All posts by Ruskin K Hartley

Experienced conservation professional recognized for collaborative approach, thoughtful leadership and innovative programs. Influential thought leader in forest conservation and state park reform. Successful fundraiser with extensive individual, foundation and public fundraising experience. Proven communicator experienced with traditional and social media.

Floods force us to confront returning land to nature

I’ve just returned from two wet weeks in northern England visiting my family for the holidays. Let’s just say it was wet. Very wet.

Over the last few weeks, England has suffered historic floods with no end in sight. The evening news showed town centers such as Kendal, Carlisle, Appleby, Leeds, and Manchester inundaded.   Talking with the old farmers around Sedbergh who have lived on the land for decades, they cannot recall the rivers being so high, or in flood for so long. Their memory is born out by the sight of medieval bridges that have seen centuries of water flow under their arches being washed away. And of course, it’s born out by the rainfall gauges that are recording record totals day after day, week after week.

We ventured out onto the fell in one storm and could see the fields come alive with traces of rivers and streams where none normally existed. Every drop of rain fell on saturated ground creating sheet flow across the fields until it found or created a channel to rush onward to the rivers which quickly rose to fill their banks.  For a few hours, Sedbergh was cut off as the main road flooded and in Kendal the river broke its banks and flooded the homes yet again.

But despite all of this, Sedbergh was spared the floods. Why?

Sedbergh is a small market town set in the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales. And while the river flooded a few holiday caravans, the town was spared because of where it’s located.  The town itself has grown nestled along the base of the Howgill fells, set back from the river. My hunch is this happy accident is a result of open land being maintained along the river because it’s largely owned by two schools – Sedbergh School (founded in 1545) and the local state school, Settlebeck. Rather than develop the land, it’s been maintained as estate land and sports fields.  Not only does it provide a great place to walk or kick a ball about, or raise a few sheep, but it’s a natural source of flood protection that needs little in the way of maintenance.

We need to do what we can to protect open space that provides flood protection where it exists – it’s simply crazy to continue to issue building permits for land we know will flood. But the recent floods in Britain also force us to think the previously unthinkable — to recreate openspace where it once existed.  The alternative is to further harden our cities at vast expense, with the inevitable consquence that when the concrete fails the impact will be catastrophic.

A long-time friend was visiting for New Year with his family. He’s an actuary working for one of the UK’s largest insurace companies. While he doesn’t work in the property market, he’s come to the same conclusion from a financial risk perspective. Namely that it’s time to have a serious conversation about managing retreat and giving back a little of our developed footprint to nature.  It’s going to be a hard conversation – but after some homes have flooded three-times in a month, it’s a conversation we desperately need to have.

And with record floods in the southern USA, sea level encroaching on Miami Beach during high tides, and El Nino poised to slam into California, it’s a conversation needed around the world.

[An interactive 3D model of Sedbergh and it’s projected flood zones was developed by Garsdale Design and can be viewed online here.]



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!


How will climate change affect California’s park visitation?

This year’s warm and dry winter is expected to become the norm in the future. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time up at Tahoe and most recently among the north coast redwoods. My anecdotal observation is the weather this year is already affecting tourism and our public agencies have yet to catch up.

The lack of snow in the mountains drove people down to the lake shore where the visitor facilities remained closed for the season. At the Emerald Bay overlook, the parking lot was closed and cars were double-parked along the road causing a traffic jam in both directions. While the parking lot for Vikingsholm was open it was as busy as I have seen it during the summer. The house itself was closed and there were no park staff to be seen to greet the hundreds of visitors.

Up on the north coast, the Prairie Creek campground was partially open — and already full by late afternoon. The camp hosts told me they’d be turning people away rather than opening up the second loop as the maintenance crews hadn’t got in yet to open up the additional campsites.

If this year is repeated and becomes the new normal, our public agencies are going to have to change the way they manage the parks. We’ll have to be nimble enough to open them up earlier in the season as the weather, and visitors, demand. More park visitation is perhaps one bright spot in an otherwise bleak future.

Emerald Bay State Park - one of the gems of the State Park System
Emerald Bay State Park – one of the gems of the State Park System

The challenge of cutting water use by 25 per cent – the water meter

It took snow pack levels to drop to 5 percent for the State to finally mandate water conservation. They are targeting a 25 percent reduction in water use across the state. But what does that mean for the average residential user?

Unfortunately, I think it may mean not much.

After all, we’re used to reading that the biggest water users are agriculture. Can’t we just let the farmers growing almonds in the Central Valley or alfalfa in the desert figure this out? They can do there part, and my part as well? While that is easy to say, It also sends the wrong message. It’s incumbent on all residential users to do our part before we turn and say others should.

