Tag Archives: Water Resources

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.

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?

9 cool facts about Hyperion

HyperionEarlier today I had the chance to tour the Hyperion treatment plant with a group of staff and volunteers from Heal the Bay. Sewage may not be sexy, but its fascinating. Many thanks to our friends at the Bureau of Sanitation for a great tour.

1. Hyperion was one of the 12 Greek Titans and the father of the god, Helius. Hyperion is also the name of a sewage treatment plant in LA. And the name of the world’s tallest tree — a 379′ tall coast redwood in Redwood National Park.

2. The Hyperion I will be talking about is the largest sewage plant, by volume, west of the Mississippi. It treats 300 million gallons a day (MGD) on a regular basis and can handle 900 MGD flat out. By comparison, you’d only need 100 MGD to fill the Rose Bowl. Or 90,000 fans. Take your pick.

3. You may  have heard of effluent — it is the treated waste water discharged into a bay or ocean. But did you know they call the raw sewage that flows in the front door of the plant, “infuent”? I didn’t.

4. The city of LA purchased the land that Hyperion stands on in 1892 and built the first modern plant in 1949.  Up until that time, raw sewage was discharged to the Bay. But I use the word “modern” loosely. From 1949 until 1998 it blended treated and untreated effluent and then pumped it into the bay. The result? Sick surfers, dead fish, and dolphins with skin lesions. Oh, and a fight with Heal the Bay.

5. Heal the Bay was founded in 1985 to get Hyperion to clean up its act. By 1987 they had agreed to. But it took 12 years and $1.6 BN to get to a place where only treated effluent was pumped into the bay. Now surfers are healthier, dolphins are happier, and the fish die of natural causes. Unless its raining — but that is another story and a much more challenging problem we work on day in day out.

6. Despite the fact the new plant has allowed the bay to recover, the treated effluent itself is not safe for humans. Seagulls may swim in the treated water ponds, but if you or I did the same we would get sick. So the last piece of the treatment puzzle is the dilution provided by the Santa Monica Bay. It does it tirelessly and doesn’t get paid.

7. It can take several days for influent to get from your toilet to Hyperion. But once there, the liquid is processed within a day. The solids take longer to be digested by beneficial bacteria and converted to compost that is used in Kern County farms and Griffith Park.

8. 6700 miles of sewage line feed into Hyperion. That’s like LA to NY and back,

9. 80% of the power needs for Hyperion are met from methane gas generated on-site from all that poop.

Hyperion 003

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

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