Tag Archives: Heal the Bay

Is it time to make the initiative process more transparent?

I was just reading an article about the Plastic Bag initiative that recently qualified for the 2016 election. My interest is more than passing, as securing a state-wide ban was a major success while I was at Heal the Bay. It had taken years of work, resulting in a political compromise that was signed into law by Governor Brown last year.

Now it’s on hold after the plastic bag manufacturers put up $3 million – 98% from out-of-state money – to collect the signatures to put it to a vote of the electorate.  The crazy part is that by simply qualifying the initiative the ban is now on hold. By some estimate, every additional year they can sell single-use plastic bags in California generates another $15 million in profit to the manufactures. In other words, for a payment of $3 million they will earn a five-fold return each year. I wish I could get that type of return on my savings account! In fact, the industry will have won handsomely even if they lose in 2016.

I’m not going to rehash the merits of banning plastic bags — that story has been told. And in fact, about half of all Californians live in municipalities that have already banned bags.  But it does again raise the whole question of the initiative process. To me what is most egregious is the misleading way that signatures were gathered. I know because I was asked for mine outside a local Trader Joe. Inside the store the vast majority of people were bringing their re-usable bags, while outside they were being asked whether they could “spare a minute to save jobs.”  I bet most people didn’t know what they were signing or that the person collecting signatures was likely being paid a dollar or more per signature gathered. Or that the jobs issue had been dealt with in the bill that was signed in to law and that it would create new green jobs in California.

There’s a lot of debate at the moment about money in politics as almost limitless amounts slosh around. Much as there’s a desperate need for transparency at the top, I feel it’s past time for transparency in the initiative process. By all means go and collect your signatures. Just make it clear at the point of signing who is behind the initiative and how much the signature gatherer is being paid for you to sign.

A more radical idea is to accept the concept that you can put almost anything on the ballot if you have enough money to spend (or invest as this case shows). As an alternative to the signature gathering process, let’s just have a limited number of slots on each ballot and sell them to the highest bidder. The funds collected could then go to fund voter education programs. Perhaps over time an educated electorate who turned out to vote would slow this craziness.

With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch
With Senator de Leon, Senator Padilla, and Sarah Sikitch at the conference announcing the Bag Ban.

Goodbye Santa Monica Bay: Hello San Francisco Bay

Last week, I was driving along PCH listening to Katy Perry sing about plastic bags floating in the wind and wondering whether that song was about to become history with the stroke of Gov. Brown’s pen.  I looked right at the ocean just before Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades, and there a few yards out two dolphins enjoyed the waves in the light of the early morning. It’s a sight I will cherish, even as I step away from my role as CEO of Heal the Bay and move back to Northern California to be closer to my young kids.

My decision this week to leave Heal the Bay by the end of the calendar year was ultimately an easy one.  We’ve had some big wins in the past year and laid the groundwork for the next phase of work for Heal the Bay.  Alix Hobbs, a 16-year veteran of Heal the Bay who most recently served as chief operating officer, has been promoted immediately to president and CEO.

Alix’s journey from volunteer to Programs and Educations Director to Associate Director to now CEO has given her the ideal perspective to manage across the entire organization. Dorothy Green, our founder and personal friend of Alix, would be proud to know she has assumed the reins.

I am immensely proud of what I’ve accomplished with the staff over the past year.  We’ve had some ground-breaking wins that will forever protect the bay and all of California’s coastal waters.

We led the charge on adoption of a statewide plastic bag ban, the first in the nation.  We have established an ambitious Local Coastal Plan in the Santa Monica Mountains.  And working with our partners in the beach cities, we created a Pier Ambassadors program in the South Bay to educate the general public about sharks in the Bay.

Under my leadership, Heal the Bay has become a more forceful advocate about water supply issues and other drought-related policies. Our science and policy team will continue to integrate these issues throughout all our programs and public initiatives. Heal the Bay will be a major player regionally in educating the public about drought and driving policy in the years to come.

While I will miss the Bay, I know that it’s in safe hands. I will continue to serve as an advisor to the organization through the end of the year.  I am looking forward to Thursday evening soccer practice up in the San Francisco Bay Area, safe in the knowledge that I played a part in making the Santa Monica Bay a safer place for those dolphins.

Out on the Bay

Dodging a Bullet in Atwater Village

In the early hours of Thursday morning, a pipeline carrying oil from Texas to Los Angeles ruptured in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles. Over the course of about 45 minutes 10,000 gallons of oil spilled into the streets creating a noxious lake a half-mile long and knee-deep in places.

It appears that the nearby Los Angeles River was saved by the alert response and quick thinking of the Los Angeles Fire Department. We owe the team a huge debt of thanks. Not only did they get on the scene fast, but they thought creatively about how to stop the oil from flowing into the stormdrain system and hence to the river.

And one stroke of luck also helped. One business in the industrial section just happened to be a cement plant with ample stocks of sand. The fire department deployed the sand to build berms that contained the spill.

