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Abstract Art in the Central Valley

I find the great Central Valley of California endlessly fascinating. From the air the irrigated farmland becomes an abstract painting worthy of any gallery of modern art.

At one time it was a vast grassland punctuated by reed beds and marshlands. No doubt home to countless animals. Over the past century it’s been tamed. It’s water captured and diverted. It’s grassland replaced by millions of acres of farmland that feeds California and the world.

This year it’s parched as the dry Californian winter rumbles into a scorching summer. Down below farmers are struggling as water dwindles. But from above it retains it’s abstract beauty.

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146 votes

Do you know 146 people? That was the margin by which Measure AA passed in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This open space initiative will raise  $300 million to build trails, protect open space and protect the scenic beauty of the San Mateo coast.  It needed 66.7% and got 66.9% Talk about close!

It’s also a great reminder that your vote does count. That is, if you vote.   I just don’t understand why turn-out is so low. In Los Angeles County it was 20% in this weeks election. Ok, the ballot was long and complex and in most cases it was a primary election. But you can vote at home over a glass of wine. What’s not to like about that.

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Drought bites at 11,050 feet

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The Siberian Outpost, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

High up in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and the Golden Trout Wilderness the drought is taking hold. I spent most of Memorial Day weekend above 10,000 feet.  The snow has largely gone, the wild flowers are almost non existent and the barren bones of the Sierra Nevada are laid bare.

The Big Whitney Meadow and the aptly named Siberian Outpost are starkly beautiful, even if they lack the flush of spring that normally visits the Sierra at this time of year.  It really brought home to me that we’re in the midst of a vicious drought. Not only have we lost the snow pack, but the water that is normally stored in these high alpine meadows is also dwindling. I was a visitor. But it’s going to be a long hot summer for the golden eye trout and marmots that call these meadows home.

Snow Marker 251 - Cottonwood Pass
Snow Marker 251 – Cottonwood Pass

 

Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness
Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness

Dodging a Bullet in Atwater Village

In the early hours of Thursday morning, a pipeline carrying oil from Texas to Los Angeles ruptured in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles. Over the course of about 45 minutes 10,000 gallons of oil spilled into the streets creating a noxious lake a half-mile long and knee-deep in places.

It appears that the nearby Los Angeles River was saved by the alert response and quick thinking of the Los Angeles Fire Department. We owe the team a huge debt of thanks. Not only did they get on the scene fast, but they thought creatively about how to stop the oil from flowing into the stormdrain system and hence to the river.

And one stroke of luck also helped. One business in the industrial section just happened to be a cement plant with ample stocks of sand. The fire department deployed the sand to build berms that contained the spill.

Initial reports indicate that the quick response averted potential environmental impacts. But even so, a few neighbors were taken to local hospitals and potential environmental damage is still being assessed.

We applaud all of the first responders. But we also have to ask, is this a risk we’re prepared to take in our communities and our Bay?

As I write this, the residents of the small South Bay city Hermosa Beach are preparing for a referendum on whether to allow Big Oil to sink 34 oil wells in the heart of their city to tap into oil under the Bay. The oil company tells them to not worry, it’s safe and any spills will be quickly contained. You tell me, is this a risk you’d take?

 

Marine Debris Survey at Carbon Beach

Survey for marine debris draws connection with Japan

Earlier this week, as the mercury hit 90 degrees by the beach, I headed out to Carbon Beach with another Heal the Bay staffer to conduct a marine debris survey – part of a west-coast wide effort by NOAA to monitor for debris from the devastating Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011 . Spoiler alert: I didn’t find any soccer balls with Japanese script.  But I did find an interesting connection to Japan and the early development of the beach.

Marine Debris Survey at Carbon Beach
Marine Debris Survey at Carbon Beach

If you’ve ever been to Carbon Beach in Malibu, you’ll know that it now has some of the most desirable real estate in the world (although if you’ve seen recent sea level rise projections you might question why!). As Melissa and I started to lay out our transect, collect GPS coordinates, measure the distance to the tide, and count trash, a young man walked down from one of the houses that flank the beach.  His wasn’t a massive mansion. Rather it was an older beach home that had been built by his grandparents in 1941.  When he heard what we were doing he paused and then started to share a short story about the history of the home. In 1941 no-one wanted to live on the beach — it was considered the front line of the Pacific theater as people scanned for Japanese planes headed in from the vast ocean. In fact, that house had been the fourth to be built on the beach.  A lot has changed since then. But once again we found ourselves walking the beach looking for signs of our Pacific neighbors. Only this time, they are our friends. It was a good reminder that Santa Monica Bay is part of the vast ocean network that connects us with people thousands of miles away. So what about the trash? The good news is we found very little. Carbon beach doesn’t have the massive storm drains that bring trash from the dense city to the ocean. But despite that we found it — tiny bits of plastic debris that could have come from any place in the world. Even Japan.

Did this tiny speck of plastic float across the Pacific from Japan?
Did this tiny speck of plastic float across the Pacific from Japan?
Spot the High School Class

It looks like Shrek

“It looks like Shrek!” That’s what one of the Compton high schoolers said as he looked down into a rare soft bottom section of Compton Creek.  [and it wasn't just because the teacher for the day was called Eddie Murphy, although he was]

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The thin ribbon of green, dotted with trees, is pretty rare around here.  As the students studied the map to assess the neighborhood of the creek they noted that parks were pretty uncommon. In this city of almost 100,000 due south of Los Angeles they could recount just three. What’s rarer still is a creek channel that still teems with life.

