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Snarl on PCH helps heal the bay

Traffic waiting to get on to PCHIt’s not often that a warning sign on my daily commute makes me happy. But this one did: In bold orange letters, it declared “Avoid PCH South of Temescal 4-15-14 to 2-15-15.” Anyone who knows the Pacific Coast Highway knows that is essentially impossible in Los Angeles. So why was I happy? Because this time, the big orange warning was a beacon of hope for the Bay.

A lot of construction is pretty mundane — filling pot holes or adding lanes so you can get to the next jam a little faster. This one, however, does something more important that will benefit millions every year. Let me explain.

Every day when I drive along the Bay there are a few places near the shoreline at creek and stormdrain outlets where water collects in the sand. Sometimes even at the end of summer these pools still lurk, rife with bacteria. One of these is right where Chautauqua Boulevard meets the Bay in Santa Monica Canyon. This stagnant pool is caused runoff from the canyon that has bypassed the current low-flow diversion. Upstream there are about 1,600 acres that drain to this one point. In a significant rainstorm the channel will breach the sandbar and flush a toxic soup of trash, bacteria and heavy metals into the Bay. But even in dry weather, without a properly maintained low-flow diversion this channel can seep the runoff from our daily lives — leaky pipes, irrigation water, washing your car – directly to the beach. All that water flows downstream, gathering nutrients and pollutants, until it hits the beach, resulting in a ponded area that attracts birds and other fecal bacteria sources. Authorities then advise everyone to keep away due to high bacteria levels. It’s a public health nuisance on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

Once this project is completed that stagnant pool will be history. The City of Los Angeles is about to embark on an $8 million, nine-month project to extend a 48-inch sewer line that that will divert all dry season runoff to the Hyperion treatment plant. Some of it will even be treated locally to provide irrigation water for the surrounding community. This is the next phase of the $20 million Coastal Interceptor Relief Sewer. When completed, it will help keep bacteria levels in Santa Monica Bay down and help protect your health every time you visit the beach.

For the past 29 years, Heal the Bay has been leading the charge to clean up this pollution by establishing strict pollution limits and by working with public agencies to secure the funding needed to upgrade our aging infrastructure. There’s much more work to be done, but this is an important next step.

I think a little traffic is a small price to pay to help protect the health of people who visit these beaches every year. I’ll report back next year and let you know how it worked.

So next time you’re stuck in traffic on PCH, remember that a healthier Bay is on its way…even if you’re not.

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Heal the Bay Board members Mark Gold (left) and David Nahai (center) discuss water with meteorologist Josh Rubenstein.

Last call at the oasis: or are we screwed?

last-call-at-the-oasisI don’t normally go in for depressing documentaries. But when the local art house is showing a documentary on water around the world (“Last Call at the Oasis“) followed by a  panel discussion with some of my friends and board members at Heal the Bay, I will make an exception.

Moving stories from Las Vegas, Midland Texas, Australia, Israel and right here in California painted a pretty grim picture of our water woes around the world. Pesticides are bleeding endocrine disruptors into water, turning male frogs into females. Kids are getting lesions from swimming in water polluted with fraking chemicals.   The aquifer below the great central valley is being bled dry from unregulated wells. Mix in the disruption of climate change and you have a depressing narrative. As one of the scientists summed up: “we’re screwed.”

But amid the doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope. Some in the film and some shared by the panelists.  For years I have been hearing about water wars. Turns out its a fallacy. A social scientist had studied wars over the past 50 years and found that water had actually brought warring sides together even as conflict raged. And think we’ll never be drinking recycled water? Think again. Singapore already meets 30 percent of its potable needs through cleverly branded “new” water.   Turns out recycled water is more regulated and safer than bottler water. The answer? Put “new” water in bottles and sell it as “porcelain springs” with a slick campaign!

When it got down to it, a lot of this is about local communities coming together to stand up for their local water sources and solve problems in their neighborhoods, communities, cities and states. Take Santa Monica, as an example. Tired of waiting for the state or federal government to clean up ground water contaminated with M.T.B.E. and other noxious chemicals,  it took matters into its own hands and sued the oil companies responsible for the pollution. The result? $250 million to clean up local groundwater. Local water supplies in Santa Monica have shot from zero percent to 72 percent in a few short years.

We need to take that approach at every level. And we can’t wait for it to happen to us. We just need to get it done.

Our cities and state can start to invest in local water today. By cleaning up ground-water. Capturing stormwater to recharge our aquifers and irrigate our lawns and golf courses. And recycling more waste water — as David Nahai said, “it’s only waste water if we chose to waste it.” 

And on a personal level, we can work to reduce our water footprint by installing low-flow fixtures. Capturing rain in rain barrels. Installing simple and cheap grey water systems to re-use water from your washing machine to water the yard. And turning off our sprinklers when it rains. Speaking of which, I turned mine off this morning as the rain started to fall. Did you?

Heal the Bay Board members Mark Gold (left) and David Nahai (center) discuss water with meteorologist Josh Rubenstein.
Heal the Bay Board members Mark Gold (left) and David Nahai (center) discuss water with meteorologist Josh Rubenstein.
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Precious water: what price waste?

