Tag Archives: Santa Monica Bay

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?

Snarl on PCH helps heal the bay

Traffic waiting to get on to PCHIt’s not often that a warning sign on my daily commute makes me happy. But this one did: In bold orange letters, it declared “Avoid PCH South of Temescal 4-15-14 to 2-15-15.” Anyone who knows the Pacific Coast Highway knows that is essentially impossible in Los Angeles. So why was I happy? Because this time, the big orange warning was a beacon of hope for the Bay.

A lot of construction is pretty mundane — filling pot holes or adding lanes so you can get to the next jam a little faster. This one, however, does something more important that will benefit millions every year. Let me explain.

Every day when I drive along the Bay there are a few places near the shoreline at creek and stormdrain outlets where water collects in the sand. Sometimes even at the end of summer these pools still lurk, rife with bacteria. One of these is right where Chautauqua Boulevard meets the Bay in Santa Monica Canyon. This stagnant pool is caused runoff from the canyon that has bypassed the current low-flow diversion. Upstream there are about 1,600 acres that drain to this one point. In a significant rainstorm the channel will breach the sandbar and flush a toxic soup of trash, bacteria and heavy metals into the Bay. But even in dry weather, without a properly maintained low-flow diversion this channel can seep the runoff from our daily lives — leaky pipes, irrigation water, washing your car – directly to the beach. All that water flows downstream, gathering nutrients and pollutants, until it hits the beach, resulting in a ponded area that attracts birds and other fecal bacteria sources. Authorities then advise everyone to keep away due to high bacteria levels. It’s a public health nuisance on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

Once this project is completed that stagnant pool will be history. The City of Los Angeles is about to embark on an $8 million, nine-month project to extend a 48-inch sewer line that that will divert all dry season runoff to the Hyperion treatment plant. Some of it will even be treated locally to provide irrigation water for the surrounding community. This is the next phase of the $20 million Coastal Interceptor Relief Sewer. When completed, it will help keep bacteria levels in Santa Monica Bay down and help protect your health every time you visit the beach.

For the past 29 years, Heal the Bay has been leading the charge to clean up this pollution by establishing strict pollution limits and by working with public agencies to secure the funding needed to upgrade our aging infrastructure. There’s much more work to be done, but this is an important next step.

I think a little traffic is a small price to pay to help protect the health of people who visit these beaches every year. I’ll report back next year and let you know how it worked.

So next time you’re stuck in traffic on PCH, remember that a healthier Bay is on its way…even if you’re not.

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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!

Finally On the Bay

For the last eight weeks or so I have been looking at the Bay from the shore.  True, I have enjoyed playing in the waves and swimming along the shore, but today was my first chance to get out into the Bay. I joined our aquarium team on one of their weekly collecting trips — getting kelp to feed the animals in the aquarium. As our aquariumist, Jose, says, it’s the weekly trip to the farmers market.

The Bay, and indeed the oceans, give us so much. After all they cover 71% of the planet and give us everything from the oxygen we breath, to the fish we eat, to the natural substances that thicken Jello. The list goes on. But a few hours on the bay gave me something different.  A profound sense of the wonder of the ocean.

It really is a different world out there. The solid earth is replaced by the ever shifting fluid ocean. Wave upon wave. The powerful forces gently lifting our 14 foot dingy up and down as we leaned over the side straining for the kelp. The constantly changing play of light and shade on the water as the clouds and sun slid over head. Where we first encountered the kelp, the long tendrils reaching for the light lay down when they reached the surface– causing the ripples to flatten out leaving a glassy surface. The seals, sea birds, and even the odd kelp crab were at home out there. I was a grateful visitor.

Bobbing around on the surface of the vastness of the ocean gave me the same sense of walking amid the redwood giants. A sense of being a tiny part of the wonderful world.

On The Bay 087

What did $150 million buy in 2003? And was it worth it?

Hikers enjoy Ahmanson Ranch

The early 2000’s were heady days for land conservation. The state was flush with funds from voter-approved bond funds, and despite a hot real estate market competed for and secured protection for some remarkable pieces of property.  At the time I was working in northern California protecting redwoods. Save the Redwoods League had just protected the 25,000-acre Mill Creek property at a cost of $60 million. It seemed like a lot of money at the time, but I remember hearing of two transactions in Southern California that together cost the better part of $300 million. Wow, I thought. How could anything be worth  that much?

Well, this past saturday I finally stepped foot on one of these. The former Ahmanson Ranch (now the “Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve” — a natty name, I know). In 1998, Washington Mutual acquired the Ahmanson Ranch company and set about developing a self-contained city complete with two PGA golf courses located in the rapidly urbanizing San Fernando valley. The proposal set off a firestorm of local opposition. Locals hated the thought of all the additional traffic, AND the loss of local open space that was valued by both them and the critters that called the 3,000 acre ranch home.

What ensued was a text-book campaign that ultimately led to the ranches protection as parkland for all to enjoy. But before it could succeed, it had to go beyond a local issue to an issue of regional and state-wide importance. And that’s where Heal the Bay came in.

It was the first time that Heal the Bay had played a leading role in opposing a private development — one located many miles from the coast to boot.  The nexus was water quality in Santa Monica Bay and the impact that unchecked development would have on the headwaters of Malibu Creek.  Heal the Bay scientists mapped red legged frog habitat, assessed downstream water quality, and mobilized regional and state-wide support for what until that time had been a local issue. Ultimately the stars came into alignment and the recent passage of voter approved park and water bonds provided the funding to halt the development and create public park land.

Governor Gray Davis, politician Fran Pavely, and direct Rob Reiner announced the deal back in 2003. This weekend they were reunited to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the acquisition.