And that’s where I start to get hung up.

What can I really do to reduce my own water use by 25 percent? In other words, for every 4 gallons I use today I need to use 3 tomorrow. I live in a small rental with no lawn and no dishwasher. So I can’t turn off the sprinkler and wait until the dishwasher is full to run it. My car is already dirty and on the rare occasion it gets washed, it’s at the local car wash that recycles its water.  I’m not one for singing in the shower and if I started to shower only every other day people may complain — especially on the days I go for a run!

And beyond all of this, even if I do figure out how to reduce my usage. How will I know? The good news is I live in a city with water meters. The bad news is it is buried in the sidewalk, beneath a heavy inspection chamber, covered in dirt and gunk and uses a series of hard-to-read dials. When the bill finally arrives, it’s months out of date. If the state is serious about residential users cutting their use by 25 percent that has to change. Give me a smart water meter that I can read using my phone and I’ll then have the tools I need to translate my actions to the savings. Until then, I am afraid that as well meaning as I am, I am really flying blind on all of this.

And believe me, I hate to say that having worked in and around water and conservation issues for years.

Water levels are critically low in Stampede Reservoir
Water levels are critically low in Stampede Reservoir

Red Oak Victory anchors Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park

Did you know there’s a National Park on the waterfront in Richmond, California?  This city, which makes the news for all the wrong reasons — think the Chevron Refinery catching on fire or gun violence in the iron triangle — is also home to Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Historic Park (quite possibly the longest park name in the nation).

It’s fascinating park both for the story it tells, and also how it tells it. Unlike a classic national park where the Government owns the land and the buildings, this is an innovative partnership between the city, the park service and various non-profit partners. During World War II, Richmond was home to some of the largest ship yards in the world. It was also home to countless women — “Rosie’s” —  who picked up welding gloves and heavy equipment to build the machinery that liberated Europe and defeated Japan. It was also in these Kaiser shipyards that the concept of health coverage and insurance and workers was popularized.

At it’s height, these shipyards turned out three ships a day. And in one frenzy of activity, they assembled a liberty ship in five days. Most of these ships are now just a memory. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, berthed in San Francisco was actually assembled in Maine. So this makes the Red Oak Victory all the more special. It’s one of the few remaining ships built in these ship-yards that remains afloat today.  It’s actually in the care of the Richmond Museum who have been working since 1998 to restore it and fire up the boilers. That’s time consuming and expensive work. But without it, the National Historic Park is just a collection of signs showing old photos of what was.

The Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining ships built at the Richmond, CA shipyards during World War II.
The Red Oak Victory is one of the few remaining ships built at the Richmond, CA shipyards during World War II.

You may have seen the recent report that estimated our National Park System has a $11.5 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. That’s a big number. But it doesn’t include the money needed to restore other critical pieces of our national heritage — like the Red Oak Victory. That responsibility is falling to the volunteers and supporters of the Richmond Museum.

It’s time for the National Park Service to step up and help the volunteers of the Richmond Museum finish this effort. That would be a great way of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in the city of Richmond.  And with the boilers lit the historic park will finally come to life.  That’s a day I want to see.

Young mariners boarding the SS Red Oak Victory
Young mariners boarding the SS Red Oak Victory

Is it time to make the initiative process more transparent?

I was just reading an article about the Plastic Bag initiative that recently qualified for the 2016 election. My interest is more than passing, as securing a state-wide ban was a major success while I was at Heal the Bay. It had taken years of work, resulting in a political compromise that was signed into law by Governor Brown last year.

Now it’s on hold after the plastic bag manufacturers put up $3 million – 98% from out-of-state money – to collect the signatures to put it to a vote of the electorate.  The crazy part is that by simply qualifying the initiative the ban is now on hold. By some estimate, every additional year they can sell single-use plastic bags in California generates another $15 million in profit to the manufactures. In other words, for a payment of $3 million they will earn a five-fold return each year. I wish I could get that type of return on my savings account! In fact, the industry will have won handsomely even if they lose in 2016.

I’m not going to rehash the merits of banning plastic bags — that story has been told. And in fact, about half of all Californians live in municipalities that have already banned bags.  But it does again raise the whole question of the initiative process. To me what is most egregious is the misleading way that signatures were gathered. I know because I was asked for mine outside a local Trader Joe. Inside the store the vast majority of people were bringing their re-usable bags, while outside they were being asked whether they could “spare a minute to save jobs.”  I bet most people didn’t know what they were signing or that the person collecting signatures was likely being paid a dollar or more per signature gathered. Or that the jobs issue had been dealt with in the bill that was signed in to law and that it would create new green jobs in California.