On Wednesday I joined Mayor Garcetti, Governor Brown and members of the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience at a reception to kick off day-long talks about how the federal government can help communities confront climate change. And today in Fresno, President Obama is unveiling an aid package for communities hit hardest by the drought.

Even as we address immediate needs of drought-stricken communities, we must also be moving beyond short-term aid, to investing in a water system for California’s future. And that presents historic opportunities for our work at Heal the Bay. Since 1985, we have been focused on cleaning up pollution in California’s waterways and ocean.  We have had some remarkable successes.  However, many of the state’s rivers and streams still fail to meet clean water standards and much of our ground water is polluted.

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Just some of the 250 million gallons of water that is discharged to the bay each and every day

There’s much discussion at the moment about how we “waste” water by dumping it into the ocean. Every time I hear that I cringe. While it is not a waste to let water flow to the ocean (it’s an essential part of the natural system that keeps us alive), it is a waste is to dump highly treated water in the ocean that could be reused to off-set dwindling imported supplies.   And we do this every day from countless wastewater treatment plants. One plant alone, Hyperion out by LAX,  flushes 250 million gallons a day of treated waste water into Santa Monica Bay – equivalent to the water needs of 2 ½ million people. That’s unconscionable waste!

And then there’s storm water. When it does rain, millions of gallons of water flush through our cities via engineered culverts and channels, picking up pollutants in its rush to the ocean. In a naturally functioning system, much of this would infiltrate into the ground and replenishing our aquifers.  Instead we are left with polluted beaches and depleted aquifers. Crazy!

We cannot make it rain. But we can make much better use of the precious water we have. Today, Heal the Bay is advocating for solutions and investments that make better use of our local water resources – from groundwater clean-up, to storm water capture and recharge, to increased recycling. Taken as a package, they will go a long way to cleaning up our rivers, streams, and ocean. And that will make for a healthier bay. I’ll drink to that!

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On pie, storm drains and the Duke

DukesHTB 088If you have spent any time on a surf board you are probably familiar with Duke Paoa Kahanamoku — Hawaii’s legendary Olympic swimmer and surf evangelist. In 1912, he won the 100 meters freestyle in the Stockholm Olympics.  And starting in the 1920s stared in a dozen feature films. But between Olympic competition and filming he travelled the world inspiring a love of the ocean through his passion for swimming and his introduction of surfing on an unsuspecting world.

Today, Heal the Bay is continuing this legacy with an innovative partnership we call “Lunch and Learn.”  For the past three years we have partnered with a restaurant that bears his name, Duke’s in Malibu, to introduce kids to the ocean and give them simple things they can do to care for it everyday.  What’s unique about this partnership is how it combines an outdoor field-trip, with a hosted sit-down lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Many of these kids, 90% of whom come from Title I schools, have never been to the ocean despite it being in their backyard. The icing on the cake is the white linen lunch that is served as they sit and watch for whales and dolphins (actually, the icing is fudge sauce and macadamia nuts….). I only recall having that once on a field trip growing up, but thats’s another story.

Testing permeability of differerent materials
Testing permeability of differerent materials

I was fortunate to help out with this morning’s field trip. From the moment the fourth grade classes arrived on the big red bus, to the last slice of famous Hula Pie, there were smiles all around. But this wasn’t just about buses and pie, as important as both are. The heart of the program teaches kids about the relationship between what they do in their everyday life and the life in the ocean. The link being the storm drain that washes the debris of life from their playground, street and home through to the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean.

It was inspiring to watch the kids work in groups to test hypotheses about how water will interact with various surfaces, or sieve sand in search of elusive crabs. After lunch, everyone got animated during the quiz as they shouted out answers like, “entanglement,” “impermeable,” and “stop littering” as they competed for prizes. They get it that they can do simple things to help out. But what was most touching was sharing desert and hearing them talk about their desire to become scientists and engineers when they grew up. All that through a day at the beach, and a slice of tasty pie. Thank you Duke’s and Heal the Bay!

Will the bag ban change the way people think about waste?

Packaging litters the street
Packaging litters the street

Yesterday, I was stopped at a traffic light in Vernon having just left the press conference to announce the bill to ban single use plastic bags.  I’ll admit that my eye was drawn to the “adult store” in the middle of the strip mall in this heavily industrial neighborhood surrounded by train tracks. Looking right, I watched as a man left the store. In the thirty nine steps it took him to walk from the front door to his car door he first removed his purchase and crumpled up the brown bag it had been in. The bag hit the floor. Next came the first layer of plastic packaging. It too hit the deck. Then another layer. He popped his purchase in his pocket and jumped in his car and left. Leaving a trail of trash in his wake.

The bag, albeit a paper one, had been used for its intended purpose for maybe 10 seconds.

It wasn’t like the bag and wrappers he dropped were the only litter around. In fact the neighborhood had trash everywhere. Perhaps the sight of trash blowing around gave him the sense that adding one more piece really doesn’t matter? I’ll never know because the light turned green and we both left.

