Tag Archives: parks

We need to redesign our water bills to drive conservation

Our water bill for the end of the year was among mail delivered after our trip to England.  “Great,” I thought. “I can see how our efforts to save water are adding up.”

I’d never really looked at the bill before, beyond figuring out how much to pay. But this time I took a harder look. With the drive to conserve I was expecting clear information on the bill to help me understand how our household is doing. How wrong I was.  All you get is the number of gallons a day: 162.

So is that good? Bad? Indifferent? How does it compare to last year? To my neighbors? To what an efficient household would look like?

At first it had me pulling out my phone and searching the web for comparisons. But to be honest, that’s not much help as different countries and regions use different metrics. What I wanted was something relevant to where I live.

In the end I turned the bill over and in small print it tells you how to compare water use. Bingo!  Again, wrong.

First up I’d need to know whether the bill was for the “winter indoor use” period or not. It let me know that 45 gallons per person per day is considered “efficient” and 35 gallons “super-efficient” for indoor use.  Outside the winter use period, I’d also have to calculate my outdoor allowance by measuring the area of lawn and shrub. Each 100 sq. ft. of lawn is multiplied by 12 (if I’m west of the hills) or 13 (east of the hills) and each 100 sq. ft. of shrub by 8 (west) and 7 (east).

Sound complicated? You bet!  First up, I was unclear if my bill was considered “winter” or not as it included part of December which it told me is the winter period. With Pinole being in the hills I was unclear whether I should use the equation for “west” or “east.”  And since it was raining I wasn’t going to drag a tape measure outside to measure the area of shrubs. The lawn is easy. We have none.

So in the end I kept it simple and focused on the indoor use comparison, which turned our to be 46 gallons per person per day.  Just a shade over the efficient mark.  I  guess that good.

But even then I was left wondering how it compared to the last period, or last year, or my neighbors. Or what I could do to get to “super efficient.”

I care about this stuff and I struggled. If we’re to get serious about conservation in California we need to make this simple and automatic. There’s no excuse that our water bills don’t come with comparative information. They don’t need to know how many people live in each home, but it would be easy to include a quick table that did the calculation for you. When I see these type of changes I’ll know that conservation has become a way of life for my water company. Come on East Bay Municipal Utility District – I know you can do better!

Do you have any good examples of water bills you can share?



What does the American Civil War have to do with a park at the geographic center of the UK?

The history of place fascinates me. Especially when that place is a park.

On a recent trip to Williamson Park in Lancaster, England, I picked up another fascinating park foundation story. It’s a surprising one as it spans both centuries and miles. It connects an ornate memorial that I have passed countless times driving up the M6, to the American Civil War, and to that classic kitchen flooring – linoleum.

Northern England in the nineteenth century was home to a thriving cotton industry.  The fortune of whole towns was based upon the fortune of the mill. When the American Civil War broke out the flow of cotton from the southern States stopped and many local residents lost their jobs as the mills closed.

In Lancaster, the cotton famine stopped the mills owned by James Williamson Sr. and his son James Williamson Jr. They specialized in coated cotton products — James Williamson Jr. would go on to be known as the “lino king” and eventually became 1st Baron Ashton.  In what is an early example of a public works project (albeit privately run), the displaced mill workers were employed to convert a disused quarry on Lancaster Moor into Williamson Park.

The park is well worth a visit. If you’re a collector of geographic oddities, it’s worth noting that it’s very close to the geographic center of the United Kingdom. And from the outdoor balconies of the ornate memorial he built to his wife, you get glorious views across the sands of Morecambe Bay to the Lakeland hills — that is, if it’s not raining!

The Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, Lancaster



How will climate change affect California’s park visitation?

This year’s warm and dry winter is expected to become the norm in the future. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time up at Tahoe and most recently among the north coast redwoods. My anecdotal observation is the weather this year is already affecting tourism and our public agencies have yet to catch up.

The lack of snow in the mountains drove people down to the lake shore where the visitor facilities remained closed for the season. At the Emerald Bay overlook, the parking lot was closed and cars were double-parked along the road causing a traffic jam in both directions. While the parking lot for Vikingsholm was open it was as busy as I have seen it during the summer. The house itself was closed and there were no park staff to be seen to greet the hundreds of visitors.

Up on the north coast, the Prairie Creek campground was partially open — and already full by late afternoon. The camp hosts told me they’d be turning people away rather than opening up the second loop as the maintenance crews hadn’t got in yet to open up the additional campsites.

If this year is repeated and becomes the new normal, our public agencies are going to have to change the way they manage the parks. We’ll have to be nimble enough to open them up earlier in the season as the weather, and visitors, demand. More park visitation is perhaps one bright spot in an otherwise bleak future.

