The financial toll for sea level rise will be enormous, says California bay champion.(© Alces Images)
Are we in over our heads?
Recent news stories feature vivid pictures of record-breaking flooding across the United States. These stories make dramatic evening news coverage, because they show extreme damage in simple before and after pictures. But there is another story around flooding that is not as dramatic - at least not yet - but it is going to happen, and it is going to happen all over the world. That is the unavoidable inundation that will be caused by sea level rise.
To learn more about the potential impacts of sea level rise (known to its friends as SLR), I spoke with Arthur Feinstein, Sierra Club California State Conservation Chair and champion of bays and estuaries in California. (See our past articles for more on his work.) Feinstein and a Club sea level rise Task Force have just finished developing a set of positions for Club members to follow when addressing sea level rise issues.
Yes, climate change is causing melting glaciers and disappearing ice packs. The oceans are warming, and that leads to thermal expansion. The net result is that the levels of our oceans are definitely rising.
Sea level rise is happening every day, but it is so gradual that most people are not aware of the enormous risk that it poses to the future not only of those of us who live along the coasts but also to the ecosystems on which we depend.
Various government and international agencies have released reports on expected SLR over the next 100 years. By 2050 it is expected that the oceans will rise steadily about 1.0 to 1.5 feet. Scientists say that there is nothing that can be done about this rise; it is locked in, and it is going to happen. After 2050, the amount of SLR will be both faster and more unpredictable. No one is certain how soon the ice in the Arctic, Antarctica, and Greenland will melt. Final predictions for SLR now go as high as a 10 foot rise by 2100. And this is just when the oceans are relatively calm.
Added to the impact of the rise in the static levels of the oceans is the impact of dynamic amplifiers. They include major storms with wind waves, storm surge, nearby river discharge and other events that can add on to SLR by contributing to the erosion of beaches and cliffs and the consequent flooding. According to at least one research paper, dynamic amplifiers can increase the impacts of flooding by up to seven times.
The coming SLR events will result in not only damage to the coastline and destruction of wildlife habitats but also in the loss of homes, businesses, and the infrastructure on which homes and businesses have come to depend.
Let’s start with habitat. The shallow waters along our coasts are the nurseries for ocean life. According to Feinstein, the tidal marshes, mudflats, sea grass, and kelp beds support 70% to 90% of commercial fish and shellfish species. In addition to providing the food that is much of the basis for the ocean web of life, these living coastlines are effective at sequestering carbon from all those decaying plants. (Do you recall that intense odor at low tide? That is life in the making.) Tidal marshes also help to control flooding and inundation by slowing up storm surges. They purify water, trap impurities, and hold in mud. This in turn influences temperatures and helps cool the air.
Sea Level Rise threatens all of this life as these habitats drown in deeper waters. Loss of coastal habitat will impact fisheries in the deep oceans. At the same time as agriculture is impacted by rising temperatures inland due to climate change, another food source - ocean fisheries -- will be depleted. And as the carbon sequestration these coastal habitats now provide is lost, Greenhouse Gases will increase, resulting in further global warming.
However, if the oceans rise slowly, and if there is room for the wetlands to move inland, then the sea life might gradually adapt.
That is why Feinstein recommends that coastal land be set aside to allow the oceans to gradually inundate new coastal areas over the next 30 years and, with luck, the plants and other life will move inland as the oceans rise.
After 2050 other processes may have to be employed to preserve the viability of coastal waters in the face of faster changes in their depth.
The need to plan for creating new living shorelines is resulting in some interesting policy reversals. The Bay Conservation and Development Committee (BCDC) was originally formed to protect San Francisco Bay from rampant filling during the mid-twentieth century. Today, BCDC is considering rewriting its guidelines to once again allow Bay fill in order to adapt to the rising levels of the Bay. For example, at the newly recovered salt ponds, mud could be added to raise the elevation of the sea bed to allow for shoreline habitat to re-establish itself at the new coastlines.
But establishing new coastal habitat at higher elevations depends on having vacant land along the coast to inundate. In areas where there is no undeveloped land next to the existing shorelines, there is a whole other set of problems that must be dealt with.
Here things become sticky. In principle, we need to allow for open space inland for the rising coastal waters . This may mean saying “no” to new development. At the least, new development should plan for the eventual incursion of the ocean, and property owners should plan ahead to remove the new structures when that happens.
What happens when there are homes and businesses already located in harm’s way?
There are no easy solutions for land that is already developed. One key phrase you will see in coming years is “Managed Retreat,” or permanently clearing out occupants (that’s people) and structures from coastlines that are going to be inundated. As you can imagine, proposals for Managed Retreat have already drawn storms of dissension in some communities. Homeowners are reluctant to give up a place they have lived in and loved for many years, and which may be their major financial investment.