One of the unstated goals of banning bags is to make people think before they discard something they just payed for. Watching the wrappers hit the deck, it struck me that we can spend years working to change state law, but ultimately the state can only take it so far. It’s really about changing behavior. And that’s much harder than passing new legislation.

 

 

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The D Word

ImageI have spent much of the past two weeks on the beach. While much of the rest of the country continues to suffer through sub-zero temperatures, it has remained a balmy 72 and sunny here in Southern California.  It’s been great as my family from the Bay Area and England has been here for the holidays.  Each day we’d remark how glad we were it had, “turned out nice again.” Let’s face it, 72 degrees and sunny is pretty much perfect. Christmas on the beach. Can you beat it? Really not.

But with the holidays a memory, it is time to get serious about what 72 and sunny means for us in Southern California and beyond. If it persists, and with no rain in the forecast it seems likely, we need to start thinking about drought. According to the head of the Department of Water Resources the Governor is starting to think the same. When a drought is declared in Sacramento, it has cascading affects across the state. Crops die as previously irrigated fields dry.  Sprinklers are banned and lawns turn brown  Native fish in our streams struggle as water is diverted.  Water quality suffers as discharge regulations are relaxed. The economy suffers as farmers fields fallow. And we start counting the days until the rain drops fall.

2013 was a record dry year for the state. By some estimates, it was the driest year in California since records began…….way back in 1849. In downtown Los Angeles we had 3.6 inches of rain – drier than 1947 and 1953 when 4.08 inches fell.  To add some perspective, in 1849 the states population was about 50,000; 1940 it was 6.9 million; 1950 it was 10.6 million; and in 2010 stood at 37 million.

That’s less rain and a lot (LOT) more people. It’s true that we have built a remarkable system to capture and transport most of the state’s water from north to south (while sweeping in water from the Colorado system to boot). We’re definitely getting better at using water efficiently here in California — after all, LA’s population has grown over the last 20 years and our water usage has not. But we have a long way to go. In California we use an average of 105 gallons per day per person. In Australia they have it down to 59.

The impending drought highlights the need to invest in our water infrastructure in California. But we can no longer assume it’s just a matter of impounding and transporting water from north to south. We need to work towards a more resilient system. And resiliency has to start locally. We need to make investments to reduce demand and make California a world leader. We need to make better use of local water supplies by cleaning up and harvesting groundwater, sustainably. We need to recycle wastewater (300 million gallons a day out of Hyperion alone).  We need to capture, infiltrate and make use of urban runoff – reducing stormwater pollution in the process. And then and only then should we shore up our ability to move water around the state to better match supply and demand.

Doing all of this is going to take bold leadership. We at Heal the Bay are ready. Are you?

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Finally On the Bay

For the last eight weeks or so I have been looking at the Bay from the shore.  True, I have enjoyed playing in the waves and swimming along the shore, but today was my first chance to get out into the Bay. I joined our aquarium team on one of their weekly collecting trips — getting kelp to feed the animals in the aquarium. As our aquariumist, Jose, says, it’s the weekly trip to the farmers market.

The Bay, and indeed the oceans, give us so much. After all they cover 71% of the planet and give us everything from the oxygen we breath, to the fish we eat, to the natural substances that thicken Jello. The list goes on. But a few hours on the bay gave me something different.  A profound sense of the wonder of the ocean.

It really is a different world out there. The solid earth is replaced by the ever shifting fluid ocean. Wave upon wave. The powerful forces gently lifting our 14 foot dingy up and down as we leaned over the side straining for the kelp. The constantly changing play of light and shade on the water as the clouds and sun slid over head. Where we first encountered the kelp, the long tendrils reaching for the light lay down when they reached the surface– causing the ripples to flatten out leaving a glassy surface. The seals, sea birds, and even the odd kelp crab were at home out there. I was a grateful visitor.

Bobbing around on the surface of the vastness of the ocean gave me the same sense of walking amid the redwood giants. A sense of being a tiny part of the wonderful world.

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What color is SoCal?

I was playing around with photos and my blog and had an ah ha moment.

The color palette for a day at the beach matched that for a day miles inland at a old ranch turned into park land.  At the beach you have sand, water and waves. On the ranch, desiccated grass, sky and clouds.  The elements may be arranged differently, but the colors are so similar. To me it is the colors of late fall in southern California.

Hikers enjoy Ahmanson Ranch

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Hikers enjoy Ahmanson Ranch

What did $150 million buy in 2003? And was it worth it?

Hikers enjoy Ahmanson Ranch

The early 2000′s were heady days for land conservation. The state was flush with funds from voter-approved bond funds, and despite a hot real estate market competed for and secured protection for some remarkable pieces of property.  At the time I was working in northern California protecting redwoods. Save the Redwoods League had just protected the 25,000-acre Mill Creek property at a cost of $60 million. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, but I remember hearing of two transactions in Southern California that together cost the better part of $300 million. Wow, I thought. How could anything be worth  that much?

Well, this past saturday I finally stepped foot on one of these. The former Ahmanson Ranch (now the “Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve” — a natty name, I know). In 1998, Washington Mutual acquired the Ahmanson Ranch company and set about developing a self-contained city complete with two PGA golf courses located in the rapidly urbanizing San Fernando valley. The proposal set off a firestorm of local opposition. Locals hated the thought of all the additional traffic, AND the loss of local open space that was valued by both them and the critters that called the 3,000 acre ranch home.

