Tag Archives: environment

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.

Hyperion 003

Geeking out with Stream Team

STREAM-TEAM-LOGO-4c_2Science is cool, and laboratories are cooler.  I always enjoyed being in the laboratory at school. Watching chemicals react as they are mixed together. Or recording how the intensity of a laser beam changed when passed through saline solutions of different strength.  After many years away, I was back in the lab this weekend with Heal the Bay’s StreamTeam and it was both fun and informative!

Since 1998, scientists and volunteers at Heal the Bay have been monitoring water quality throughout the Malibu Creek watershed. Tracking nutrient and bacteria loads on a monthly basis in more than a dozen different locations. Earlier this year, they released the State of the Watershed report based upon this long-term dataset with detailed recommendations on how to improve water quality throughout the watershed.  One thing that is critical is continuing the monthly monitoring work.

I was part of the small team — mostly volunteers — that went out last Sunday to collect and analyze water samples. It was fascinating to be part of the whole process from field measurement through to the laboratory work.  We measured temperature, pH and conductivity in the field and collected samples to determine nutrient loads and bacteria count back in the lab.

Stream Team

It was great to see different parts of the watershed. From the relatively undeveloped headwaters, through the main-stem that flows through neighborhoods, to the lower reaches impounded behind an old dam that is now choked with sediment. But what was really fun was being back in the lab to process the samples. There’s something very therapeutic about the detailed and replicable work to process dozens of samples to unlock their secrets.  Adding a little of this and watching the clear water turn to purple to indicate the presence of nitrates. Or diluting the samples and encasing them in plastic pouches so the bacteria can incubate overnight and then be counted.

The results clearly show that how we live on the land has a big impact on the quality of the water. Agriculture, development, roads, sewers, septic. It’s all connected and leaves its markers behind in the water. Water that to the untrained eye looks clean. But the lab tells a different story.

If you’re interested, why not sign up for one of Heal the Bay’s training sessions and become a citizen scientists helping unlock the secrets of this watershed?  You’ll be helping out and having a lot of fun at the same time!

Bacteria samples Shaking it up

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

What’s up with conservation?

For the past 15 years I have immersed myself in the conservation of the redwoods – those magnificent trees that have graced the Earth for millenia and continue to inspire visitors today. For six years as executive director of Save the Redwoods League, I was privileged to lead the movement to protect these natural wonders. Along the way I helped raise $100 million for redwood conservation, protected tens of thousands of acres of forests and open-space, forged new conservation partnerships, introduced thousands of kids to the redwoods — many for the first time, and helped advance our understanding of these forests. Despite these successes, the challenges ahead are significant.

For me, one of the most significant challenges is defining the relationship of people to place. For too long the conservation community has separated people from place. To put it crudely, many conservationists love places more than they love people.  And when we protect a place its all too common to exclude people.  This is where parks come in — in America, parks are the people’s places. Owned by no one individual, we’re all invited to use them. But even here, the pendulum has swung a long way in the direction of strict protection to the exclusion of people’s enjoyment.  Clearly we need to ensure the natural resources are protected for the future, but its time to let people back in to define how they want to use and enjoy the parks that are protected by and for them. With a growing population, a rapidly changing climate, and increased pressures on land, this is no easy task!  But for conservation to succeed long-term we need to succeed at this.

I plan to take my experience in the redwoods and elsewhere to explore this area and answer the question, “what’s up with conservation today?”

Oaks and Ashes and Chestnuts, oh my!

A recent article in the Observer, “Die-back kills off 90% of Denmark’s ash trees,” had me both remembering my childhood and thinking ahead to the future of the redwood forest.  Growing up in Britain, I remember the scourge of Dutch elm disease that killed more than 25 million trees after a virulent new strain of the disease arrived from North America in the late 1960s.  The Elm was one of the most distinctive  English countryside trees –  immortalized in great paintings – as well as a widely planted city tree. It was sad to watch the elm disease take hold, but this somehow seemed inevitable once it was loosed in the environment.   Of course, here in the states, the American chestnut was similarly blighted and mature trees are now rare.  The ash, elm and chestnut all succumbed to exotic pathogens harking from Asia.  When introduced into new territory the pathogens took off and have had a devastating effect on individual trees and the forests in which that tree species is a key element. Countless hours and millions of dollars have been spent to first control and then breed resistant trees, with mixed success.

Sudden oak death in Marin County, California. Photo by USFS Region 5, Flickr Creative Commons
Sudden oak death in Marin County, California. Photo by USFS Region 5, Flickr Creative Commons

Here in the coast redwoods of California, a similar story is unfolding with tanoak, which is one of the species most seriously affected by sudden oak death.  While the redwoods steal the spotlight, the tanoak is a critical part of many redwood forests.  Native Americans sought out its acorns; it was a mainstay of the early tanning industry; and its nuts are a key part of the food base for many species that inhabit the redwood forest. Its loss will have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Sudden oak death started in a few isolated spots and is now spreading widely – recently being found in the Mattole and Grizzly Creek watersheds in Humboldt County.

So what are we to do?  We can all play a part in slowing the spread of the pathogen, for instance by not taking mud from infected areas to new areas on our boots or car (simple bleach does the trick). For the League’s part we’re promoting research to better understand theimpacts it has on the forest.  But ultimately a water and air-borne pathogen doesn’t need us to get about in these fog-bathed forests.  Probably the most important thing we can do is to make sure that the spaces vacated by any dying oak, are taken up with native trees and shrubs rather than other invasive plants like broom, pampas, or Eucalyptus.  At some point, we’ll have to accept this new invader and the change that it is bringing to the forest. As we know, the only constant in nature is change.

[originally published on Save the Redwood League, “Giant Thoughts” blog, 10/9/2012]