Category Archives: On the Watershed

On pie, storm drains and the Duke

DukesHTB 088If you have spent any time on a surf board you are probably familiar with Duke Paoa Kahanamoku — Hawaii’s legendary Olympic swimmer and surf evangelist. In 1912, he won the 100 meters freestyle in the Stockholm Olympics.  And starting in the 1920s stared in a dozen feature films. But between Olympic competition and filming he travelled the world inspiring a love of the ocean through his passion for swimming and his introduction of surfing on an unsuspecting world.

Today, Heal the Bay is continuing this legacy with an innovative partnership we call “Lunch and Learn.”  For the past three years we have partnered with a restaurant that bears his name, Duke’s in Malibu, to introduce kids to the ocean and give them simple things they can do to care for it everyday.  What’s unique about this partnership is how it combines an outdoor field-trip, with a hosted sit-down lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Many of these kids, 90% of whom come from Title I schools, have never been to the ocean despite it being in their backyard. The icing on the cake is the white linen lunch that is served as they sit and watch for whales and dolphins (actually, the icing is fudge sauce and macadamia nuts….). I only recall having that once on a field trip growing up, but thats’s another story.

Testing permeability of differerent materials
Testing permeability of differerent materials

I was fortunate to help out with this morning’s field trip. From the moment the fourth grade classes arrived on the big red bus, to the last slice of famous Hula Pie, there were smiles all around. But this wasn’t just about buses and pie, as important as both are. The heart of the program teaches kids about the relationship between what they do in their everyday life and the life in the ocean. The link being the storm drain that washes the debris of life from their playground, street and home through to the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean.

It was inspiring to watch the kids work in groups to test hypotheses about how water will interact with various surfaces, or sieve sand in search of elusive crabs. After lunch, everyone got animated during the quiz as they shouted out answers like, “entanglement,” “impermeable,” and “stop littering” as they competed for prizes. They get it that they can do simple things to help out. But what was most touching was sharing desert and hearing them talk about their desire to become scientists and engineers when they grew up. All that through a day at the beach, and a slice of tasty pie. Thank you Duke’s and Heal the Bay!

Statewide Bag Ban on the horizon

With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch
With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch

I came back to my desk on Wednesday to a pink Post-It note letting me know that state Sen. Kevin de León’s office had called. The note was simple: Please call back. It was “quite pressing.”  His staff wanted to invite Heal the Bay to speak at a press conference on Friday announcing that state legislative leaders had finally come together and forged a compromise on a new bill that would ban single-use plastic bags across the state.

L.A.-based state Sens. Alex Padilla and de Leon have found a workaround on an issue that helped short-circuit previous legislation: the notion that bans would kill local jobs. The legislative approach revealed Friday includes incentives for manufacturers to retool and build their reusable bag-product lines, thereby investing in green jobs right here in California.

After seven long years and several Heal the Bay campaigns, it appears that the end is in sight for single-use plastic grocery bags across the state. While SB 270 still needs to make its way through both houses and off the Governor’s desk, we are optimistic — now that  two of the Senate’s heaviest hitters are behind it. (Assemblymember Ricardo Lara also joined the conference, helping solidify the bloc of local Democrats who historically have had concerns with elements of past bag-ban proposals.)

If SB 270 moves forward, California will become the first state in the nation to pass a comprehensive ban on single-use plastic bags.

Yes, people will criticize it from both sides – as either going too far, or not far enough. But this afternoon at the press conference at a manufacturing plant in Vernon it was heartening to see voices from labor, manufacturers, community groups and the environment come together. Everyone can rally around a solution that shows that California continues to lead on issues that are good for the environment and business.

We started this campaign with our colleagues in the environmental community seven years ago. This issue would not even be on the radar screen of the Legislature were it not for the voices of our supporters and other concerned groups around the state.

Today, bag bans cover 90 municipalities in California, creating a regulatory hodgepodge and a patchwork of environmental protections. When the state acts comprehensively, we’ll have taken a big step forward that can serve as inspiration for the rest of the nation. We will help tackle the scourge of marine pollution and urban blight, and show that being green can also support our economy. Thank you!

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/statewide-bag-ban-horizon#sthash.xYwxk1Le.dpuf

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?

Finally On the Bay

For the last eight weeks or so I have been looking at the Bay from the shore.  True, I have enjoyed playing in the waves and swimming along the shore, but today was my first chance to get out into the Bay. I joined our aquarium team on one of their weekly collecting trips — getting kelp to feed the animals in the aquarium. As our aquariumist, Jose, says, it’s the weekly trip to the farmers market.

The Bay, and indeed the oceans, give us so much. After all they cover 71% of the planet and give us everything from the oxygen we breath, to the fish we eat, to the natural substances that thicken Jello. The list goes on. But a few hours on the bay gave me something different.  A profound sense of the wonder of the ocean.

It really is a different world out there. The solid earth is replaced by the ever shifting fluid ocean. Wave upon wave. The powerful forces gently lifting our 14 foot dingy up and down as we leaned over the side straining for the kelp. The constantly changing play of light and shade on the water as the clouds and sun slid over head. Where we first encountered the kelp, the long tendrils reaching for the light lay down when they reached the surface– causing the ripples to flatten out leaving a glassy surface. The seals, sea birds, and even the odd kelp crab were at home out there. I was a grateful visitor.

