades than the SAT, but not always or by a huge margin.




Editors' Note:

We were saddened to learn that Daniel Cohen died, of AIDS, last summer. In his occasional reports for us from Paris, a city he had lived in as a student and visited often, Cohen gracefully and concisely incorporated impressive amounts of information--a skill apparent to the readers of Smithsonian, to which he contributed often. Cohen was memorably pleasant to work with:our fact-checkers always looked forward to his articles, because they arrived as scrupulously annotated manuscripts of the kind that the checking department hopes (usually in vain) to receive from every writer. Everyone Cohen worked with quickly fell into an easy friendship with him, and we will miss both him and his work.






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