What ensued was a text-book campaign that ultimately led to the ranches protection as parkland for all to enjoy. But before it could succeed, it had to go beyond a local issue to an issue of regional and state-wide importance. And that’s where Heal the Bay came in.

It was the first time that Heal the Bay had played a leading role in opposing a private development — one located many miles from the coast to boot.  The nexus was water quality in Santa Monica Bay and the impact that unchecked development would have on the headwaters of Malibu Creek.  Heal the Bay scientists mapped red legged frog habitat, assessed downstream water quality, and mobilized regional and state-wide support for what until that time had been a local issue. Ultimately the stars came into alignment and the recent passage of voter approved park and water bonds provided the funding to halt the development and create public park land.

Governor Gray Davis, politician Fran Pavely, and direct Rob Reiner announced the deal back in 2003. This weekend they were reunited to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the acquisition.

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Yes, $150 million was a lot at the time. But it truly was an investment in the future. Not only does Ahmanson Ranch protect water quality each and every day, it also provides a much needed green sanctuary in the heart of suburbia for the residents of the valley and beyond.

It’s safe to say, that without the dogged and persistent engagement of Heal the Bay to transform a local issue to a state-wide campaign, the land today would be just another subdivision and place to play golf (two rounds). And as we know, subdivisions and gold courses don’t help water quality. Quite the reverse. Society as a whole ends up paying the costs to clean up the runoff they create.

I no longer look at the $150 million as an expenditure. It really was an investment in protecting open space that has a direct return in terms of enhanced property values, forgone costs of water pollution clean-up, and the intangible values of providing people open space to recreate in. Thank you Heal the Bay!

p.s. I just read about the latest Lear Jet.  For its $600 million plus price tag you could buy 4 ranches. at 2003 prices. That said, you and three friends could get anywhere in the world quickly and comfortably. I will let you decide which is the better long-term investment.

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9 cool facts about Hyperion

HyperionEarlier today I had the chance to tour the Hyperion treatment plant with a group of staff and volunteers from Heal the Bay. Sewage may not be sexy, but its fascinating. Many thanks to our friends at the Bureau of Sanitation for a great tour.

1. Hyperion was one of the 12 Greek Titans and the father of the god, Helius. Hyperion is also the name of a sewage treatment plant in LA. And the name of the world’s tallest tree — a 379′ tall coast redwood in Redwood National Park.

2. The Hyperion I will be talking about is the largest sewage plant, by volume, west of the Mississippi. It treats 300 million gallons a day (MGD) on a regular basis and can handle 900 MGD flat out. By comparison, you’d only need 100 MGD to fill the Rose Bowl. Or 90,000 fans. Take your pick.

3. You may  have heard of effluent — it is the treated waste water discharged into a bay or ocean. But did you know they call the raw sewage that flows in the front door of the plant, “infuent”? I didn’t.

4. The city of LA purchased the land that Hyperion stands on in 1892 and built the first modern plant in 1949.  Up until that time, raw sewage was discharged to the Bay. But I use the word “modern” loosely. From 1949 until 1998 it blended treated and untreated effluent and then pumped it into the bay. The result? Sick surfers, dead fish, and dolphins with skin lesions. Oh, and a fight with Heal the Bay.

5. Heal the Bay was founded in 1985 to get Hyperion to clean up its act. By 1987 they had agreed to. But it took 12 years and $1.6 BN to get to a place where only treated effluent was pumped into the bay. Now surfers are healthier, dolphins are happier, and the fish die of natural causes. Unless its raining — but that is another story and a much more challenging problem we work on day in day out.

6. Despite the fact the new plant has allowed the bay to recover, the treated effluent itself is not safe for humans. Seagulls may swim in the treated water ponds, but if you or I did the same we would get sick. So the last piece of the treatment puzzle is the dilution provided by the Santa Monica Bay. It does it tirelessly and doesn’t get paid.

7. It can take several days for influent to get from your toilet to Hyperion. But once there, the liquid is processed within a day. The solids take longer to be digested by beneficial bacteria and converted to compost that is used in Kern County farms and Griffith Park.

8. 6700 miles of sewage line feed into Hyperion. That’s like LA to NY and back,

9. 80% of the power needs for Hyperion are met from methane gas generated on-site from all that poop.

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If approved, the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere would suck 100 MGD

Of desalination and sticks

If approved, the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere would suck 100 MGD
If approved, the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere would have sucked 100 million gallons of ocean water each day.

Wednesday was a big day for us at Heal the Bay. After years of work, days spent reviewing environmental documents, and five hours at a contentious hearing, the proponents of a massive desalination plant in Huntington Beach withdrew their project. The writing was on the wall — their project, as presented, was not going to be approved.  Of course, the project has not gone away. Not yet anyway.

