Coastal Commission fight highlights need for open, accountable government

Tomorrow, behind closed doors, twelve members of the California Coastal Commission will debate the “Possible Dismisal of the Executive Director.” There’s sure to be a rowdy crowd at Morro Bay for the public portion of the “debate.” But when all’s set and done the future of Dr. Charles Lester, who has served as executive director for the past five years, will be decided in private.

To many it’s been cast as a battle pitting environmentalists and developers. To a few, it’s about whether the Commission has become uneccesarily beureaucratic as it seeks to slow and ultimately halt coastal development.

To me its an attrocious example of democracy in action. Democratic because the executive director serves at the “pleasure of the Commission” and they have every right to dismiss him.  But the worst, because true democracy requires an equal dose of clarity and transparency.

The reality is it’s hard to tell what’s really going on at the heart of the debate, so we all fall back to our predetermined positions. I am guilty of this. Because I have had the good fortune of working with Dr. Lester and his predeccessor the indubitable Peter Douglas, I feel he is doing a “good job” at upholding the charge of the Commission. Therefore, it follows that dismissing him is a deliberate attempt to undermine the work of the Commission and open the coast for development.

But I have also worked with several of the Commissioners who are at the center of the scandal. In Del Norte County, Commissioner and Supervisor Martha MacClure was a champion of our work to protect the redwoods. Commissioner Wendy Mitchel and her husband Richard Katz were strong supporters of protecting Santa Monica Bay and the waters of southern California. These are all good, smart, people. And on some level they are all “environmentalists.” They also serve at the pleasure of the Governor. And no doubt, they each have their own opinion of what “good” looks like for Dr. Lester.

And this is where clarity and transparency comes in. If the Commission could demonstrate to the public that it had agreed with Dr. Lester to a clear set of goals, performance stanadards, and metrics work for his work as executive director over the past 12 months, it would be obvious if he was meeting them.  That’s leadership and management 101.  You may disagree with the goals, but it would be impossible to argue whether the performance matched them or not.

Tomorrow I urge the commission to do just this. Show us what you asked Dr. Lester to do and how he’s done against those goals. If you can do this and show he’s failed to perform, the argument is over. If you can’t or won’t do this, keep him in his post and let the world know what you’ve charged him with delivering. That’s the only way to depolitize this and ensure the coast is protected for future generations.

Enjoying the beaches of Santa Monica Bay



Loss of UNESCO world heritage site is on all our shoulders

An article in yesterday’s Guardian caught my attention. One of the last remaining Gondwanaland forests is being destroyed as wildfires ravaging Tasmania turn 1,000 year old trees to ash.

It’s tragic to see our last living link to a Gondwanaland — a continent that broke away from Pangea 180 million years ago — destroyed before our eyes. The importance of these forests was recognized when they were included in the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia UNESCO World Heritage site.  But simply designating a site doesn’t protect it.

Over the past year, our TV screens have been filled with images of other World Heritage sites being destroyed. Images of Taliban and ISIS rockets slamming into ancient statues. It’s hard viewing and everyone is quick to condemn. It’s also easy to rationalize that we’d never do that – we’d protect precious sites like this.  But do we?

What’s happening in Tasmania shows we don’t. We are responsible for this one – all of us.

Unlike many forest types, this one is not adapted to fire. A perfect storm of climatic events dried out this normally damp forest and a dry lightning storm then ignited it. These are all natural events, but their confluence is driven and amplified by climate change. And the only way to prevent further loss is for all of us to feel responsible and act now.

Sea Level Rise Impacts Infrastructure Today

Unfortunately I didn’t have my phone with me earlier today when I ran past the crew working on the main train line from the Bay Area to Sacramento and then on to the rest of the United States.  But I wasn’t surprised to see them. Why?

The tracks run right along the shore of the Bay through Pinole. I’ve always loved this stretch of the train ride to Sacramento, but until recently I hadn’t fully comprehended just how close to shore they run.

One recent weekend we took the boys along the beach, past the salt marsh, and to a point where the track ballast is literally falling into the Bay.  The rack line that marks high tide was the give away — a recent tide had deposited debris on to the ballast.  That was the mark from a 6.9 foot tide on January 9th.

A 6.9 foot high tide deposits debris on the mainline to Sacramento

Ten days later, the King Tide on January 21st hit +7.2 feet.  That’s another 4 inches above the line we saw. It’s no wonder then that Union Pacific crews were working diligently at that spot to repair the damage from repeated inundations.  It’s certain that they’ll be back with increasing frequency in the coming years and decades.

