Tag Archives: restoration

Sea Level Rise Impacts Infrastructure Today

Unfortunately I didn’t have my phone with me earlier today when I ran past the crew working on the main train line from the Bay Area to Sacramento and then on to the rest of the United States.  But I wasn’t surprised to see them. Why?

The tracks run right along the shore of the Bay through Pinole. I’ve always loved this stretch of the train ride to Sacramento, but until recently I hadn’t fully comprehended just how close to shore they run.

One recent weekend we took the boys along the beach, past the salt marsh, and to a point where the track ballast is literally falling into the Bay.  The rack line that marks high tide was the give away — a recent tide had deposited debris on to the ballast.  That was the mark from a 6.9 foot tide on January 9th.

A 6.9 foot high tide deposits debris on the mainline to Sacramento

Ten days later, the King Tide on January 21st hit +7.2 feet.  That’s another 4 inches above the line we saw. It’s no wonder then that Union Pacific crews were working diligently at that spot to repair the damage from repeated inundations.  It’s certain that they’ll be back with increasing frequency in the coming years and decades.

It had me thinking about the engineers who laid these tracks. They weren’t stupid. They understood where sea level was and would certainly have accounted for high tides. The sheltered location means they didn’t have to concern themselves about storm surges. But they didn’t have sea level rise in their engineering guides. Over the 100 years since these tracks were laid, sea level at the Golden Gate Bridge has increased by 8 inches.  It’s clear to me that this modest 6 inch rise explains Union Pacific’s conundrum today.

Looking ahead, it’s projected that sea level in the Bay may rise by as much as 55 inches.  I don’t think any amount of maintenance will save this section of track against that sort of change.  Short of raising it up on trestles, I don’t see where else they can thread the line through the crowded Bay Area. But at least raising it would enable the low lying open space that lies behind the line to be returned to wetlands to protect the adjacent communities.

And speaking of wetlands, my friends and colleagues at Save the Bay, have led a consortium that is seeking to pass a region-wide parcel tax to raise funds for Bay land restoration. One of the key arguments for passing the $12 parcel tax, which will raise $500 million over 20 years, is that restoration is desperately needed to protect the infrastructure that rings the bay.  In the coming weeks I’ll be looking more closely at the measure, and in particular exploring how it can help my local community prepare for sea level rise.

Trains are fun: but sticks are way cooler.

What’s up with Archangel?

This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood
This tiny seed contains the genetic code to grow a new coast redwood

David Milarch is at it again: evangelizing about the need to clone super trees to save the world from climate change. This time he has taken his message across the atlantic and touched down in Britain. According to an article in the Observer, he’s backed by Richard Branson,  the founder of the Eden project, and is even meeting with Prince Charles’ forestry advisors. I hope these luminaries see Mr. Milarch and his Archangel project for what it is: a distraction from the real issues facing forests around the world.

Mr. Milarch came and met with me a number of years ago while I was running Save the Redwoods League. His offer was simple: join him in saving the redwoods through cloning.  As an aside, he went on to say if we didn’t join him he’d make the League irrelevant as he would be the savior of the redwoods.  Despite the fact I don’t like veiled threats, I listened and we talked. Then as now, I had concerns about his approach and ultimately  declined to join his project.

Since then, Archangel has been racing to clone super trees that plant in groves around the world. They theorize that because these champion trees have survived for so long they are our best bet to reforest the Earth and soak up all the excess carbon dioxide we continue to emit.  For me, that is taking the science a step too far.  Forest conservation and management have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. But putting all our eggs in the cloning basket is just too risky. Clones are, by definition, genetically identical. A disease that takes out one will take out them all. And just because an individual tree has survived what nature has thrown at if for the past 1,000 years doesn’t mean its best adapted for the novel conditions coming in the next 100 years, let alone next 1,000 years.  Much better to protect the rich genetic diversity of all forests, rather than focus on a few superlatives.

12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare
12 people stand on the Fieldbrook stump with room to spare

Without a doubt Archangel has done some interesting work. Take the example of the Fieldbrook stump. Perhaps the largest redwood ever to live, and now a decaying stump in farmland near Arcata California. Archangel has resurrected this tree and plans to plant clonal copies around the world. It would be a talking point to have a copy in your garden for sure! The cloning work itself is interesting, but by no means ground-breaking — gardeners have been cloning plants and trees with cuttings for centuries after all.

So by all means support the work of Mr. Millarch and Archangel, but please don’t lose sight of what it really is:  Creating museum copies of a small handful of nature’s wonders. If you really want to help the Earth’s forests and battle climate change there are much better places to invest your money.

Read my previous post on cloning here: http://wp.me/p2V0ap-8Q

Restoring Mono Lake

It’s summer in California — time to soak up the sun and spend time outdoors. Knowing it is not going to rain for months is so different for me than growing up in England. It means you can plan ahead and not have to have a rain plan!

But the lack of year-round rain also means California has gone to extreme lengths to re-plumb much of the state to capture and store water from the mountains and the northland where the water is and deliver it to the southland where the people are. In the process there have been some pretty devastating consequences to our natural areas. Much of the debate at present is centered on the Bay Delta system — to build a peripheral canal or not. But that’s not the only big decision coming up.

A few weeks ago I stopped by Mono Lake on my way back from the east side of the Sierra. This jewell-like lake in the high desert has got to be one of the most unusual places in California what with its tufa towers, brine shrimp ecosystem, gull colonies, and lack of outfall. And since 1941 it’s also been plumbed in to the Los Angeles water supply system.