We’re not opposed to desalination. We believe other, more cost-effective and energy efficient measures, like water reuse and conservation, should be maximized first. The body of research on best practices for desal is still growing, and we recognize that it could be a tool to meet future water needs, when used carefully in the right setting. The Huntington Beach project was simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and at a massive scale (the largest proposed plant in the Western Hemisphere). You can read more about the hearing and the issues in a recent blog post by my Heal the Bay colleague Dana Murray.

This week’s desal debate did have me drawing similarities to my work for years in the redwoods. My experience has been that any time you start to focus down on one patch of dirt (or forest, or water), the temperature rapidly rises and agreement can be elusive. If you can step back and look at the issue more holistically and from a broader geographic perspective, you can back into an agreement that works for all.

It reminds me of watching my two older boys play in the woods. While there may be sticks all around, when it comes down to it, they both want the same one. It’s tough to share one stick. But step back and look at the forest and there’s a way.

To take a broader example: an aggressive timber harvest plan adjacent to a beloved park is always going to be contentious. Especially when it involves ancient redwoods. But pull back a bit and look at how and where to meet our need for timber and park protection, and you may have the basis for an agreement. Similarly, a  massive desalination plant near ecologically important places, like marine protected areas and wetlands, is always going to be given a tough look (we and are colleagues will make sure of that).

It’s time to step back and look more holistically and regionally at our water needs.  Desalination — as part of a portfolio of local water supply, smart conservation, and re-use — may well be appropriate if smart technologies are employed and siting doesn’t significantly degrade marine life or habitat. But to my knowledge, the question of places to best site such desal plants has never been asked (let alone answered).

Meanwhile, we are left fighting over particular projects. I for one feel our time would be better spent figuring out a long-term solution that protects our bay and coastal waters, while providing reliable water at reasonable cost.

- See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/lets-take-holistic-view-desal-proposals#sthash.sHkV6YiL.dpuf

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100 years on: what value water?

LA is 40% paved over
suburban LA – water fueled

When you have been working with redwoods, 100 years is a moment. Enough time for a giant to grow a few inches in girth and a few feet in height, But when you’re dealing with water and Los Angeles it is a game changer.

A century ago, Los Angeles was largely reliant on the water that fell in its own backyard. Then Mulholland opened the canal gates and the people of L.A. took what they had been given.  Rain and snow from the eastern Sierra mountains could now flow under gravity to fuel the growth of suburban Los Angeles. It was then and is now an engineering marvel.

It’s all too easy to see this as a bad thing.  After all, as water flowed south the Owens Valley and Mono Lake suffered. I went there earlier this summer and saw the toxic dust clouds myself. The lake levels are down and the natural system is suffering as a result of all the water that is shipped south to this day.

At the same time, that water has changed the world.

Really.

I grew up in England in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a long way from Los Angeles. But L.A. loomed large in television shows, popular culture, and fast food.  And the world tried to emulate it.  It is not a stretch to say that the Hollywood dream machine was built on the back of water from the Owens Valley.

And that’s where the problem comes in.  Classical economic theory would have it that a rational person chooses the option that maximizes economic return. Well that water diverted from the Owens Valley has created an awful lot of value down here in Southern California and around the world. Some might argue that it is greater than the value of all the fish and critters that lived in the Owens Valley.  So in theory if we had it over, we’d do it all again. Personally, I think that a simple economic approach is short-sighted and ignores the intrinsic values of nature that cannot (or should not) be monetized.

Because there is no going back, the challenge is where we go in the next 100 years. Realistically, we are going to continue transferring water from the Owens Valley (and Colorado and Bay Delta). The promise ahead is to do it in a way that helps L.A. and the Owens Valley, Colorado Basin and Bay Delta recover. One way to do this is to make better use of our water resources here in Los Angeles.

And that brings me to Heal the Bay. We’ve been focused on water quality in Santa Monica Bay for 28 years. We’ve also focused not only on water quality, but water supply as well. The two are inextricably linked. Our science and policy team has been working with local municipalities to mobilize public support for a stormwater funding measure that would build green infrastructure throughout the county. Capturing and reusing stormwater helps reduce water pollution, helps develop local water supplies, and in turn reduces our dependence on imported water. So it’s good for our bay, good for the Owens Valley, good for the Colorado River system, and good for the Bay Delta.  I am sure it makes economic sense. But it also just happens to be the right thing to do.

- See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/la-aqueduct-dollars-and-sense#sthash.cCiHGfy1.dpuf

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A yard stick in Mono Lake stands witness to LA’s thirst
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Straight Lines

Nature abhors them.

But we create them.

I was in downtown LA earlier this week and took the chance to walk across the Fourth Street Bridge,  It wasn’t high, but it made me dizzy.

It was as if the world had been converted to straight lines.  Everything from the shape of the skyscrapers, to the train tracks, roads, power lines, and the Los Angeles River itself had been forced to follow a simple set of geometrical rules. Ironically, the only sinuous line was that of the tyre treads that had found their way into the river bed to cavre doughnuts.

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The Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook

Exploring the roots of urban sprawl

I’m slowly exploring more of the greater Los Angeles area. Recently I drove over the mountain in Topanga to the San Fernando Valley. Before the switchbacks, a sign and pull-out pointed me toward the Topanga Overlook. Turns out people have been stopping here for as long as cars have been on the road. Early in the morning, the air was still clear. The overwhelming impression looking north was of a green valley punctuated with grey tower blocks, with desiccated hills beyond.