There’s a lot of debate at the moment about money in politics as almost limitless amounts slosh around. Much as there’s a desperate need for transparency at the top, I feel it’s past time for transparency in the initiative process. By all means go and collect your signatures. Just make it clear at the point of signing who is behind the initiative and how much the signature gatherer is being paid for you to sign.

A more radical idea is to accept the concept that you can put almost anything on the ballot if you have enough money to spend (or invest as this case shows). As an alternative to the signature gathering process, let’s just have a limited number of slots on each ballot and sell them to the highest bidder. The funds collected could then go to fund voter education programs. Perhaps over time an educated electorate who turned out to vote would slow this craziness.

With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch
With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch at the conference announcing the Bag Ban.

Let’s stick to old-style geoengineering

A couple of news articles recently caught my eye as once again they show that nature is far ahead of our technology.  Or to put it another way, the new thing over the horizon gives us an excuse to continue polluting today.

First came a study from Oxford University scientists that determined that trees really are the best way to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — both when alive, and when cooked as biochar.  Second, the esteemed US National Academy of Sciences released a report that says geoengineering — basically a technical fix to our screwing up the atmosphere — wasn’t quite ready for prime time but that more research is needed.

How much more research do we need to convince people that we should save existing forests and plant more where we can? I know it’s not as sexy as exotic proposals to modify the albedo of the planet by injecting sulphur into the atmosphere, or hanging mirrors in space. But it does have immediate benefits.  Forests don’t just store carbon dioxide, they clean our water, provide habitat for plants and animals, are an untapped reservoir of future medicines, and oh they are beautiful too.

And then there’s biochar. An ancient technology that is poised to make a comeback. Biochar is carbonized plant material. When added to soil it locks carbon away for an age. It also increases soil productivity, helps soil retain water, and in doing so can increase crop yields and enhance food security.  It’s been known for centuries in the Amazon as “terra pretta.” Perhaps its hard to patent it and make a buck, but it’s ready to deploy and can help solve several of the world’s problems right now.

So what are we waiting for? Perhaps geoengeering is ready for prime time after all – just old school.

Massive old trees, such as they coast redwoods, store carbon for centuries.
Massive old trees, such as they coast redwoods, store carbon for centuries.

Is it time to map and scale-up our rain gardens?

This past weekend’s storm here in the Bay Area brought a second “first flush” to the Bay.  It was at least six weeks since the last storm, so plenty of time for a new layer of gunk and trash to coat our streets waiting for the rain to wash it into the bay.

In a few places, the rain is now being slowed down and infiltrated back into the ground in “rain gardens” that are starting to pop up around the region as building codes require “low impact development” for new construction or grants are made available to retrofit streets. My new local Whole Foods is one example. The rain gardens there takes runoff from the surrounding streets and the parking lot and  runs it through the rain gardens. before it hits the storm drain system.  They work.   A 2012 report by the San Francisco Estuary Institute of two projects in El Cerrito demonstrated that water quality is greatly improved as a result.

As more of these start to be built, its time to start mapping their location so we can understand how they work together.  Knowing where they are going in – whether in a private garden or in a public street – is the starting point of getting strategic and intentional about where they need to be installed to improve water quality in our urban creeks and Bay.

I did a quick search and couldn’t find a resource like this for the Bay Area. A few cities, like Madison and their 1000 rain gardens challenge, have started to make some progress. Now its time for the Bay Area to step up!

Want to find 30 great parks near you?

Want to get outside this weekend and enjoy some time in the park? Perhaps to ride some single track, or take the dog for a walk? Well unless you know your parks pretty well, you can spend as much time visiting different web-sites to figure out where you can go to do what as you do actually in the park. That’s where this great new web-site — — comes in.

Take the Bay Area as an example. We have National Parks, State Parks, Regional Parks, City Parks, and more.  Lots to choose from, but it can quickly get confusing.  At this new web-site, just click on what you’re interested in, enter your address, and you’ll quickly get a list of up to 30 local parks, along with a map, and links to social media feeds about the park.

It’s a great resource for anyone who’d prefer to spend more time on the trail, and less time figuring out where to go. Thanks to the team who put this together. Especially the Parks Forward Commission and my friends at GreenInfo Network who provided the mapping data that lies at the core of this great new site!

Now time to find a great place to enjoy in the rain!

Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational
Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational