pool at channel

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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Hyperion

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!

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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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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Half Dome from Olmsted Point

Happy Birthday John Muir!

John Muir's Birthplace
John Muir’s Birthplace

Born on the blustery shores of the North Sea in Dunbar, Scotland, John Muir would be 175 years old today. One day in 1849 his father came home one day and announced they were emigrating to the United States….tomorrow — and so America’s beloved naturalist, founder of the Sierra Club and the movement to preserve wilderness started his long journey to California. By all accounts, the young Muir was excited to be off on his first adventure.

Late last year I visited his birthplace located in Dunbar about a half hour east of Edinburgh by train. It was the type of day that Muir later remembered, with sheets of wind blow rain being driven off the north sea. The gulls sheltering from the wind-driven waves in the medieval harbor where he’d played as a boy. His childhood home has been turned into a great museum that describes his many journeys and seeks to instill Muir’s ethic in the visitors. His actual birthplace is in the non-descript stone house and shop next door — his father was a successful merchant. Both are a short walk from the ocean.

 

On the day I visited the boiler was broken and the museum closed due to the inclement weather and lack of heat. Fortunately a notice on the door said would-be visitors could inquire at the town museum to be let in. Having come thousands of miles from California I did just that and had the place to myself. It’s well worth a visit. Check out www.jmbt.org.uk.

But better still to walk along the walls of the harbor and feel the bracing wind and sea spray that Muir would recall many years and thousands of miles later. His love for wild places began there in Dunbar and having visited on a wild day, I got a glimpse of what transfixed him. Like Muir, I will remember my visit and the power of the north sea for a long time.

John Muir Museum -- his childhood home
John Muir Museum — his childhood home

 

Dunbar Harbor - shelter from the storm
Dunbar Harbor – shelter from the storm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Meet the ochre sea star

I knew them as star fish, but since they are not very fish like they’re now sea stars. These beauties are at the Heal the Bay Aquarium at Santa Monica Pier. They are pretty amazing creatures. Not only can they hit 30 years of age, but they can grow a new leg if one is lost in battle. In fact, if enough of the center is attached they can actually become two sea stars. Clonal reproduction!

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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 designated 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.

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.

people, place and parks.

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