Tag Archives: California

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

What can parks learn from museums?

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to spend a week camping at Grover Hot Springs, travel by train to the California State Rail Road Museum, and visit the new Exploratorium on the waterfront in San Francisco. My excuse has been summer with my sons.  And a great summer it has been!

Exploring color
Exploring color

Anyone with kids knows it can be a challenge to keep them entertained. They can only take so much looking at nature, or big steam trains, before they have you running screaming for the door. I vaguely remember it as a kid also — I loved the museums in London. The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Geology Museum. And if you could find a button to press and make something move you were mesmerized! But mostly it was traipsing around looking at “exhibits” as your parents read out words from the display panels.

Fortunately museums have moved on and become interactive. The Exploratorium, has taken it to a whole knew level. I managed to spend five hours in it with my six year old son enthralled by the countless exhibits. Learning about constellations. color, sound, termites, waves, fog and so much more.  The Exploratorium has been pioneering this kind of interactive learning for decades.

Digging in the dirt
Digging in the dirt

Contrast that to California State Parks that have changed little for decades. We had a wonderful time at Grover Hot Springs, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place for creative play. But somehow you always feel you are breaking the rules. Wading around in creeks as you dam them up  (is it bad for the fish?), climbing rocks (are we off trail?), painting pine cones (will the paint despoil them?), and we simply daren’t make a tree fort even though there are countless downed sticks.  I know enough about habitat and endangered species to understand why this makes sense, in theory. But there has to be a way to find a better balance.

The California State Railroad Museum has made minor inroads. Hidden away in a corner of the second floor is a play area where kids can build and play with Thomas the Tank Engine model trains. It’s where you will find the smart parents and toddlers catching a break before they head back to the “don’t touch” exhibits downstairs.

I believe its time, way past time, to introduce more interactivity into our state parks. We need places where we encourage kids to dam streams, to dig for worms, to climb trees, to build forts, to pick plants and make collages, and to get thoroughly immersed in the park experience.  The best museums have figured this out. As State Parks considers its futures under the Parks Forward initiative, its time to catch up.

 

What’s missing in our playgrounds?

Every day as I drop my oldest son off at school or collect him at the end of the day I walk across a maze of white and yellow lines that mark the playground. Straight lines, perfect curves, right angles and more. My son is beginning to recognize that marks that seemed random at first actually come along with a whole set of rules that describe the lore of the playground. To me it all seem both familiar, and somewhat sterile.

Lines mark space in the playground
Lines mark space in the playground

What fascinates me about the lines is that although similar to what I grew up with, many of the games he plays are as new to me as they are to him. I am having to learn a whole new vocabulary: cherry bombs, water melons, no-holdsies and across the world.  While we played football-against-the-wall, run-across, and if the teacher wasn’t looking “British bulldog,” my son plays four-square, wall-ball and tether ball. He’s starting to learn the elaborate rules that dictated the play — passed on no doubt from one year to another with slight mutations along the way. I wonder if one day he’ll spend as much time talking about “kiss chase” as we did — not that we ever played it of course….

Four Square
Four Square

I was fortunate that our playground had more grass — fields for football, rugby in winter and cricket in summer. They also had trees we’d build bases for our tiny lego-men and hedgerows that bordered the neighboring farmers field.  The greenery and semi-wild spaces added a whole new dimension — a dimension that is lacking in my son’s urban school. As California looks to renovate the failing infrastructure of its schools, I hope it will give some thought as to how the school playground can be transformed into part of the learning environment. Some schools have made a start by incorporating vegetable gardens for the kids. Adding to these tended gardens some wild spaces — the occasional patch of untended grass, dipping pond, or miniature forest groves — would go a long way to bringing nature closer to our kids. In an era when the school day is crammed and money for busing kids on a field trip is tight, anything we can do to enrich the school environment seems like a good option for our kids, their education, and our environment.

Tether Ball
Tether Ball