But it hasn’t always been this way. There’s a great interpretive sign at the Overlook that shows what you would have seen about 70 years ago. As I expected, the space looked more open. Back then farms and rangeland filled the Valley. But what really struck me were the trees. I expected to see the change in the built environment. But not the trees. (It’s telling that Encino, one of the Valley’s more notable communities, is named for the Spanish word for oak.)

As people moved to the Valley they brought the trappings of modern suburbia with them. Freeways. Strip malls. Tract homes. And trees.

Trees are great. Don’t get me wrong, I spent the better part of the last 15 years protecting them. But trees don’t thrive in arid environments. I have no idea what the proliferation of trees has done to the water budget for the Valley. But I do know that the vast majority of the water used to sustain them is imported from far away. Both the suburban sprawl and the trees are testament to that. Obviously, trees in the Valley aren’t the root of our water issues in L.A., but they do symbolize our complicated relationship to our surroundings.

Over the recent decades, Angelenos have embraced water conservation, reducing consumption while our population continued to grow. However, we’ll need to do more if Los Angeles is to secure a reliable water future. We’ll have to get smarter at retaining, recycling and re-using local water. That way we can retain our trees and ensure the future of our cities.

Heal the Bay is working with local communities in South Los Angeles to build urban pocket parks that both clean up stormwater and put it to beneficial uses to irrigate parks that people can enjoy. You can learn more about our Healthy Neighborhoods initiative here.

- See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/exploring-roots-sprawl-valley#sthash.WIwalQJh.dpuf

The Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook
The Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook
Compton Creek joins the LA River

The concrete jungle has a flowing heart

Compton Creek joins the LA River

At first glance it looked like a backdrop to an apocalyptic movie. To many engineers it’s a flood control channel. To some it’s a place to pitch a tent and call home. Or a place to dump garbage too big for your trash can. But as I looked more more closely I began to see it actually was a river with life still flowing in and through it.

Turkey vultures and hawks soared overhead while egrets, waders and herons picked their way up the channel feeding on tiny fish.  Where the sediment built up, reeds and plants started to take hold and an ecosystem was starting to assemble — enriching the  the simple concrete channel and introducing an element of nature’s chaos.

Compton CreekI was standing at the confluence of the LA River and Compton Creek. Compton Creek is the last major tributary to the Los Angeles River and  is where the two join before flowing into the Bay a few miles downstream.  It was my first trip out to the river since I joined Heal the Bay three and a half weeks ago. I am used to watershed tours — having led tours to some of the most beautiful primeval coast redwood and giant sequoia forests in the world. But this was all new to me and I was soaking it all up as staff from Heal the Bay’s Healthy Neighborhood gave me a tour of the watershed and communities they’d been working in for the past decade.

The goal of the program is pretty simple. It’s to let people know that there’s a river in their neighborhood that drains to the bay. For a decade we’ve been working alongside teachers, community groups and local non-profits on projects that connect them to the river that for too long society has turned its back on.

A century ago this was one of the braided channels of the Los Angeles River. For the worst part of a century, it has been engineered and re-engineered to carry flood water as quickly as possible from the streets to the ocean — picking up trash and pollutants from city streets along the way. Finally in 2010, after years of advocacy by many groups, the EPA designated the LA River as a “navigable waterway” of the United States. In a sense that marked a turning point when the flood channel became a river once more.  It would now be subject to protections of the Federal Clean Water Act.  Of course, the ducks and birds and animals that use the river are oblivious to the change

There’s a lot of work underway across the watershed to clean it up and bring people down to its banks.  And what’s good for the river is ultimately good for the health of the bay. I’ll be learning more about all of that in the coming weeks and months. Yesterday was a chance for me to begin the process and to start to understand what watersheds are like in the context of a highly urbanized city. If you’d like to get involved in Heal the Bay’s work to understand and protect the bay and its watersheds, you can learn more and sign up for volunteer activities at Heal the Bay’s web-site.  Thank you!

Stream Team

Geeking out with Stream Team

STREAM-TEAM-LOGO-4c_2Science is cool, and laboratories are cooler.  I always enjoyed being in the laboratory at school. Watching chemicals react as they are mixed together. Or recording how the intensity of a laser beam changed when passed through saline solutions of different strength.  After many years away, I was back in the lab this weekend with Heal the Bay’s StreamTeam and it was both fun and informative!

Since 1998, scientists and volunteers at Heal the Bay have been monitoring water quality throughout the Malibu Creek watershed. Tracking nutrient and bacteria loads on a monthly basis in more than a dozen different locations. Earlier this year, they released the State of the Watershed report based upon this long-term dataset with detailed recommendations on how to improve water quality throughout the watershed.  One thing that is critical is continuing the monthly monitoring work.

I was part of the small team — mostly volunteers — that went out last Sunday to collect and analyze water samples. It was fascinating to be part of the whole process from field measurement through to the laboratory work.  We measured temperature, pH and conductivity in the field and collected samples to determine nutrient loads and bacteria count back in the lab.