True the creek has its challenges, sandwiched as it is between high concrete banks, a massive culvert, and a mess of highway and train bridges. But if you spend a few minutes under the shade of the trees you’ll hear birds and bugs all around.

For the better part of a decade, Heal the Bay has been working with the local high school to help them use their local creek as a valuable resource for science and environmental education. Today the students were assessing the condition of the creek — is the water clear? Is there grass underfoot? Trees overhead? And just how much trash has been caught up?  They’re able to link this back to what happens in their neighborhood and how they can help protect the creek and the ocean that lies a few miles downstream.

But for me, what it gets back to is that singular moment when a kid is transported from the concrete jungle and connects with the creek for what it is. A river flowing through their city. Even if that means relating it to a fictional forest on the Hollywood stage. Perhaps next time they see Shrek they’ll remark it’s just like the creek in their backyard!

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Nothin’ but sand

For two hours on saturday morning Santa Monica State Beach was a frenzy of activity.  It was my first time helping out by giving Beach Talks to the 1900 volunteers who came to clean up the beach for Earth Day.   I joined dozens of Heal the Bay volunteers to get folks orientated.

Every 10 minutes another group would be shuttled over and my job was to tell them a little bit about how the trash came to be on the beach — the storm drain system — and how to stay safe in the water.

I asked every group how many had been to a clean-up before. Turns out not many.  I’d estimate 90 percent of people were out for their first Earth Day coastal clean-up. I could tell from the smiles and the high fives they were here to have fun and to give back to the Earth.EarthDayCleanUp 093

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Reining in the Rain

[This is from a guest-blog I wrote for the LA Stormwater Program's web-site, published April 22, 2014].

I’d been living in Los Angeles for about six months when a three-day storm hit back in February. I had begun to wonder what all the fuss was about stormwater. Could it really be that bad? Now I know the answer is yes—but not just for the pollution it causes.

I was delighted by the waterfalls that popped up in Topanga Canyon. I was saddened to see the torrent of trash flowing down Chautauqua into the ocean. But what really shocked me was when I learned that the three-day storm, in the middle of an historic drought, flushed enough water into the ocean to meet the needs of our region for one-quarter of a year. That’s crazy.

At a time when cities in Northern California face rationing, and farms in the Central Valley lie fallow, we are flushing billions of gallons of water into the ocean. That same water is causing huge environmental problems because of the trash, pathogens, and toxins it carries. There must be a better way.

Fortunately, there is. There is a growing consensus across the region that stormwater is not just a pollutant, but a valuable source of water. Stormwater capture projects, when done well, deliver water quality benefits, water supply benefits, and bring much needed green space into our city. It is true that stormwater capture is not a panacea for our supply needs. But it is an important part of a portfolio of projects to increase local water reliability that includes water conservation, water recycling, and groundwater cleanup. Today we import 90 percent of our water from more than 100 miles away. At the same time, we dump 350 million gallons a day of treated effluent into the Santa Monica Bay from the Hyperion Treatment Plant, and discharge billions of gallons of polluted stormwater into the bay every time it rains. It’s past time to bring these three separate systems together and focus on an approach to integrated water in our region.

There is some great work underway throughout the region to do this and to deal with stormwater pollution. For example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Stormwater Capture Master Plan currently in development is looking at infiltration systems built into city streets and improved spreading grounds to refill our groundwater supplies. Countywide, projects are being developed under the MS4 permit to capture and clean up stormwater. More is needed to integrate these projects and look across agency jurisdictions, but that’s not the biggest challenge. What is missing is funding.

In November 2004, voters in the City of Los Angeles approved Proposition O—the Clean Water, Ocean, River, Beach and Bay measure—with an overwhelming yes vote. In the past decade, Prop O has funded dozens of projects, including the restoration of Echo Park Lake and installation of thousands of trash capture devices in storm drains. But as of January 2014, almost $492 million of the $500 million bond was obligated. These projects are helping to get us on track, but there is much more to be done. Without new funding, the rivers, creeks and beaches throughout our region will continue to be polluted.

With the increased consciousness caused by the drought, now is the time for some bold moves. We call on the state legislature to move a water bond that prioritizes investments in local water—including stormwater capture, water recycling, and groundwater cleanup. While they are at it, California lawmakers need to pass reforms that enable municipalities to more easily raise fees for stormwater cleanup. Why should stormwater projects have a higher bar than water supply or refuse pickup? At the local level, we call on our political leaders to prioritize funding for local water—either as stand-alone or part of other infrastructure measures. Pot holes may be an annoyance, but water is literally life and death. And at the community level, we encourage everyone to do their part—by conserving potable water and capturing stormwater through rain barrels and rain gardens and becoming informed about where your water comes from.

It’s an exciting time to be working on water in our region. Join us and be a part of the future of Los Angeles.

First spots of rain falling
First spots of rain falling
The Pacific Ocean stretches to the horizon from the shore of Santa Monica Bay.

On Earth Day lets hear it for the Ocean.

 

My six-year old son asked one day, why do they call it Earth when it’s mostly covered with water? He has a point. 71 percent of the Earth is covered by water. Of all the water on Earth, the ocean’s hold 96.5 percent.  Take one thing we can’t live without: oxygen. Did you know that between 50 and 85 percent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from phytoplankton and algae in the ocean?

So on this Earth Day, let’s remember the Oceans and all they do for us each and every day.

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