Bobbing around on the surface of the vastness of the ocean gave me the same sense of walking amid the redwood giants. A sense of being a tiny part of the wonderful world.

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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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Of desalination and sticks

If approved, the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere would suck 100 MGD
If approved, the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere would have sucked 100 million gallons of ocean water each day.

Wednesday was a big day for us at Heal the Bay. After years of work, days spent reviewing environmental documents, and five hours at a contentious hearing, the proponents of a massive desalination plant in Huntington Beach withdrew their project. The writing was on the wall — their project, as presented, was not going to be approved.  Of course, the project has not gone away. Not yet anyway.

We’re not opposed to desalination. We believe other, more cost-effective and energy efficient measures, like water reuse and conservation, should be maximized first. The body of research on best practices for desal is still growing, and we recognize that it could be a tool to meet future water needs, when used carefully in the right setting. The Huntington Beach project was simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and at a massive scale (the largest proposed plant in the Western Hemisphere). You can read more about the hearing and the issues in a recent blog post by my Heal the Bay colleague Dana Murray.

This week’s desal debate did have me drawing similarities to my work for years in the redwoods. My experience has been that any time you start to focus down on one patch of dirt (or forest, or water), the temperature rapidly rises and agreement can be elusive. If you can step back and look at the issue more holistically and from a broader geographic perspective, you can back into an agreement that works for all.

It reminds me of watching my two older boys play in the woods. While there may be sticks all around, when it comes down to it, they both want the same one. It’s tough to share one stick. But step back and look at the forest and there’s a way.

To take a broader example: an aggressive timber harvest plan adjacent to a beloved park is always going to be contentious. Especially when it involves ancient redwoods. But pull back a bit and look at how and where to meet our need for timber and park protection, and you may have the basis for an agreement. Similarly, a  massive desalination plant near ecologically important places, like marine protected areas and wetlands, is always going to be given a tough look (we and are colleagues will make sure of that).

It’s time to step back and look more holistically and regionally at our water needs.  Desalination — as part of a portfolio of local water supply, smart conservation, and re-use — may well be appropriate if smart technologies are employed and siting doesn’t significantly degrade marine life or habitat. But to my knowledge, the question of places to best site such desal plants has never been asked (let alone answered).

Meanwhile, we are left fighting over particular projects. I for one feel our time would be better spent figuring out a long-term solution that protects our bay and coastal waters, while providing reliable water at reasonable cost.

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/lets-take-holistic-view-desal-proposals#sthash.sHkV6YiL.dpuf

100 years on: what value water?

LA is 40% paved over
suburban LA – water fueled

When you have been working with redwoods, 100 years is a moment. Enough time for a giant to grow a few inches in girth and a few feet in height, But when you’re dealing with water and Los Angeles it is a game changer.

A century ago, Los Angeles was largely reliant on the water that fell in its own backyard. Then Mulholland opened the canal gates and the people of L.A. took what they had been given.  Rain and snow from the eastern Sierra mountains could now flow under gravity to fuel the growth of suburban Los Angeles. It was then and is now an engineering marvel.

It’s all too easy to see this as a bad thing.  After all, as water flowed south the Owens Valley and Mono Lake suffered. I went there earlier this summer and saw the toxic dust clouds myself. The lake levels are down and the natural system is suffering as a result of all the water that is shipped south to this day.

At the same time, that water has changed the world.

Really.

I grew up in England in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a long way from Los Angeles. But L.A. loomed large in television shows, popular culture, and fast food.  And the world tried to emulate it.  It is not a stretch to say that the Hollywood dream machine was built on the back of water from the Owens Valley.

And that’s where the problem comes in.  Classical economic theory would have it that a rational person chooses the option that maximizes economic return. Well that water diverted from the Owens Valley has created an awful lot of value down here in Southern California and around the world. Some might argue that it is greater than the value of all the fish and critters that lived in the Owens Valley.  So in theory if we had it over, we’d do it all again. Personally, I think that a simple economic approach is short-sighted and ignores the intrinsic values of nature that cannot (or should not) be monetized.

Because there is no going back, the challenge is where we go in the next 100 years. Realistically, we are going to continue transferring water from the Owens Valley (and Colorado and Bay Delta). The promise ahead is to do it in a way that helps L.A. and the Owens Valley, Colorado Basin and Bay Delta recover. One way to do this is to make better use of our water resources here in Los Angeles.

And that brings me to Heal the Bay. We’ve been focused on water quality in Santa Monica Bay for 28 years. We’ve also focused not only on water quality, but water supply as well. The two are inextricably linked. Our science and policy team has been working with local municipalities to mobilize public support for a stormwater funding measure that would build green infrastructure throughout the county. Capturing and reusing stormwater helps reduce water pollution, helps develop local water supplies, and in turn reduces our dependence on imported water. So it’s good for our bay, good for the Owens Valley, good for the Colorado River system, and good for the Bay Delta.  I am sure it makes economic sense. But it also just happens to be the right thing to do.