It had me thinking about the engineers who laid these tracks. They weren’t stupid. They understood where sea level was and would certainly have accounted for high tides. The sheltered location means they didn’t have to concern themselves about storm surges. But they didn’t have sea level rise in their engineering guides. Over the 100 years since these tracks were laid, sea level at the Golden Gate Bridge has increased by 8 inches.  It’s clear to me that this modest 6 inch rise explains Union Pacific’s conundrum today.

Looking ahead, it’s projected that sea level in the Bay may rise by as much as 55 inches.  I don’t think any amount of maintenance will save this section of track against that sort of change.  Short of raising it up on trestles, I don’t see where else they can thread the line through the crowded Bay Area. But at least raising it would enable the low lying open space that lies behind the line to be returned to wetlands to protect the adjacent communities.

And speaking of wetlands, my friends and colleagues at Save the Bay, have led a consortium that is seeking to pass a region-wide parcel tax to raise funds for Bay land restoration. One of the key arguments for passing the $12 parcel tax, which will raise $500 million over 20 years, is that restoration is desperately needed to protect the infrastructure that rings the bay.  In the coming weeks I’ll be looking more closely at the measure, and in particular exploring how it can help my local community prepare for sea level rise.

Trains are fun: but sticks are way cooler.

Wasting every drop? The north-south divide.

With El Niño finally starting to drench California, barely a day goes by without a news story covering it.   Yesterday’s Marketplace had an in-depth report on the winter rains in Los Angeles that featured many of my former colleagues from my time in Los Angeles working on water issues.

It’s a great piece and is well worth the seven minutes it will take you to listen to it. It argues that while LA was engineered to prevent a repeat of the 1930s floods by flushing water to the ocean , it is now time to re-engineer the city to capture rain and get it back into the groundwater so that we can re-use it.

It’s hard to argue with the desire to recharge the aquifer. Not only does it bolster local water supplies, but it prevents ocean pollution. There are many groups working on this, foremost among them the City and County of Los Angeles and their non-profit partner, TreePeople.

But the opening of the story repeated a line makes me cringe. Namely that when water flows to the Pacific Ocean it represents a “colossal waste.”

It’s in stark contrast to the news reports of the winter rains up in the Bay Area. Here rainfall also runs to the Pacific Ocean. But when it’s covered in a story the reporter is more likely to discuss how it provides the much needed pulses of fresh water that rejuvenates rivers and stimulates the salmon to return.

To oversimplify it. In northern California environmentalists fight to keep water in creeks so it can flow to the ocean. While in southern California environmentalists fight to infiltrate water into the aquifer so that it does not flow to the ocean.

Even in Los Angeles there are remnant wetlands and natural bottom creeks that need the pulses of fresh water brought about by winter rains to survive.  The recently restored Malibu wetlands is one example.  And a stones throw from LAX is the Ballona wetlands that is in desperate need of restoration.

So yes, we need to capture more water and return it to the aquifer. But even in Los Angeles we need to acknowledge it benefits the streams, rivers, and wildlife when rainwater flows to the ocean. It’s not waste!  It’s part of the natural order that I am hopeful will be restored over the coming decades as Los Angeles re-engineers its water system.

pool at channel
Rustic Creek trickles into the Pacific Ocean just after crossing the Pacific Coast Highway

Is private forestland at risk as owners age?

A recent report on NPR’s market place about family forests in the United States caught my ear. It argued that 2016 was shaping up to be a big year for sales of family-owned forests face.  This has been a common refrain in the almost 20 years I have been working on forestry issues in California.  But much of the report did not ring true to me – at least not here in California.

First it suggested that 2016 may turn out to be a big year for the sale of private forest land. And second, that the biggest threat was that family forests would be sold to industrial owners who clear cut the forest and ship the logs overseas for the export market.

Every year I have heard the refrain that this year will be the year when the older generation dies and the forest land they assembled is sold off. It’s certainly true that people age, but I’m not convinced that 2016 is shaping up to be any worse than 2006, or 1996.  The sad truth is that we lose many acres of productive forest land to other uses every year.

Second, I have seen little evidence that the primary “risk” is that the forest will be purchased by an industrial owner who will turn around, clear-cut the trees, and ship them overseas.  Unfortunately this continues the outdated narrative that “forestry” is bad and anything else is “good.”  In my experience, the larger industrial owners are unlikely to purchase smaller family forests as the values tend to be driven by real estate and hence relatively high. And even if they did, they manage them with a long-term perspective for their wood and forest values.

