Category Archives: On the Watershed

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.

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

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?

 

 

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.]

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FLOODED SPORTS FIELD AT SEDBERGH PRIMARY SCHOOL
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THE RIVER RAWTHEY LAPS OVER ITS BANKS, SEDBERGH, UK

 

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!

It’s a small flood!

I recently asked my oldest son what his favorite part of the Thanksgiving break was. Not the turkey, or pie, or playing in the park. It was playing in the rain during the, “small flood” that came along with the recent pineapple express storm.

There are a number of small creeks in the neighborhood that were flowing as high as I have seen them. Another few hours of rain and they would have burst their banks.  We didn’t just watch — we got out there and cleared some culverts of leaves and debris and then stood and watched as the huge puddles drained to the bay.  It was the perfect way to learn about how the things we do in our neighborhoods impact the health of the rivers and creeks and ultimately the bay.

It was great to see the new Rain Garden in the city of El Cerrito working to collect the water and give it time to infiltrate back into the ground.  With forecasts of more intense storms in our future, we’re going to need to build many more rain gardens to keep our neighborhoods safe from flood, to prevent pollution into the bay, and to give our kids new places to play — come rain or shine.

Failing streets open up opportunities to build green infrastructure

Late last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Committee released a report on the state of the streets in the nine-county Bay Area. As anyone who has been jolted when there car or bike hit a pot hole, it will come as no surprise that the situation is pretty dire. In many cities and counties, routine maintenance is not enough to even maintain the status-quo, let alone rebuild for the future. Across the region, 43,000 miles of streets are stuck in the “fair” category, with no sign of improvements on the horizon. I might add that my home town of Albany had one of the lowest scores and has shown steady declines over the past three years.

There was a short segment on KQED’s forum this morning about the report. The discussion focused on the need to develop new funding mechanisms, and how cities like El Cerrito have successfully raised new revenue to fix up old streets.  While the MTC report and radio debate touches on the concept of “Complete Streets” –streets that are build for cars, bikes, and pedestrians — they both missed another element from my perspective. Namely water.

Essentially, our street system has extended and in some cases replaced the system of creeks and rivers that used to drain into the Bay.  In a region that is defined by the Bay, we should use every opportunity we can to enhance its protection. And in a time of scarce public resources, we can not afford to solve one problem at a time. Fortunately, in the case of streets you can solve the pot hole problem, create a safer and more livable street, and protect water quality at the same time. It’s already happening in pockets around the area as “low impact development” ordinances are adopted and implemented. What is needed now is a comprehensive set of ordinances to ensure that as our streets are upgraded, we’re creating green streets for the future.

Rather than getting rainwater off our streets and into the storm drain as quickly as possible, we need to allow it to percolate back into the groundwater. This can be achieved through curb-cuts, bioswales, rain gardens and cisterns. Not only do these enhance water quality, they also create more liveable green space in our community. If done correctly, it can also open up new funding mechanisms focused on water quality and supply.

If I’m going to be asked to tax myself to pay for road upgrades, I want to ensure we’re building streets for 2050, not taking the region back to 1950.

What would you prefer? More concrete or a green rain garden?
What would you prefer? More concrete or a green rain garden?
A curb-cut captures water from the street and directs it into a rain garden.
A curb-cut captures water from the street and directs it into a rain garden.

Mayor Garcetti’s bold drought move poses tough questions

Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced some bold initiatives for the city of Los Angeles to address the ongoing drought. In brief, he’s calling for a 20 per cent reduction in use of fresh water by 2017 and more ambitiously to curtail the purchase of imported water by  50 per by 2024.

The second number really got my attention as there’s a lot packed into that short sentence. Cutting the purchase of imported water by 50 per cent sounds bold. But it’s not as bold as it needs to be. And the twist is that the City actually owns a lot of the water it currently imports — water from the Owens Valley — hence it’s not being purchased.

Between 2006 and 2010, water from the Owens Valley provided 36% of LA’s water, compared to 52% from the Metropolitan Water District which imports water from the State Water Project and Colorado River.  The city already had a plan in place to cut MWD water to 24% by 2034. In effect Garcetti’s announcement accelerates the timeframe by a decade. That’s great. But look closer, and the original plan actually calls for an absolute increase in imports from the Owens Valley. It may make economic sense, but it doesn’t enhance resilience and doesn’t address the environmental issues the valley faces.

In the face of global warming, what is needed is to move the city to much greater reliance on utilizing water resources local to the region and its watersheds. If the city could get to the point where 50 per cent of its water came from truly local sources it would be much more resilient from both the ravages of global warming, and the disruption from the big earthquake when it strikes.

Currently the city imports 85 per cent of its water more than 100 miles. The three primary imports are from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada (the State Water Project), the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada (the LA Aqueduct and Owens Valley), and the Colorado River.  By and large all this water is the result of snow-melt. In the face of climate change this will diminish, threatening LA’s water supply and very future.

In addition, all pipes cross the San Andreas fault, some multiple times.  Modeling for a major quake on the San Andreas fault show that much of the disruption the region will feel is the result of loss of water as these pipes rupture. Can you imagine going without a shower for a week, let alone three months of a year? I can’t!

Coincidentally, it is estimated that about 50 per cent of water is used outside for landscaping. So getting to 50 per cent truly local water means the city could survive without those imports for a while. I think most people would be prepared to let their grass die so they could take shower.

Getting to 50 per cent truly local water is an ambitious goal for Los Angeles, but I believe it is the right goal. The city has the tools in place through its conservation programs, recycling programs, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture. What’s needed now is to take the Mayor’s bold plan and amp it up a notch. Then Los Angele’s will truly be building sustainability and resiliency for the future.

Canals criss-cross the state bringing water to Los Angeles
Canals criss-cross the state bringing water to Los Angeles – how would these fare in an earthquake?

 

Abstract Art in the Central Valley

I find the great Central Valley of California endlessly fascinating. From the air the irrigated farmland becomes an abstract painting worthy of any gallery of modern art.

At one time it was a vast grassland punctuated by reed beds and marshlands. No doubt home to countless animals. Over the past century it’s been tamed. It’s water captured and diverted. It’s grassland replaced by millions of acres of farmland that feeds California and the world.

This year it’s parched as the dry Californian winter rumbles into a scorching summer. Down below farmers are struggling as water dwindles. But from above it retains it’s abstract beauty.

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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.

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!