Lots of questions to ponder here. As the oceans rise, should there be government buy-outs? Should new property owners be treated differently than those who lived along the coast before SLR became a possibility? Some low-income communities were forced into areas that are close to the coast but were not considered desirable at the time they were established. Their homes may be their only resource. What happens to people whose only nest-egg is their nest? Should compensation be given based on income or property values? Or would flat rate compensation be fairer to everyone?
In addition to the impacts on homes and businesses, the financial toll for SLR on surrounding communities will be enormous. Consider the impact on infrastructure - roads, railways, harbors, airports, power plants, wastewater facilities may all be flooded out. How will this be dealt with and paid for, on top of the need to help local homeowners and business owners?
In case you were thinking that SLR could be solved with sea walls, think again. Building a sea wall around your home may protect you for a few years, but in the meantime, it will increase wave action on your neighbor’s house. And, eventually, how will you get home at night? Canoeing to Trader Joe’s may feel authentic, but it will lose its appeal after awhile.
Wave action against sea walls often precludes healthy marine habitat in the nearby area. Sea walls around a city are expensive not only to build but also to maintain. And one breach means disaster - think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Sea walls also require concrete; manufacturing concrete adds to Greenhouse Gases. And so with building sea walls the cycle of climate change builds upon itself.
As in most of the environmental challenges we now face, there are many questions and no easy answers. Feinstein advises keeping an eye on news items and attending public meetings that will be held to deal with this. Ask for a living shoreline whenever this is mentioned. Sea level rise is a problem that is very much not going away, and we will have to plan for it and adapt to it in the future.
To learn more:
For the truly wonky among you:
Katherine Howard is a local open space and environmental advocate.
Sustainable Fashion Week International San Francisco show, 2019 SF Earthday, gown by Christina Cree. (© Alces Images)
Clothes make the earth go round . . .
This Earthday I attended the San Francisco festival, held this year in the Mission District. I saw some wondrous clothing made from recycled materials. I wondered how important clothing is in the whole reduce/reuse/recycle continuum. So I called our “Waste” expert, Ruth Abbe. Abbe is the chair of the Sierra Club California Zero Waste and Recycling Committee and was our advisor for the “Ghost of Christmas Presents” column last winter.
It was no surprise to learn that Abbe has definite ideas about how to save the earth through our clothing choices. In fact, the whole subject of textiles is now prominent in sustainability circles. According to the World Resources Institute, it takes over 700 gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt. This is enough drinking water for one person for 2.5 years! Other resources used are fertilizer to grow the cotton for a natural fabric or oil for a synthetic fabric, as well as various chemicals used in processing and dying the fabric, and the energy for the manufacture and shipping of the T-shirt. But even with all of the energy that goes into making it, it’s not like we wear that T-shirt until it falls off our bod’s.
With the advent of Fast Fashion, manufacturers started providing low-priced clothes, made with cheap fabrics, poorly cut and stitched, and often exploiting local communities environmentally and even using child labor. Fast Fashion produces clothing quickly to sell new ‘looks’ to consumers (that’s us) each fashion season. Garments are worn a few times and then tossed away as the next fashion cycle rolls through. Worldwide, over 80 - 150 billion garments, depending on the source you check, are produced each year.
After the owner tires of the message/style/ color/whatever, that 700-gallons-of-water T-shirt may be recycled, donated, or just dumped. According to CalRecycle “more than 1.24 million tons of textiles were disposed in California landfills in 2014. Textiles are the sixth most prevalent material type in the overall disposed waste stream and comprise 4 percent of landfilled waste.”
OK, so you have decided to re-examine how you clothe yourself. Don’t worry, you don’t have to glue together snack bags, like the talented designers did for the Earthday fashion show gown in the photo. You have lots of options.
1. Want to buy something new? Buy Slow Fashion. Return to quality materials, quality craft(wo)manship, and classic styles for your basic clothing pieces. They’ll last longer, and, really, you’ll look better in them.
2. Want something unique even if a bit pricey? Look for designers who now emphasize minimum or zero waste in clothing design-- whether it is in the amount of fabric used or taking scraps of fabric and creating one-of-a-kind clothing from them.
3. Want to support companies that make zero-waste part of their mantra? Companies such as Patagonia have programs to make it easy to repair, to buy used, or to trade in their clothing. When the article of clothing is worn out, you can often return it to the company, so the item can be recycled into new fiber and fabric.
