Tag Archives: Water quality

Is it time to map and scale-up our rain gardens?

This past weekend’s storm here in the Bay Area brought a second “first flush” to the Bay.  It was at least six weeks since the last storm, so plenty of time for a new layer of gunk and trash to coat our streets waiting for the rain to wash it into the bay.

In a few places, the rain is now being slowed down and infiltrated back into the ground in “rain gardens” that are starting to pop up around the region as building codes require “low impact development” for new construction or grants are made available to retrofit streets. My new local Whole Foods is one example. The rain gardens there takes runoff from the surrounding streets and the parking lot and  runs it through the rain gardens. before it hits the storm drain system.  They work.   A 2012 report by the San Francisco Estuary Institute of two projects in El Cerrito demonstrated that water quality is greatly improved as a result.

As more of these start to be built, its time to start mapping their location so we can understand how they work together.  Knowing where they are going in – whether in a private garden or in a public street – is the starting point of getting strategic and intentional about where they need to be installed to improve water quality in our urban creeks and Bay.

I did a quick search and couldn’t find a resource like this for the Bay Area. A few cities, like Madison and their 1000 rain gardens challenge, have started to make some progress. Now its time for the Bay Area to step up!

Failing streets open up opportunities to build green infrastructure

Late last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Committee released a report on the state of the streets in the nine-county Bay Area. As anyone who has been jolted when there car or bike hit a pot hole, it will come as no surprise that the situation is pretty dire. In many cities and counties, routine maintenance is not enough to even maintain the status-quo, let alone rebuild for the future. Across the region, 43,000 miles of streets are stuck in the “fair” category, with no sign of improvements on the horizon. I might add that my home town of Albany had one of the lowest scores and has shown steady declines over the past three years.

There was a short segment on KQED’s forum this morning about the report. The discussion focused on the need to develop new funding mechanisms, and how cities like El Cerrito have successfully raised new revenue to fix up old streets.  While the MTC report and radio debate touches on the concept of “Complete Streets” –streets that are build for cars, bikes, and pedestrians — they both missed another element from my perspective. Namely water.

Essentially, our street system has extended and in some cases replaced the system of creeks and rivers that used to drain into the Bay.  In a region that is defined by the Bay, we should use every opportunity we can to enhance its protection. And in a time of scarce public resources, we can not afford to solve one problem at a time. Fortunately, in the case of streets you can solve the pot hole problem, create a safer and more livable street, and protect water quality at the same time. It’s already happening in pockets around the area as “low impact development” ordinances are adopted and implemented. What is needed now is a comprehensive set of ordinances to ensure that as our streets are upgraded, we’re creating green streets for the future.

Rather than getting rainwater off our streets and into the storm drain as quickly as possible, we need to allow it to percolate back into the groundwater. This can be achieved through curb-cuts, bioswales, rain gardens and cisterns. Not only do these enhance water quality, they also create more liveable green space in our community. If done correctly, it can also open up new funding mechanisms focused on water quality and supply.

If I’m going to be asked to tax myself to pay for road upgrades, I want to ensure we’re building streets for 2050, not taking the region back to 1950.

What would you prefer? More concrete or a green rain garden?
What would you prefer? More concrete or a green rain garden?
A curb-cut captures water from the street and directs it into a rain garden.
A curb-cut captures water from the street and directs it into a rain garden.

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!

The D Word

ImageI have spent much of the past two weeks on the beach. While much of the rest of the country continues to suffer through sub-zero temperatures, it has remained a balmy 72 and sunny here in Southern California.  It’s been great as my family from the Bay Area and England has been here for the holidays.  Each day we’d remark how glad we were it had, “turned out nice again.” Let’s face it, 72 degrees and sunny is pretty much perfect. Christmas on the beach. Can you beat it? Really not.

But with the holidays a memory, it is time to get serious about what 72 and sunny means for us in Southern California and beyond. If it persists, and with no rain in the forecast it seems likely, we need to start thinking about drought. According to the head of the Department of Water Resources the Governor is starting to think the same. When a drought is declared in Sacramento, it has cascading affects across the state. Crops die as previously irrigated fields dry.  Sprinklers are banned and lawns turn brown  Native fish in our streams struggle as water is diverted.  Water quality suffers as discharge regulations are relaxed. The economy suffers as farmers fields fallow. And we start counting the days until the rain drops fall.

2013 was a record dry year for the state. By some estimates, it was the driest year in California since records began…….way back in 1849. In downtown Los Angeles we had 3.6 inches of rain – drier than 1947 and 1953 when 4.08 inches fell.  To add some perspective, in 1849 the states population was about 50,000; 1940 it was 6.9 million; 1950 it was 10.6 million; and in 2010 stood at 37 million.

That’s less rain and a lot (LOT) more people. It’s true that we have built a remarkable system to capture and transport most of the state’s water from north to south (while sweeping in water from the Colorado system to boot). We’re definitely getting better at using water efficiently here in California — after all, LA’s population has grown over the last 20 years and our water usage has not. But we have a long way to go. In California we use an average of 105 gallons per day per person. In Australia they have it down to 59.

The impending drought highlights the need to invest in our water infrastructure in California. But we can no longer assume it’s just a matter of impounding and transporting water from north to south. We need to work towards a more resilient system. And resiliency has to start locally. We need to make investments to reduce demand and make California a world leader. We need to make better use of local water supplies by cleaning up and harvesting groundwater, sustainably. We need to recycle wastewater (300 million gallons a day out of Hyperion alone).  We need to capture, infiltrate and make use of urban runoff – reducing stormwater pollution in the process. And then and only then should we shore up our ability to move water around the state to better match supply and demand.

Doing all of this is going to take bold leadership. We at Heal the Bay are ready. Are you?

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.

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

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