By far and away the primary risk today is that the forest will be broken up and sold off as individual parcels for home sites. From a conservation and forestry management perspective, this is a disaster. Not only are smaller parcels harder to manage for wood production, they also fragment the landscape for wildlife as homes and people invade what was once wildlife habitat.

Fortunately, landowners these days are faced with many smart options to protect their forest land and handle complex estate planning needs. In California there’s a growing trend for landowners to make use of conservation easements to protect the land against fragmentation and aggressive timbering, while allowing it’s continued productive use as timberland, and reducing the burden of estate taxes on the family.

The final irony in the news report was the owner they interviewed planned to build small cabins around the property for his kids. While I appreciate the sentiment of connecting the kids to the forestland, these cabins introduce their own disruption and may make it that much harder to manage the land for its forest and wildlife values in the future.

So why should any of this matter to the average American? I’ll just take California as that’s the landscape I know the best. California has 33 million acres of forestland. Of this, some 9 million is owned and managed by private families – compared to 5 million by the large industrial owners.  This forestland gives us so much everyday. It cleans our air. Stores carbon dioxide that is driving climate change. Is the source of much of our clean water. Provides the wood we use to build our homes.  And of course, it’s also a source of inspiration.

Protecting our forestland is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

California’s Private Forestland is at Risk of conversation.



We need to redesign our water bills to drive conservation

Our water bill for the end of the year was among mail delivered after our trip to England.  “Great,” I thought. “I can see how our efforts to save water are adding up.”

I’d never really looked at the bill before, beyond figuring out how much to pay. But this time I took a harder look. With the drive to conserve I was expecting clear information on the bill to help me understand how our household is doing. How wrong I was.  All you get is the number of gallons a day: 162.

So is that good? Bad? Indifferent? How does it compare to last year? To my neighbors? To what an efficient household would look like?

At first it had me pulling out my phone and searching the web for comparisons. But to be honest, that’s not much help as different countries and regions use different metrics. What I wanted was something relevant to where I live.

In the end I turned the bill over and in small print it tells you how to compare water use. Bingo!  Again, wrong.

First up I’d need to know whether the bill was for the “winter indoor use” period or not. It let me know that 45 gallons per person per day is considered “efficient” and 35 gallons “super-efficient” for indoor use.  Outside the winter use period, I’d also have to calculate my outdoor allowance by measuring the area of lawn and shrub. Each 100 sq. ft. of lawn is multiplied by 12 (if I’m west of the hills) or 13 (east of the hills) and each 100 sq. ft. of shrub by 8 (west) and 7 (east).

Sound complicated? You bet!  First up, I was unclear if my bill was considered “winter” or not as it included part of December which it told me is the winter period. With Pinole being in the hills I was unclear whether I should use the equation for “west” or “east.”  And since it was raining I wasn’t going to drag a tape measure outside to measure the area of shrubs. The lawn is easy. We have none.

So in the end I kept it simple and focused on the indoor use comparison, which turned our to be 46 gallons per person per day.  Just a shade over the efficient mark.  I  guess that good.

But even then I was left wondering how it compared to the last period, or last year, or my neighbors. Or what I could do to get to “super efficient.”

I care about this stuff and I struggled. If we’re to get serious about conservation in California we need to make this simple and automatic. There’s no excuse that our water bills don’t come with comparative information. They don’t need to know how many people live in each home, but it would be easy to include a quick table that did the calculation for you. When I see these type of changes I’ll know that conservation has become a way of life for my water company. Come on East Bay Municipal Utility District – I know you can do better!

Do you have any good examples of water bills you can share?



What does the American Civil War have to do with a park at the geographic center of the UK?

The history of place fascinates me. Especially when that place is a park.

On a recent trip to Williamson Park in Lancaster, England, I picked up another fascinating park foundation story. It’s a surprising one as it spans both centuries and miles. It connects an ornate memorial that I have passed countless times driving up the M6, to the American Civil War, and to that classic kitchen flooring – linoleum.

Northern England in the nineteenth century was home to a thriving cotton industry.  The fortune of whole towns was based upon the fortune of the mill. When the American Civil War broke out the flow of cotton from the southern States stopped and many local residents lost their jobs as the mills closed.

In Lancaster, the cotton famine stopped the mills owned by James Williamson Sr. and his son James Williamson Jr. They specialized in coated cotton products — James Williamson Jr. would go on to be known as the “lino king” and eventually became 1st Baron Ashton.  In what is an early example of a public works project (albeit privately run), the displaced mill workers were employed to convert a disused quarry on Lancaster Moor into Williamson Park.

