Drought in the Sierra

Drought impacts public health

Earlier this week, I participated in a workshop on “The Impacts of California’s Drought on Local Air Quality and Public Health.” It made for some sobering listening.  One by one,  speakers from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, California Department of Water Resources, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built a case about how drought directly affects our health — and even the health of an unborn child.

Put simply,  when drought strikes we get a three-fold punch.  First, we lose the natural cleansing that rain provides for the atmosphere as it mixes things up and the fine particles literally get rained out. Second,  as the drought bites we being to switch from hydroelectric power to dirty coal and gas power plants. Third, the dry earth is literally whipped up into the sky where those fine particles linger for us to breathe. And that’s all before you throw in wild-fire.

The fine particles are insidious. In the lingo, PM2.5 particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less are the ones that get us. Breathed deep into our body, they reduce our lung capacity. They have even been shown to reduce the lung capacity of an as-yet unborn infant. And the tiniest of particles penetrate further, elevating the risk of cancer and causing other diseases.

Huge progress has been made over the past decades to clean-up our air here in Los Angeles. This progress is now threatened by the ongoing persistence of drought.

There’s no simple answer to this pressing public health issue.  Part of it has to be to invest in local water supplies – such as cleaning up our groundwater.  When we use local water, we don’t incur the heavy energy cost of importing the water — a cost born in additional air pollution. We can also use water to keep dust down.

But we also need to invest in alternative clean energy sources so a shift from hydro power means a move to solar or wind, and not coal or gas. And those spare-the-air days where we are meant to leave the car at home? They really matter too.

I can’t say I left the meeting energized. But I did leave informed with a new-found urgency that investing in clean local water is also an investment in clean air.

In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.

Is anything for ever?

In the world of conservation, we’re used to the mantra that our victories are temporary while our losses are for ever.  I was surprised therefore to hear Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club,  talk about some permanent conservation wins.

He and I were guests at the Santa Monica Green Book Awards earlier this week. We’d been invited to have a conversation about the legacy of John Muir while others listened in.  In his opening remarks, Michael discussed the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. It’s a great campaign — seeking to move the United States away from coal to renewable energy sources by the end of the next decade – skipping natural gas where possible. Visionary stuff. And they are making progress – largely because economics are on their side.

As he said, every coal plant that is closed is a permanent win. I agree, but I am less optimistic that it means the coal will just sit in the ground undisturbed forever. After all, forever is a long time.  I believe history has shown us that we need groups like the Sierra Club and Heal the Bay to be vigilant against the next threat that the ingenuity of mankind concocts.

Take a small example here in Southern California. Heal the Bay secured a huge win when the state directed power plants in Southern California to move away from “once-through cooling” to a closed cycle system. That means less sea-water sucked in and less disruption of marine life. Roll the clock forward a few years and those very same locations are now the subject of a vigorous debate about desalination of seawater — not only would it suck in water, but it would leave brine, and use massive amounts of energy.  We’re advocating that the state adopt strong policies to protect against this.

For me, the same goes for coal. Yes, it’s a win to close down a coal-fired power plant and open up a new wind farm. But I also know some ingenuous person will be thinking up new ways to make money off that coal, while the environment be damned. I’m confident that the Sierra Club and others will be ready to take that battle on should the time come. Right Michael?

In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.
In conversation with Michael Brune about the legacy of John Muir.

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

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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