Emerald Bay State Park - one of the gems of the State Park System
Emerald Bay State Park – one of the gems of the State Park System

Want to find 30 great parks near you?

Want to get outside this weekend and enjoy some time in the park? Perhaps to ride some single track, or take the dog for a walk? Well unless you know your parks pretty well, you can spend as much time visiting different web-sites to figure out where you can go to do what as you do actually in the park. That’s where this great new web-site — CaliParks.org — comes in.

Take the Bay Area as an example. We have National Parks, State Parks, Regional Parks, City Parks, and more.  Lots to choose from, but it can quickly get confusing.  At this new web-site, just click on what you’re interested in, enter your address, and you’ll quickly get a list of up to 30 local parks, along with a map, and links to social media feeds about the park.

It’s a great resource for anyone who’d prefer to spend more time on the trail, and less time figuring out where to go. Thanks to the team who put this together. Especially the Parks Forward Commission and my friends at GreenInfo Network who provided the mapping data that lies at the core of this great new site!

Now time to find a great place to enjoy in the rain!

Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational
Playing amid the woods, Roberts Recreational

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

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

Time to get Mobile…..in the Park

And I am not talking about cell phones. I am talking about a growing trend among mobile visitor centers.  This goes way beyond capitalizing on the trendiness of mobile everything — think food trucks, espresso carts, etc. It’s really about meeting the changing needs of the park visitor. The mobile center can move around a park based upon where the people are at any particular time of year — and of course, being mobile they can also take the park to the visitor.  I even saw the East Bay Regional Park District’s mobile center taking part in the annual Fourth of July Parade on Alameda Island.

East Bay Park District on the move
East Bay Park District on the move

I can also imagine that its cost and time efficient. A 2001 report from the GAO summarized construction costs for 80 visitor centers underway in National Parks at that time. They ranged from $500,000 to $39 million — averaging at a little over $6 million. That’s a lot of money, leave aside the time it takes to obtain the permits, bid the job, construct the building and commission the exhibits. Its likely that by the time its completed, its already out of date!

Contrast that to a mobile center that can be designed, fabricated and deployed much more rapidly. I don’t have cost estimates, but believe food trucks can start at around $50,000 fully kitted out.  That leaves a lot of change — even from the cheapest traditional visitor center.  I would love to see these become common-place: spending there weekends and summers in the parks, and there weekdays visiting schools, city parks and more.

It’s time parks got out of the mindset of the traditional visitor center and started thinking about creative new ways of delivering services to the people in cost-effective ways. The mobile visitor center is a great start!

Learning in the (skateboard) park

Cruising in the skateboard park
Cruising in the skateboard park

Parks come in all shapes and sizes and I never thought I would be having this much fun in a skateboard park.

I don’t know what possessed me, but there I was with my six year old son strapping on pads while we watched the other guys (and they were all guys) practice tricks on their skateboards.  I had even warned my son that he was on his own on this one as I had been on a board perhaps once, and that was at least three decades ago.  My son on a “trixie” board as he calls it, and me on a longboard (supposedly more stable for us old folks).

Growing up, skateboarders were those punk kids who terrorized the neighborhood and insisted on riding places the signs said they should not. Perhaps that’s still true some places, but somehow the whole sport seems to have matured. Half the people riding in the park were in their twenties (or older) and all were friendly and slightly bemused by the sight of us two. By some strange coincidence a number of the guys were pro’s — yes, they made a (decent) living riding boards. Theotis Beasley even signed my son’s first board. Not sure it was the message I was hoping my son would take away from this — but its a good reminder that excellence comes in many shapes and forms.

After a few valiant attempts to teach everything I had learned from a 3 minute 41 second YouTube video on starting to skateboard, a five year old came over and took charge. A few minutes later and my son was making his first tentative turns. “You know,” he said, “It’s OK for a five year old to teach a six year old because we’re all good at different things.” Pretty profound lesson from the skatepark.

Free beach access: who should pay?

A battle is underway in Sonoma County over expanding charges for parking at Sonoma Coast State Beach. The battle is pitting two state mandates against one another and playing out in a community that strongly supports parks and open space.

First we have the coastal act, passed into law in 1976, that seeks to:

Maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources, conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.

Many have interpreted this to mean providing free access to ensure its equitable.

Sonoma Coast State Beach suffered service reductions due to budget woes (Celticcsu / Flikr)

On the other side we have the Department of Parks and Recreation that manages more 280 miles of California’s coastline — that’s about 30% of the total.  In the last few decades the departments budget has failed to keep pace with either population growth or growth in the park system, finally leading to park closures and service reductions in the past few years. One of the parks that suffered service reductions was Sonoma Coast State Beach.