Stream Team

It was great to see different parts of the watershed. From the relatively undeveloped headwaters, through the main-stem that flows through neighborhoods, to the lower reaches impounded behind an old dam that is now choked with sediment. But what was really fun was being back in the lab to process the samples. There’s something very therapeutic about the detailed and replicable work to process dozens of samples to unlock their secrets.  Adding a little of this and watching the clear water turn to purple to indicate the presence of nitrates. Or diluting the samples and encasing them in plastic pouches so the bacteria can incubate overnight and then be counted.

The results clearly show that how we live on the land has a big impact on the quality of the water. Agriculture, development, roads, sewers, septic. It’s all connected and leaves its markers behind in the water. Water that to the untrained eye looks clean. But the lab tells a different story.

If you’re interested, why not sign up for one of Heal the Bay’s training sessions and become a citizen scientists helping unlock the secrets of this watershed?  You’ll be helping out and having a lot of fun at the same time!

Bacteria samples Shaking it up

Santa Monica Bay

Shutting down the bay?

Santa Monica Bay
Santa Monica Bay

There is a greenhouse up in the Santa Monica Mountains brimming with new life and hope. In it, staff and volunteers of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area have dedicated countless hours growing native plants. When planted out, the vegetation will help restore the creeks and rivers that flow into Santa Monica Bay.

With the federal government shutdown and “non-essential” staff furloughed, these plants are now fending for themselves. Well, that’s not strictly true. At the last minute, the restoration ecologists trained the law-enforcement personnel in how to operate the greenhouse and water the plants. Don’t get me wrong. I am sure they can do a good job of it — but they also have thousands of acres of closed parkland to protect. I fear they will be busy elsewhere.

It’s a small example of the impact the shutdown is having on our work to protect and restore the waters of the Bay. But then multiply it by each area of impact — the research into the sea lion die-off earlier in the year that is now halted, the EPA staff who are no-longer working on beach pollution and storm-water issues, the Coast Guard vessels now drastically cutting back on routine patrol — and it starts to add up. The longer the impasse lasts, the greater the cumulative impact on the Bay, and the bigger (and more costly) the hole we’ll have to dig out of. That’s a cost we will all have to bear as the politicians go about their dance in D.C.

Of course, the Bay does not have a bank account, so it will pay the price differently — in lost opportunities that further delay the day our local ocean is fully healthy.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing to do our bit to safeguard the Bay, quietly and calmly with your help. And with fewer federal employees out there working on the same goal, we’ll have to stretch a little further to cover the gaps. We couldn’t do it without your support. Thank you!

To learn more about how you can help, consider attending one of Heal the Bay’s regular volunteer orientations.

NPS closed for business

National parks shut down — where should I go?

NPS closed for business
NPS closed for business

So the Federal Government has shut down as the lawmakers continue their spat.  And with it the doors have been shut on your National Parks. By some estimates, 715,000 people would have visited the parks every day during October. If you live here, you can always wait it out. But if you’re here on vacation, what should you do?

Fortunately here in California we have a wonderful state park system and if you’re here to see the redwoods and giant sequoia in the National Parks you have some great options.

Muir Woods National Monument is closed — consider heading a little further north to Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Or for a real treat, head south to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It’s the oldest park in the state park system and home to the tallest tree south of Humboldt County!

Yosemite National Park is closed — it’s tough to find a stand-in for the valley or the vast backcountry wilderness, but if you came to see the Giant Sequoia groves you are in luck.  A little further north is Calaveras Big Trees State Park. This jewell of a park has two incredible sequoia groves. Not only will you see some amazing forest giants, but you’ll get to stand on the Discovery stump and learn how the destruction of the tree spurred the movement to save the redwoods.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park is closed — while nothing compares to walking the trails in Giant Forest, you could always head north to Calaveras Big Trees. Closer to the park is Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest with ancient sequoia, rock art, and a host of other significant cultural resources it’s well worth a visit.

Redwood National Park is closed – this one is complex. Given it’s partnership with the state park system, although the National Park is closed,  many of the best trails are actually in the state park much of it is likely still open. And fall is a wonderful time of year to get into Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. For me, nothing beats Prairie Creek Redwoods — a rich, verdant forest, wild coast and of course the iconic elk.

Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Towering Redwoods in Redwood National and State Parks
Cruising in the skateboard park

Learning in the (skateboard) park

Cruising in the skateboard park
Cruising in the skateboard park

Parks come in all shapes and sizes and I never thought I would be having this much fun in a skateboard park.

I don’t know what possessed me, but there I was with my six year old son strapping on pads while we watched the other guys (and they were all guys) practice tricks on their skateboards.  I had even warned my son that he was on his own on this one as I had been on a board perhaps once, and that was at least three decades ago.  My son on a “trixie” board as he calls it, and me on a longboard (supposedly more stable for us old folks).