Gull Colonies at Mono Lake
Gull Colonies at Mono Lake

Since 1941, the city of Los Angeles has diverted water from the four creeks that feed this lake to feed its growing thirst. As the water was diverted, the lake level started to drop. Things got dire in the 1970s following a doubling of the capacity of the pipes that take water south under gravity flow. The water level reached 45 feet below normal levels and everything started to unravel. The island that contained one of the most important breeding grounds for sea gulls in the west became a peninsula and the coyotes moved in, decimating the bird population. And the receding lake line exposed saline flats that when whipped up by the wind led to air quality in the basin failing to meet state standards.

MonoLake 060As a result of litigation by the Mono Lake Committee, Audubon, California Trout and others, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered L.A. Water and Power to start restoring the damaged area. Interim measures like barbed-wire fences to keep the coyotes out were laughable. What was needed to raise the lake level by reducing diversions. The agreement had the lake level pegged at 25 feet below the pre-diversion levels — enough to flood the peninsula and cover the saline flats. But not enough to restore a fully functioning ecosystem.

According to the staff at the visitor center, that 20-year agreement will be up for renewal next year. Despite 20 years of progress and water conservation in Los Angeles, the lake level has yet to reach the agreed upon level. Let’s hope that the next 20 years sees more progress and even as LA continues to grow, Mono Lake can be restored in time to its pre-diversion levels.

Restoring Iraq’s marshes restores a way of life

It’s not often you see a good story come out of Iraq. Especially one focused on restoring an ecosystem and a way of life.  But on the heels of a particularly bloody month in Iraq, the BBC is reporting just such a story.

It is the story of the restoration of the marshlands of the Tigris-Euphrates. Some believe that these very marshlands were the inspiration for the Garden of Eden in both the Bible and Koran. Perhaps also the site of the biblical flood. Although they are in distant country better know for conflict, there loss would be a loss for all of us. 

Ma'dan village comprised of traditional mudhif reed houses and community structures made by the Ma'dan people (also known as Marsh Arabs) in the swamps of southern Iraq

I have only been to Baghdad once — about a month before the start of the first Gulf War in 1991. I had been stuck in Kuwait for months — forced into hiding with my father. Finally I was on my long way back to England.  No doubt I had other things on my mind at the time as I flew over the marshes of the Tigris-Euphrates. At that time while the marshes had seen been disrupted due to irrigation projects, they were still the home to a number of Marsh Arab tribes opposed to the Baathist regime.

That soon changed. Following a failed uprising after the first Gulf War, the regime started a systematic campaign to drain the marshes to eliminate the tribes food supply and places of refuge. Marsh draining is common-place around the world — often in order that “unproductive” marsh land can be brought into use as rich cropland. But this was different. This was designed to break a way of life that had gone on for millennia.  The regime almost succeeded in destroying the marshes and wiping these people out. The population of marsh arabs dropped from 500,000 in the 1950s to fewer than 20,000. But now as part of the post-war recovery effort, the marshes are being flooded and a way of life is slowly starting to come back.

It’s gratifying to read these positive stories. It is also a good reminder that restoring the Earth and its natural systems restores our connection to our past. In this case, just perhaps back to the mythical Garden of Eden.

Marsh Arab


photos: James Gordon; Salim Virji. sourced from Flickr.



Can we halt animal extinction by restoring forests?

An article on the London-based Guardian website caught my eye last week. Having completed an exhaustive study in the Brazilian Amazon, scientists have determined that even if deforestation halted across the region overnight, dozens of species are doomed to disappear. To put it simply, when their homes are removed, the species can hang on for a while, but over time competition for food increases, breeding rates fall and a slow death sentence lingers over them. It makes for grim reading. But the story does end on a positive note: “to prevent species extinctions it is necessary to take advantage of the window of opportunity for forest regeneration. Restored forests . . . gradually recover species richness.”

Selection harvest in Mendocino County.
Selection harvest in Mendocino County. Photo by Suzette Cook

Nowhere is this truer than in the redwood forests, some of the most productive forests in the world. I also feel we are at a turning point in the history of the redwoods.

The story of the redwoods is a familiar one. In a little more than a century, 95 percent of the ancient forest was logged at least once. The places that survived were either too difficult to get to, beloved by some family who made sure they were not logged, or purchased by groups like Save the Redwoods League. The extinction threat in the redwoods is very real, and species including the endangered marbled murreletnorthern spotted owl and wild coho salmon live with it daily.

Today across much of the landscape, the redwood forest is slowly recovering. This is happening in parks and reserves – places set aside for their natural qualities. For instance, atMill Creek the League and our conservation partners are 10 years into an ambitious program torestore wildness to this 25,000-acre former tree farm by removing roads and giving young forests a helping hand. And recovery is also underway on lands owned by the timber companies. Yes they still log – after all, most of us love wood, and personally I prefer to know that it comes from a responsibly managed forest that I can go and see, rather than some unknown far-off land. But California’s timber companies have fundamentally changed the way they log – for the better – and are also working to remove the scars from former bad practices, for instance by restoring salmon spawning habitat formerly blocked by culverts.

If we are to provide a lifeboat for these species to make it through the coming extinction threat, it is critical that we work together across whole landscapes. We can no longer separate the parks from the timberlands and think of them separately. After all, birds and fish can’t read our maps and make little distinction between a young forest in park and a young forest in timberland. If the past 100 years of redwood conservation have been defined by conflict and forest degradation, I am optimistic that the next 100 years will be defined by collaboration andrecovery. You can learn more about my outlook by reading the keynote I gave last year at the League-sponsored science symposium, The Coast Redwood Forests in a Changing California.

[first published on “Giant Thoughts,” Save the Redwoods League, July 7, 2012]