As part of a rescue package approved by the legislature, the Department has been asked to look at ways to become more self-sufficient. And that often means charging the users fees for things like park and day-use access. One of the parks it is looking at expanding fee collection for parking is Sonoma Coast State Beach. It makes sense that they look there — after all, it is one of the most visited parks in the system.  Fees collected there would support the local park, and help the system as a whole become more fiscally solvent.  One of the challenges is it’s hard to get to the beaches without jumping in your car.

To date, the proposal has been unanimously rejected by the Sonoma Zoning Board and the Board of Supervisors.  You can hardly blame the citizens in Sonoma — after all, they supported the 2010 failed effort to create a stable public funding source for state parks.  It’s now up to the Department to determine whether to appeal to the State Coastal Commission.

I certainly have sympathies for those advocating for free access — after all, who doesn’t like free? I do!  But unless California’s  are ready to provide additional funding for state parks through general taxation, the choice is really between no access and charging. And here the Department is proposing charging for parking not access per se.  For the foreseeable future I don’t see a scenario whereby parks gets a bigger share of the general fund. And I certainly don’t see a scenario whereby Californians vote to raise taxes to fund parks.

It’s time to get creative and accept that sometimes its worth paying for things we value. Once users start seeing the fees pumped back into the park to fix restrooms, mend broken beach staircases and spruce up signage hopefully they’ll become supporters.  This  doesn’t mean we should turn our back on the question of equitable access. No-one wants price to be a bar to entry. But rather than subsidizing those who can afford the $7 parking fee, lets find a way of targeting free day-use passes to those who really cannot afford to pay.  Or working with local groups to operate a park-and-ride, perhaps even subsidized by the parking fee. Over time I am convinced that investing in our parks will foster a stronger group of supporters who just might vote “yes” in the future for greater public support.

To me, one final irony in all this is that it pits the Department against the Sonoma County Board and potentially against the Coastal Commission. They all should be allies in this — after all, they all seek to promote safe and equitable access to the coast. The only question is who is going to pay.

Sonoma Coast State Beach turnout
Sonoma Coast State Beach welcomes over a million visitors a year (Grant Loy / Flick)

Can birds and people live together in California’s first state park?

After many years of work, countless hearings, and reams of analysis the California State Park and Recreation Commission approved the Big Basin General Plan on May 17, 2013.  I have followed this planning process on and off for 15 years (yes, 15 years).  It was always going to be controversial. After all, California’s first state park had never had a general plan before despite more than 100 years of public use. At various times the park has housed a swimming pool, dance hall, and cabins.  Most of these are now gone, but their memory persists for many people.  The question now was what level of use is appropriate for the 21st century?  It was no surprise then that on June 19th the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the state and the Big Basin General Plan for failing to protect an endangered sea bird: the marbled murrelet.

New Year's Eve marbled murrelet
The elusive marbled murrelet lives on the ocean and in the redwoods

The park is significant in the history of the marbled murrelet. It was in the park in 1974 that a group of biologists made a remarkable discovery. They found the elusive marbled murrelet nesting on the mossy limb of an ancient Douglas-fir. Until that time, no-one knew where this sea-bird made its nest. It was, I believe, the last bird in north America to hold on to its nesting secret. The murrelet hasn’t fared so well over the past century as much of its nesting habitat — the limbs of ancient redwoods and Douglas-fir — have been logged. It now makes its last stand in protected redwood groves.  Big Basin redwoods state park happens to be its southerly hold-out.

While the trees in the park are protected, the murrelet continues to decline. The exact factors are unknown, but most scientists believe that predation by jays and ravens plays a significant role. Jays and ravens are attracted to human food and can maintain high populations feeding off our picnic scraps and food waste. Once we leave, these voracious birds are known to seek out birds eggs — including those of the murrelet.

So what to do? Should we remove all human use from the park? Ban picnics? Stop people camping among the trees?  It can be easy to say, “yes.” And while the law suite filed by CBD doesn’t go quite that far, it does open the question of significantly reducing the level of human use and activity in the park.

I for one think that is short-sighted. If we exclude people from the parks we will erode support. It also sends a message that we can’t live with wildlife. I believe it is better to use parks as places to demonstrate how we can live with wildlife and send people home better able to do that in their daily lives.  After all, food waste and trash is not only an issue in a park — it’s an issue everywhere people live.

I am sure that State Parks can do more can be done to protect the bird, but excluding people will do little to build the community of supporters needed to protect both the park, and the bird, long-term.  It’s time to get back to the table and develop a solution for Big Basin that protects this iconic bird and leaves space for people.

Murrelets nest in the limbs of ancient redwoods like these
Murrelets nest in the limbs of ancient redwoods like these