Growing up, skateboarders were those punk kids who terrorized the neighborhood and insisted on riding places the signs said they should not. Perhaps that’s still true some places, but somehow the whole sport seems to have matured. Half the people riding in the park were in their twenties (or older) and all were friendly and slightly bemused by the sight of us two. By some strange coincidence a number of the guys were pro’s — yes, they made a (decent) living riding boards. Theotis Beasley even signed my son’s first board. Not sure it was the message I was hoping my son would take away from this — but its a good reminder that excellence comes in many shapes and forms.

After a few valiant attempts to teach everything I had learned from a 3 minute 41 second YouTube video on starting to skateboard, a five year old came over and took charge. A few minutes later and my son was making his first tentative turns. “You know,” he said, “It’s OK for a five year old to teach a six year old because we’re all good at different things.” Pretty profound lesson from the skatepark.

Warm evening light on cinnamon trunks

Places I love: Calaveras Big Trees State Park

160 years ago The Mammoth Tree was felled. It was heard — around the world. The shock of its felling helped spark the conservation movement in America and indeed around the world. It’s one of my favorite places to be — it’s beautiful in every season and has such a great story to share with us even today. You can read more in Leo Hickman’s piece in the Guardian.

16 years, 1 dairy, and a village

It’s an old cliche to say that some things are worth waiting for. But it can also be true.

One of the first projects I worked on when I first joined Save the Redwoods League was the acquisition of the Coast Dairies property.  In 1998 it was one of the largest private unprotected coastal properties on the  west coast of the United States. Seven miles of coast line and about 5,500 acres.  All that an hours drive from Silicon Valley. Redwood canyons gave way to grasslands and ultimately the coast. The raised coastal bluffs were a favorite with naturalists. The beaches with naturists, but that’s another story.

My colleague, Kate Anderton, then general counsel of Save the Redwoods, had negotiated the purchase of the land for a cool $44.5 million. The lions share of the funding came from the Packard Foundation. David Packard had died in 1996 and his foundation had seen an influx of assets making the deal possible. The deal was done and late in 1998, Save the Redwoods League assigned its option to the Trust for Public Lands to exercise the option and get the land into public ownership for permanent protection. Countless public meetings, extensive negotiations, and the odd IRS tax-letter ruling and the land is finally in the public estate.

So why did it take 16 years?

People love to argue about land. Coast Dairies was no exception. It had been a dairy. It was almost a nuclear power plant. And then 139 trophy home sites. But now it belongs to all of us when the Bureau of Land Management took title to much of the property earlier this week. (State Parks took title to the beaches a number of years ago, but the vast majority of the property remained in limbo)

I have a lot of respect for TPL for staying the course. Managing land is never easy. Land is a precious resource and fine minds can differ as to its future use. Bring that debate into the public forum and add in a healthy dose of politics and that’s where 16 years come in.

In the course of 16 years we have had 4 Governors and 3 Presidents. We’ve had an economic boom, and bust. And countless local officials.  Every change required re-education and a reminder as to what was at stake. What has been constant is the beauty of the land and the possibility it holds as an undeveloped part of California.

Of course, this is not the end. The drum beat has started to get the land designed as a National Monument. We have two years with the current administration to get the President to take that step. Then it’s back to educating the next crew. Time to finish the job.

Statewide Bag Ban on the horizon

With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch
With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch

I came back to my desk on Wednesday to a pink Post-It note letting me know that state Sen. Kevin de León’s office had called. The note was simple: Please call back. It was “quite pressing.”  His staff wanted to invite Heal the Bay to speak at a press conference on Friday announcing that state legislative leaders had finally come together and forged a compromise on a new bill that would ban single-use plastic bags across the state.

L.A.-based state Sens. Alex Padilla and de Leon have found a workaround on an issue that helped short-circuit previous legislation: the notion that bans would kill local jobs. The legislative approach revealed Friday includes incentives for manufacturers to retool and build their reusable bag-product lines, thereby investing in green jobs right here in California.

After seven long years and several Heal the Bay campaigns, it appears that the end is in sight for single-use plastic grocery bags across the state. While SB 270 still needs to make its way through both houses and off the Governor’s desk, we are optimistic — now that  two of the Senate’s heaviest hitters are behind it. (Assemblymember Ricardo Lara also joined the conference, helping solidify the bloc of local Democrats who historically have had concerns with elements of past bag-ban proposals.)

If SB 270 moves forward, California will become the first state in the nation to pass a comprehensive ban on single-use plastic bags.

Yes, people will criticize it from both sides – as either going too far, or not far enough. But this afternoon at the press conference at a manufacturing plant in Vernon it was heartening to see voices from labor, manufacturers, community groups and the environment come together. Everyone can rally around a solution that shows that California continues to lead on issues that are good for the environment and business.

We started this campaign with our colleagues in the environmental community seven years ago. This issue would not even be on the radar screen of the Legislature were it not for the voices of our supporters and other concerned groups around the state.

Today, bag bans cover 90 municipalities in California, creating a regulatory hodgepodge and a patchwork of environmental protections. When the state acts comprehensively, we’ll have taken a big step forward that can serve as inspiration for the rest of the nation. We will help tackle the scourge of marine pollution and urban blight, and show that being green can also support our economy. Thank you!

- See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/statewide-bag-ban-horizon#sthash.xYwxk1Le.dpuf

people, place and parks.

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