4. Want to investigate manufacturing practices more deeply? Look into the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an improbable joint venture of Patagonia and Walmart aiming to improve manufacturing practices worldwide for sustainability and for social impacts
5. Want the adventure of the hunt? Get thee to thy local thrift shop -- you will often find better fabrics, better work(wo)man ship, and budget-friendly prices when compared to mainstream retailers.
6. Want to have a broader selection of ‘gently used’ (i.e., second hand) clothes to choose from? Online consignment stores offer used name-brand clothing at discounted prices.
7. Want to choose the best fabrics for the environment? This choice is easy -- go for natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and linen. They can be recycled into rags (see below). They can be composted. If done right, they will eventually break down and return to their natural components. Avoid synthetics such as nylon and polyester, which will break down into synthetic microfibers. We think of ocean pollution as fishing line or plastic bottles (see our 2018 articles on plastics in our oceans), but synthetics in clothes break down eventually. And they never, ever go away. Science is just now exploring the possible impact of these fibers on animal and human health. According to Abbe, microfibers have been found in the French Alps! And in wine and beer! Now, this is getting serious. There are a few microfiber filtering products out there - filters you attach to your washing machine or filter bags for your clothes. These are new products. Do some online searches and decide what is right for you.
8. Want to learn to be more self-sufficient while being environmentally conscious? Repair the clothes you own! Don’t know how? There are fix-it clinics and repair fairs. You can learn to fix a hem, sew on a button, and darn your sweaters or socks. Abbe learned darning at one of these clinics, and was delighted about repairing tiny moth holes in a favorite sweater -- and her repairs were completely undetectable.
9. Want to know what to do if that T-shirt is still in good shape but no longer reflects your values (or your changing body shape -- just sayin’, we all deal with that eventually). Donate good clothes back to that thrift shop you visited earlier. Go to Recycle Where to find locations to donate clothes in good condition and those shoes, belts, and purses that can’t go in the garbage company’s Blue Bin.
10. Want to know what to do once that beloved T-shirt is worn beyond repair? In San Francisco, put recyclable, clean but unusable fabric items in a clear plastic bag (sorry - someday we’ll get away from those pesky plastic bags), then in the Blue Bin. Rips, holes, single socks are okay here.
11. Want to know where worn fabric goes? One use is in cotton industrial wiping cloths. You’ve seen these for sale at big box and paint stores. Rags are better for cleaning than microfibers -- and, of course, as the microfiber cloths break down, they end up back in our water supply and in the ocean. Rags are also used in shoddy pad -- the underlayment for carpeting and under the floorboards of cars. Some clothing is recycled into clothing! The fabric is separated back into threads and ends up as new fabric. Learn more through SMART - The Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association.
As is often true, the simplest action is the most effective. The best way to cut down on clothing waste is to just not buy as much. You’ll save time, you’ll save money, and you’ll help to save a bit more of the environment.
Katherine Howard is a local open-space and environmental advocate.
SMART - The Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association - https://www.smartasn.org/
Sustainable Apparel Coalition - https://apparelcoalition.org/the-sac/
(© Alces Images)
It’s Earthday 2019 - What can li’l ol’ you do to save the earth?
From its birth in the 1970’s Earth Day has provided an opportunity for people to participate in local, national and international events devoted to protecting our environment. Legislation has been passed, lawsuits filed, petitions signed, and articles written on the topic ‘save the earth’ (over 1.4 billion Google search results). Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the world is going to hell in a human-woven hand basket, we can find inspiration and ideas about what each one of us can do to take a small step towards shrinking our own ‘ecological footprint’ (25 million search results.)
To find out what local environmentally-oriented folks are doing, I put out a request to members of the Conservation Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club. These volunteers are all working to enact environmentally beneficial policies and practices, but they also try to use them in their daily lives. Here are some of their ideas:
ONE SMALL CHANGE MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE:
“Change out your light bulbs to LED’s. You’ll reduce your carbon footprint and save money, too. “ (John Rizzo)
There are over 21 million search results on ‘incandescent vs. LED bulb comparisons,’ but we’ll make it easy. The simple dollar website has basic charts on how much energy can be saved by upgrading your light bulbs. One incandescent bulb might use 60 watts; a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) might use 14 watts. Compare this to an LED that gives the same amount of illumination but uses 10 watts. Now go around your home, count the number of bulbs, and multiply by 50 watts (savings over incandescent) per bulb. Not only will you save energy, but also, even with the higher purchase price of the LED’s factored in, you will save money over the life of the bulbs. LED’s last a very, very long time. LED’s are often subsidized by the government - look for rebates and special offers.