Ahmanson Ranch 090

Yes, $150 million was a lot at the time. But it truly was an investment in the future. Not only does Ahmanson Ranch protect water quality each and every day, it also provides a much needed green sanctuary in the heart of suburbia for the residents of the valley and beyond.

It’s safe to say, that without the dogged and persistent engagement of Heal the Bay to transform a local issue to a state-wide campaign, the land today would be just another subdivision and place to play golf (two rounds). And as we know, subdivisions and gold courses don’t help water quality. Quite the reverse. Society as a whole ends up paying the costs to clean up the runoff they create.

I no longer look at the $150 million as an expenditure. It really was an investment in protecting open space that has a direct return in terms of enhanced property values, forgone costs of water pollution clean-up, and the intangible values of providing people open space to recreate in. Thank you Heal the Bay!

p.s. I just read about the latest Lear Jet.  For its $600 million plus price tag you could buy 4 ranches. at 2003 prices. That said, you and three friends could get anywhere in the world quickly and comfortably. I will let you decide which is the better long-term investment.

100 years on: what value water?

LA is 40% paved over
suburban LA – water fueled

When you have been working with redwoods, 100 years is a moment. Enough time for a giant to grow a few inches in girth and a few feet in height, But when you’re dealing with water and Los Angeles it is a game changer.

A century ago, Los Angeles was largely reliant on the water that fell in its own backyard. Then Mulholland opened the canal gates and the people of L.A. took what they had been given.  Rain and snow from the eastern Sierra mountains could now flow under gravity to fuel the growth of suburban Los Angeles. It was then and is now an engineering marvel.

It’s all too easy to see this as a bad thing.  After all, as water flowed south the Owens Valley and Mono Lake suffered. I went there earlier this summer and saw the toxic dust clouds myself. The lake levels are down and the natural system is suffering as a result of all the water that is shipped south to this day.

At the same time, that water has changed the world.

Really.

I grew up in England in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a long way from Los Angeles. But L.A. loomed large in television shows, popular culture, and fast food.  And the world tried to emulate it.  It is not a stretch to say that the Hollywood dream machine was built on the back of water from the Owens Valley.

And that’s where the problem comes in.  Classical economic theory would have it that a rational person chooses the option that maximizes economic return. Well that water diverted from the Owens Valley has created an awful lot of value down here in Southern California and around the world. Some might argue that it is greater than the value of all the fish and critters that lived in the Owens Valley.  So in theory if we had it over, we’d do it all again. Personally, I think that a simple economic approach is short-sighted and ignores the intrinsic values of nature that cannot (or should not) be monetized.

Because there is no going back, the challenge is where we go in the next 100 years. Realistically, we are going to continue transferring water from the Owens Valley (and Colorado and Bay Delta). The promise ahead is to do it in a way that helps L.A. and the Owens Valley, Colorado Basin and Bay Delta recover. One way to do this is to make better use of our water resources here in Los Angeles.

And that brings me to Heal the Bay. We’ve been focused on water quality in Santa Monica Bay for 28 years. We’ve also focused not only on water quality, but water supply as well. The two are inextricably linked. Our science and policy team has been working with local municipalities to mobilize public support for a stormwater funding measure that would build green infrastructure throughout the county. Capturing and reusing stormwater helps reduce water pollution, helps develop local water supplies, and in turn reduces our dependence on imported water. So it’s good for our bay, good for the Owens Valley, good for the Colorado River system, and good for the Bay Delta.  I am sure it makes economic sense. But it also just happens to be the right thing to do.

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/la-aqueduct-dollars-and-sense#sthash.cCiHGfy1.dpuf

MonoLake 060
A yard stick in Mono Lake stands witness to LA’s thirst

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

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

As the world turns

As a geographer and long-time GIS user, I have used removed sensing imagery for decades.  I just love looking at remotely sensed images of the world — especially when you can compare how things have changed with time. Various satellites have been collecting this data for decades — and while much of it is public available it can be a pain to assemble tile after tile of data and massage it until you have something presentable.

Fortunately, at a Bay Area Open Space Council meeting this morning, a Google Earth product manager showed me that there is an easier way. It’s called Google Earth Engine. They’ve collected terabytes of Landsat imagery and spent two million hours developing a seamless image map for the Earth that can take you back to 1984 (that’s when Frankie was encouraging us to “Relax” and Cyndi Lauper was having “fun’.)

I took a quick look at some places I know well. First, it’s an era that spans the timber wars centered around the Headwaters Forest Reserve. Scroll time forward and you can watch the mosaic of cuts getting closer and closer to what is now a remarkable upland ancient redwood forest protected by BLM.

HRSP Earth Engine
Landuse changes around Headwaters Reserve (clink for live slideshow)

I then got curious if you could similarly see changes in and around Santa Monica and southern California over the same period. Here the changes on the surface are subtler. Look carefully you can see development in the mountains as hillsides give way to large areas of bare soil and then homes. And perhaps I am imagining it, but it looks to me that some of the parks along the river channels are starting to green up!

Santa Monica City and Bay in Earth Engine (click for slideshow)
Santa Monica City and Bay in Earth Engine (click for slideshow)

It’s pretty exciting to have this level of data at our fingertips now. And it just keeps getting better and more powerful with multi-spectral data coming along that will enable us to move beyond looking at pictures of change, to conducting sophisticated analysis — all right in our browser.

Why don’t you jump on the Earth Explorer website and see how places you care about have changed — either for the worse, or just perhaps for the better? Let me know what you discover!

 

[p.s. couldn’t figure out how to embed the Google maps directly in this post…..sorry!]