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/la-aqueduct-dollars-and-sense#sthash.cCiHGfy1.dpuf

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A yard stick in Mono Lake stands witness to LA’s thirst

Straight Lines

Nature abhors them.

But we create them.

I was in downtown LA earlier this week and took the chance to walk across the Fourth Street Bridge,  It wasn’t high, but it made me dizzy.

It was as if the world had been converted to straight lines.  Everything from the shape of the skyscrapers, to the train tracks, roads, power lines, and the Los Angeles River itself had been forced to follow a simple set of geometrical rules. Ironically, the only sinuous line was that of the tyre treads that had found their way into the river bed to cavre doughnuts.

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Exploring the roots of urban sprawl

I’m slowly exploring more of the greater Los Angeles area. Recently I drove over the mountain in Topanga to the San Fernando Valley. Before the switchbacks, a sign and pull-out pointed me toward the Topanga Overlook. Turns out people have been stopping here for as long as cars have been on the road. Early in the morning, the air was still clear. The overwhelming impression looking north was of a green valley punctuated with grey tower blocks, with desiccated hills beyond.

But it hasn’t always been this way. There’s a great interpretive sign at the Overlook that shows what you would have seen about 70 years ago. As I expected, the space looked more open. Back then farms and rangeland filled the Valley. But what really struck me were the trees. I expected to see the change in the built environment. But not the trees. (It’s telling that Encino, one of the Valley’s more notable communities, is named for the Spanish word for oak.)

As people moved to the Valley they brought the trappings of modern suburbia with them. Freeways. Strip malls. Tract homes. And trees.

Trees are great. Don’t get me wrong, I spent the better part of the last 15 years protecting them. But trees don’t thrive in arid environments. I have no idea what the proliferation of trees has done to the water budget for the Valley. But I do know that the vast majority of the water used to sustain them is imported from far away. Both the suburban sprawl and the trees are testament to that. Obviously, trees in the Valley aren’t the root of our water issues in L.A., but they do symbolize our complicated relationship to our surroundings.

Over the recent decades, Angelenos have embraced water conservation, reducing consumption while our population continued to grow. However, we’ll need to do more if Los Angeles is to secure a reliable water future. We’ll have to get smarter at retaining, recycling and re-using local water. That way we can retain our trees and ensure the future of our cities.

Heal the Bay is working with local communities in South Los Angeles to build urban pocket parks that both clean up stormwater and put it to beneficial uses to irrigate parks that people can enjoy. You can learn more about our Healthy Neighborhoods initiative here.

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/exploring-roots-sprawl-valley#sthash.WIwalQJh.dpuf

The Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook
The Fernando Valley from Topanga Overlook

The concrete jungle has a flowing heart

Compton Creek joins the LA River

At first glance it looked like a backdrop to an apocalyptic movie. To many engineers it’s a flood control channel. To some it’s a place to pitch a tent and call home. Or a place to dump garbage too big for your trash can. But as I looked more more closely I began to see it actually was a river with life still flowing in and through it.

Turkey vultures and hawks soared overhead while egrets, waders and herons picked their way up the channel feeding on tiny fish.  Where the sediment built up, reeds and plants started to take hold and an ecosystem was starting to assemble — enriching the  the simple concrete channel and introducing an element of nature’s chaos.

Compton CreekI was standing at the confluence of the LA River and Compton Creek. Compton Creek is the last major tributary to the Los Angeles River and  is where the two join before flowing into the Bay a few miles downstream.  It was my first trip out to the river since I joined Heal the Bay three and a half weeks ago. I am used to watershed tours — having led tours to some of the most beautiful primeval coast redwood and giant sequoia forests in the world. But this was all new to me and I was soaking it all up as staff from Heal the Bay’s Healthy Neighborhood gave me a tour of the watershed and communities they’d been working in for the past decade.

The goal of the program is pretty simple. It’s to let people know that there’s a river in their neighborhood that drains to the bay. For a decade we’ve been working alongside teachers, community groups and local non-profits on projects that connect them to the river that for too long society has turned its back on.

A century ago this was one of the braided channels of the Los Angeles River. For the worst part of a century, it has been engineered and re-engineered to carry flood water as quickly as possible from the streets to the ocean — picking up trash and pollutants from city streets along the way. Finally in 2010, after years of advocacy by many groups, the EPA designated the LA River as a “navigable waterway” of the United States. In a sense that marked a turning point when the flood channel became a river once more.  It would now be subject to protections of the Federal Clean Water Act.  Of course, the ducks and birds and animals that use the river are oblivious to the change

There’s a lot of work underway across the watershed to clean it up and bring people down to its banks.  And what’s good for the river is ultimately good for the health of the bay. I’ll be learning more about all of that in the coming weeks and months. Yesterday was a chance for me to begin the process and to start to understand what watersheds are like in the context of a highly urbanized city. If you’d like to get involved in Heal the Bay’s work to understand and protect the bay and its watersheds, you can learn more and sign up for volunteer activities at Heal the Bay’s web-site.  Thank you!