Category Archives: Heal the 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.

On The Bay 087

 

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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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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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.

 

 

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.

Solving the tragedy of the commons, at sea

Sea anemone
This week, Sarah Sikich, one of Heal the Bay’s scientists, is in France at an international conference discussing Marine Protected Areas — MPAs in the vernacular of ocean conservancy. I was aware of them from my work along the redwood coast, as Save the Redwoods League owned land adjacent to an MPA in Sonoma County. But I’ve never thought much about them. Turns out Heal the Bay has been a leader in development of these so-called Yosemites of the Sea here in Southern California. And MPAs are pretty fascinating. Trust me.

MPAs are a simple and elegant solution to a thorny problem. Over the years, society has over-fished the oceans. Along the way fish stocks have collapsed, harvests have been reduced, and the actual fish caught have become smaller. It’s been bad for the ocean, bad for the fishery industry, bad for folks who recreate on the ocean, and bad for anyone who eats fish. And that’s pretty much everyone!

It’s also a classic “tragedy of the commons” problem. Basically, each individual fisherman sees direct benefit from landing extra fish while the consequences of reduced catch are spread over everyone else. It’s the same principle as people getting into their car in a busy metropolis even though they know it contributes to gridlock and local air pollution.

Traditionally, fishery regulation has relied on a species-by-species approach. This simply pushes the problem off to another species. It’s the same model we have for endangered species on land. And many smart conservationists now agree that neither approach works well. Fortunately because the ocean is a commons, we have the chance to try new solutions.

MPAs shift the thinking from individual species to entire ocean systems. Basically you set aside areas of the ocean as no-fishing zones. Put these in the right place and with the right configuration and they become nurseries for fish. You get more fish, bigger fish, and they have more young. Not only is this good for fishermen, but it’s good for conservation of the ocean system as a whole. What’s more the science has shown this works.

Over the last few years, California has established a network of 123 MPAs that cover 16 percent of state waters. Here in Southern California, we helped establish MPAs off Palos Verdes, Point Dume and Catalina Island. Worldwide there are now 5,000 MPAs across 80 countries. It’s a great start and we’re already starting to see fish stocks recover.

But MPAs in state waters cover only a tiny fraction of the oceans. State-waters extend out three miles. Federal waters 200 miles. And then it’s a free for all. The big question I have is whether the international community can come together to forge an agreement to extend what works at a state and federal level. Ultimately, we can all do our part, but it’s going to take coordinated global action to save our oceans.

Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the Bay)
Black perch congregate in MPA off Catalina Island (Heal the 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.

On the Watershed

40% of LA is paved
LA is 40% paved over

It’s Wednesday and that means I need to move my car from the north side of the street between the hours of 12 noon and 3 pm. If I remember, the street sweeper can work its magic.  If I forget, I risk a fine. That had me thinking of watersheds. Bear with me.

The concept of a watershed is pretty simple — it’s an area of land where all water falling within it drains to a common point. It’s also the name given to the boundary demarcating this area. Whether we know it or not, we all live within a watershed.  Healthy watersheds provide a home for countless creatures and give us clean water. Start to mess with a watershed — by building in it, damming it, logging it, mining or drilling in it — and you start to impair the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. Unfortunately many watersheds around the world are suffering today. And in turn, so does anything that lives there — including us.

It’s hard to image that a heavily urbanized area is also a watershed. Fly over LA and all you see are buildings as far as the eye can see. To me, it couldn’t get more different from northern California and its thick blanket of forest.   But both are watersheds and both suffer from degradation that affects the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. In turn, poor water quality and degraded watersheds, struggle to support life and provide us with clean, drinkable, swimable water.

In northern California, rural roads that dump sediment into creeks and a legacy of aggressive logging are obvious signs of an impaired watershed. Millions are being spent fixing these problems so salmon and other animals can once again thrive.  Down here in Los Angeles, it’s different. I now live in a highly urbanized environments where I almost never see a creek, let alone a fish swimming in it.  For 28 years, Heal the Bay has led the charge to clean up Santa Monica bay and its watersheds. At first it had to tackle the acute problems, such as the dumping of untreated wastewater in to the Bay that was killing sea life and sickening surfers. Today, the challenges are more those of a chronic malaise. We’ve triaged the worst of it, and now we have to deal with the underlying causes — foremost is how we deal with storm water that flushes directly from the street to the bay, untreated, carrying the toxic debris of urban living with it.

Because in most regions all water flows to the ocean, the health of the bay is an indicator of the health of the region and its watersheds.  When we can swim in the bay 365 days a year and know that it provides a rich environment for the countless sea life beneath the waves, we know we’re doing our job. While huge strides have been made over the past 28 years, there’s a long way to go to complete the task of healing Santa Monica bay.

And that brings me back to street sweeping.  Moving your car once a week is a simple act that helps keep the watershed just that little bit healthier.  Every bit of trash swept up is one less piece that is dumped in the bay.  And what’s true down here, is also true in your neighborhood. As all oceans are really just one body of water, so we all live in the same watershed. And to me that’s a powerful thought as I move my car and help protect the ocean along the way.

Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay
Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay

Hyperion – they don’t come bigger than this!

Hyperion. To some the legendary father of the sun, the moon and the dawn. To some, the tallest tree in the world.  To the millions who live in Los Angeles, it’s the sewage treatment plant at the end of the pipe. And to me, it will forever be a place that brings two parts of my life together.

Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion
Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion

On September 16th 2006 I schlepped Steve Sillet’s crossbow through the woods as he set out to document this record-breaking redwood for the first time. Until that point no-one really knew how tall the tree was. Steve’s work documented it as a record-breaker at 379.1 feet tall (that’s 115.55 meters). What was remarkable about the tree is that it narrowly escaped being cut down before being protected in Redwood National Park in 1978. I clearly remember being sat in that remote grove as Steve and his team went about their painstaking work. It was a magical place. So quiet and remote with beautiful trees all around.

Roll the clock forward a few years and on September 16th 2013, I found myself sat out by the beach under a hot sun with Hyperion — the municipal sewage plant for LA at my back. It was my first day on the job at Heal the Bay and I had come to where it all started. I was part of the crowd of city officials, environmentalists, and citizens come to watch the new Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, dedicate a brand new education center at what I learned is the second largest septic plant in the United States.

Back in 1985 a group of concerned citizens were tired off the endless pollution pouring into Santa Monica bay, killing fish and sickening people. Organized by Dorothy Green, they founded Heal the Bay, which for 28 years has worked tirelessly for clean beaches and water in Southern California.  Their first fight was to stop untreated wastewater from Hyperion being dumped into the bay. They won that battle and many more since then.

Today, the greatest threats to our coastal waters and watersheds, and to all of us – both human and animal – that rely on the ocean for pleasure, income or sustenance, come from urban and stormwater runoff, plastic pollution, and the ever-increasing stresses to our marine environment from over-fishing and climate change.  Together, these threaten to impair the bay and ocean just as untreated wastewater from Hyperion did all those years ago. Unfortunately the solutions are no longer as simple as as a new septic plant. They require us to be thinking and working throughout the watershed and at policies at both the local and state-wide level.

When I need inspiration,  I will return to this day and to Hyperion that brought so many threads together. From the towering redwood to the sewage treatment plant. At their core both are a story of how people stood up to protect places they care about and in the process changed the course of history.

Muir Woods