Tag Archives: California

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 When the bill finally arrives, it’s months out of date.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

Paying to park

In the past week, I’ve visited a couple of great parks.  ‘Akaka Falls State Park on the Big Island in Hawaii and Point Lobos State Park, here in California.  Both are much loved and much visited parks. Both have small parking lots and in both instances many people park outside along the road. Both charge for parking, and both have a $1 fee for visitors on foot.

But the Californian park does it differently: and I argue not as well. The $1 is a “suggested donation” in California whereas in Hawaii its mandatory. So why do I think the $1 should be mandatory?

Please donate $1 to support the park
Please donate $1 to support the park

In Hawaii there was a friendly person to talk to to learn more about the park as you paid your money. The funds provide a job for someone in the park and provide funding to maintain the park.

In California, there’s a small sign suggesting you put a donation in the iron ranger. I had $20 and no small bills. So the park lost out.  But it wasn’t just the park that lost out.  I am all for  keeping access to parks affordable for all.  But paying a nominal amount to get into the park can actually enhance the visitors experience by giving you a point of contact, it can provide entry-level jobs in the parks, and provide support to maintain the park. That’s a win-win-win.

Come on California. You have a world-class park system, but in many ways it is far behind the times.  What do you think? Should access be free for all? Or do you share my view that a small fee can be an win all around?

420' 'Akaka Falls tumbles down through the rain forest.
420′ ‘Akaka Falls tumbles down through the rain forest.

 

Is this the most perfect meeting of land and sea in the world?
Is this the most perfect meeting of land and sea in the world?

 

Drought bites at 11,050 feet

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The Siberian Outpost, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

High up in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and the Golden Trout Wilderness the drought is taking hold. I spent most of Memorial Day weekend above 10,000 feet.  The snow has largely gone, the wild flowers are almost non existent and the barren bones of the Sierra Nevada are laid bare.

The Big Whitney Meadow and the aptly named Siberian Outpost are starkly beautiful, even if they lack the flush of spring that normally visits the Sierra at this time of year.  It really brought home to me that we’re in the midst of a vicious drought. Not only have we lost the snow pack, but the water that is normally stored in these high alpine meadows is also dwindling. I was a visitor. But it’s going to be a long hot summer for the golden eye trout and marmots that call these meadows home.

Snow Marker 251 - Cottonwood Pass
Snow Marker 251 – Cottonwood Pass

 

Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness
Big Whitney Meadow, Golden Trout Wilderness

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.

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?

What color is SoCal?

I was playing around with photos and my blog and had an ah ha moment.

The color palette for a day at the beach matched that for a day miles inland at a old ranch turned into park land.  At the beach you have sand, water and waves. On the ranch, desiccated grass, sky and clouds.  The elements may be arranged differently, but the colors are so similar. To me it is the colors of late fall in southern California.

Hikers enjoy Ahmanson Ranch

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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.

Ahmanson Ranch 090

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.

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

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