The park is well worth a visit. If you’re a collector of geographic oddities, it’s worth noting that it’s very close to the geographic center of the United Kingdom. And from the outdoor balconies of the ornate memorial he built to his wife, you get glorious views across the sands of Morecambe Bay to the Lakeland hills — that is, if it’s not raining!

The Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, Lancaster



Visualizing Immunization Rates in California Schools

Earlier this summer Governor Brown signed a law that will ban most vaccine exemptions in the State. Past time if you ask me. Vaccinations are a simple and safe way of keeping our kids, and society, safe from diseases that used to routinely kill and debilitate thousands each year.

I’d read the reports about vaccine rates being low in otherwise educated areas – take Marin for instance. But I was surprised when I looked at the data and found that rates in the small, liberal, educated town of Albany where I have two kids at elementary school are hovering right around 70 per cent. That’s far below the 90+ rate that we need if we are to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for valid medical reasons — my kids’ care giver is one. She’s deathly allergic to eggs.

The datasets I saw were all tabular — page after page of data. It had me thinking, with a little GIS could I make them more accessible? Turns out the answer was yes!

Check out the map below to see Kindergarten immunization rates in your community. You can search by school, or city. If you zoom out to a region, or the state, you can see the darker red spots where immunization rates are lower. Hit the full-screen button to see more of the data.  I found the data illuminating – it still doesn’t answer the question of why otherwise educated communities who trust in science fail to heed its advice in this case. It will be interesting to track rates over time and see what impact the new law has on the health of our communities and kids.

So how did I do this? I pulled the data from the Department of Education web-site and Department of Public Health.  School locations were located by their lat-long coordinates and then linked to the immunization rate data.  All that was done in ArcGIS Pro (thank you ESRI for introducing your $100 home license!). Unfortunately, their online mapping service appears to be limited to 1,000 records and there are many more Kindergarten schools in California! So I imported it all into CartoDB where it was straightforward (and free) to produce the map above.

Bringing spatial decision making to the masses

Geography is everywhere.  Of course, being a geographer I would say that. But for many people geography means a list of state capitals and perhaps the atlas published by the National Geographic.  I’ve just come back from the 2015 Esri user conference in San Diego and saw first hand that this is changing quickly. While much of the discussion was about new software and tools, the most exciting change is the way these tools are deployed.

Just as Google maps has transformed the way we navigate our world (when was the last time you used a paper map?!), spatial decision support tools are transforming the way we understand the world around us and how we make collective decisions. GIS – geographic information systems – is the tool enabling this transformation.

GIS is not a new technology. It’s at least 40 years old in its modern incarnation and I’ve been using it for about half this time. Having just spent a few days at the Esri user conference, it is clear that the power of GIS as a decision support tool is on the verge of being brought into the heart of the public domain. It’s exciting and has the potential to transform the way we live, work, and govern.

A number of trends are converging to make this possible.

  • Data is being collected in real time and near real-time. Our GPS enabled smart phones are at the front line of this data collection revolution. They are being rapidly joined by an army of drones, and matched up with unprecedented satellite images being updated on a daily basis.
  • Data is shared and available 24/7 on the cloud rather than being hoarded on hard drivesFrom the latest Landsat image, to a live twitter feed, to projections of sea-level rise, we all have access to curated and constantly updated datasets.  Served up through a geoportal, you can quickly find what you’re looking for and know that you’re accessing current data.
  • Powerful GIS analysis and publishing tools are available online. I no longer need a UNIX workstation,  thousands of dollars of software, and an expensive plotter to conduct and share an analysis.  Using ArcGIS online, or one of the other freely available online tools, I can quickly publish and share work.

Bring these three threads together and real-time analysis is available to anyone. In the classic production cycle, experts would take weeks to conduct a static analysis that was shared with the decision makers as a printed map. There was no way quick or easy way to interact with the results. Most of your time was spent preparing the data, rather than conducing the analysis. In the end, the decision maker had to accept what the map said – or risk another lengthy cycle to change things up. It was the classic top-down approach.

Now, I can throw the data up a on a web-site — pulling data feeds from many different places — and give the users simple ways to explore and visualize the data. They can dig in and draw their own conclusions. Or I can walk them through a story map to help them understand what is going on.

This will fundamentally remake the way decisions are made. The environmental review process for development and land use projects can become interactive. Companies can understand spatial trends in real time. In essence, decision making will become democratized as everyone has access to relevant data and analysis.

Does this mean GIS professionals will whither away? Far from it! Rather than just being the folks you go to to make a map, they’ll be at the core of how we collaborate and make shared decisions. Sounds like fun to me!