Initial reports indicate that the quick response averted potential environmental impacts. But even so, a few neighbors were taken to local hospitals and potential environmental damage is still being assessed.

We applaud all of the first responders. But we also have to ask, is this a risk we’re prepared to take in our communities and our Bay?

As I write this, the residents of the small South Bay city Hermosa Beach are preparing for a referendum on whether to allow Big Oil to sink 34 oil wells in the heart of their city to tap into oil under the Bay. The oil company tells them to not worry, it’s safe and any spills will be quickly contained. You tell me, is this a risk you’d take?

 

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Survey for marine debris draws connection with Japan

Earlier this week, as the mercury hit 90 degrees by the beach, I headed out to Carbon Beach with another Heal the Bay staffer to conduct a marine debris survey – part of a west-coast wide effort by NOAA to monitor for debris from the devastating Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011 . Spoiler alert: I didn’t find any soccer balls with Japanese script.  But I did find an interesting connection to Japan and the early development of the beach.

Marine Debris Survey at Carbon Beach
Marine Debris Survey at Carbon Beach

If you’ve ever been to Carbon Beach in Malibu, you’ll know that it now has some of the most desirable real estate in the world (although if you’ve seen recent sea level rise projections you might question why!). As Melissa and I started to lay out our transect, collect GPS coordinates, measure the distance to the tide, and count trash, a young man walked down from one of the houses that flank the beach.  His wasn’t a massive mansion. Rather it was an older beach home that had been built by his grandparents in 1941.  When he heard what we were doing he paused and then started to share a short story about the history of the home. In 1941 no-one wanted to live on the beach — it was considered the front line of the Pacific theater as people scanned for Japanese planes headed in from the vast ocean. In fact, that house had been the fourth to be built on the beach.  A lot has changed since then. But once again we found ourselves walking the beach looking for signs of our Pacific neighbors. Only this time, they are our friends. It was a good reminder that Santa Monica Bay is part of the vast ocean network that connects us with people thousands of miles away. So what about the trash? The good news is we found very little. Carbon beach doesn’t have the massive storm drains that bring trash from the dense city to the ocean. But despite that we found it — tiny bits of plastic debris that could have come from any place in the world. Even Japan.

Did this tiny speck of plastic float across the Pacific from Japan?
Did this tiny speck of plastic float across the Pacific from Japan?

It looks like Shrek

“It looks like Shrek!” That’s what one of the Compton high schoolers said as he looked down into a rare soft bottom section of Compton Creek.  [and it wasn’t just because the teacher for the day was called Eddie Murphy, although he was]

ComptonCreek 105

The thin ribbon of green, dotted with trees, is pretty rare around here.  As the students studied the map to assess the neighborhood of the creek they noted that parks were pretty uncommon. In this city of almost 100,000 due south of Los Angeles they could recount just three. What’s rarer still is a creek channel that still teems with life.

True the creek has its challenges, sandwiched as it is between high concrete banks, a massive culvert, and a mess of highway and train bridges. But if you spend a few minutes under the shade of the trees you’ll hear birds and bugs all around.

For the better part of a decade, Heal the Bay has been working with the local high school to help them use their local creek as a valuable resource for science and environmental education. Today the students were assessing the condition of the creek — is the water clear? Is there grass underfoot? Trees overhead? And just how much trash has been caught up?  They’re able to link this back to what happens in their neighborhood and how they can help protect the creek and the ocean that lies a few miles downstream.

But for me, what it gets back to is that singular moment when a kid is transported from the concrete jungle and connects with the creek for what it is. A river flowing through their city. Even if that means relating it to a fictional forest on the Hollywood stage. Perhaps next time they see Shrek they’ll remark it’s just like the creek in their backyard!

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Nothin’ but sand

For two hours on saturday morning Santa Monica State Beach was a frenzy of activity.  It was my first time helping out by giving Beach Talks to the 1900 volunteers who came to clean up the beach for Earth Day.   I joined dozens of Heal the Bay volunteers to get folks orientated.

Every 10 minutes another group would be shuttled over and my job was to tell them a little bit about how the trash came to be on the beach — the storm drain system — and how to stay safe in the water.

I asked every group how many had been to a clean-up before. Turns out not many.  I’d estimate 90 percent of people were out for their first Earth Day coastal clean-up. I could tell from the smiles and the high fives they were here to have fun and to give back to the Earth.EarthDayCleanUp 093

On Earth Day lets hear it for the Ocean.

 

My six-year old son asked one day, why do they call it Earth when it’s mostly covered with water? He has a point. 71 percent of the Earth is covered by water. Of all the water on Earth, the ocean’s hold 96.5 percent.  Take one thing we can’t live without: oxygen. Did you know that between 50 and 85 percent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from phytoplankton and algae in the ocean?

So on this Earth Day, let’s remember the Oceans and all they do for us each and every day.

On The Bay 087

 

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.

Hyperion
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!