“Make a contribution to any one of the candidates running for president who supports the ‘Green New Deal’ [110 million search results]. Due to game-changing advances in clean energy, addressing climate change is now almost entirely a political problem, not an economic burden. Early money is the most important money, and the race for next President of the United States will be critically important in making the slingshot maneuver needed to give our children hope for prosperity.” (Hunter Cutting)
CARS FIGURED LARGE, UBER AND LYFT ALSO:
“Drive less. That includes in Ubers or the like. Walk, bike or take the bus a little more than you would have.” (Vicky Hoover)
“ . . . walk, bicycle, or take the bus as much as you can -- leave your car in the garage and certainly don’t call for an Uber or a Lyft. In fact Muni uses less than 2 percent of all energy expended on transportation in SF.” (Sue Vaughan)
“If you have a car, think about how you might travel occasionally without it. For a meeting in S. San Francisco last weekend my choices were 60 minutes of driving to cover the 40 miles there and back home. Or, take public transit which would take three times as long. I always bring reading materials and also enjoy looking out the window while leaving the driving to someone else. Learning about a different bus route in San Mateo County will come in handy in the future. If you like to go to malls, the 122 line starts at Stonestown and stops at Westlake and Sierra Monte Shopping Centers. As a senior, the cost of the ride was only $1. “Keep it in the ground” is a popular phrase in the environmental movement when talking about fossil fuels. More than 2 gallons of diesel were not burned and spewed into the atmosphere with just this one trip.” (Barry Hermanson)
TAKE CARE OF THE ENVIRONMENT WHILE GAINING A NEW COMPANION:
“We’ve just rescued 2 animals (a puppy and a kitten) from the SPCA, and we are trying to incorporate every environmentally friendly product that comes with having indoor pets. Thus far, we have: Biodegradable puppy potty-training pads; Biodegradable kitty litter; Pet toys made from recycled materials; Recyclable/reusable pet food containers.” (Kim-Shree Maufas)
Other pet hints -- keep your cat healthy and non-avian-homicidal by keeping her/him indoors. (According to a 2013 study, cats in the continental U.S. kill 1.4 to 3.7 million birds a year . They also run into all kinds of trouble outdoors.) Spay or neuter your cat to cut down on the over-population, and for heaven’s sake, don’t dump pets in the wild - take them to a no-kill shelter. Otherwise, they suffer and so do all of the other critters out there from these introduced, non-native predators.
ALWAYS GOOD - PLANT A TREE:
“If you have the space - plant a tree, or many trees. Preferably an organically grown sapling. Trees sequester carbon dioxide, provide habitat for a host of other species, and help regulate water flows among their many ecological benefits. Some day, if I have the time and money, I dream of acquiring a tract of degraded land somewhere and planting a forest.” (Rupa Bose)
AN EASY WAY TO SAVE WATER:
“ . . . A practical recommendation to save water is to use your washing machine on the ‘express’ on ‘delicate’ setting, which is half the time for a usual load (save water, save money, save time) - same for a dishwasher (for those who have one- use ‘quick time’ setting).” (Linda Weiner)
Do you run the water in the sink to get it hot? Put the excess in a pitcher and use it to water plants.
GO AFTER THOSE PESKY PLASTIC BAGS:
As we learned in a prior interview, only 9% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide. Look around and see what you can do. Plastic bags at farmers’ markets? Tsk. Tsk. Take your own cloth bags. Catalogs that arrive encased in “recyclable” plastic? Write a quick note to the publisher. And my favorite bug-a-boo -- The SF Chronicle arriving in a plastic bag every day, 365 days a year - even on sunny days. Call them and ask, “Please do NOT use a plastic bag, unless it is raining. Please use a rubber band instead.” (It prevents blowing around.) 415-777-7000. Warning: It may take a few calls to get the message transmitted to the people who do the actual delivery work. Persevere! (Author)
AFTER WORKING HARD TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT, TAKE A BREAK AND:
“ . . . try to replenish your spirit every day by exposure to nature - even if it’s five minutes walking by a park (not only is it peaceful, but studies have shown it reduces depression). “ (Linda Weiner)
AND MOST POETIC
“Walk in a forest or along the shore, a reminder of what we’re working to save.” (Becky Evans)
You can meet these folks in person, along with other members of the Conservation and Executive Committees of the SF Group, by attending the meetings at 6:00 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month. Meeting locations alternate between Park Police and Mission Police Stations. Go online to learn more about the SF Group. https://www.sierraclub.org/san-francisco-bay/
Click on About Us/Leader Resources/Chapter Leadership/ San Francisco Group and voila!
Illustration of Bar Headed Geese. (© Alces Images)
In spring, a young bird’s fancy turns to thoughts of love — and flight
Back in October, in “As the Crows - and other birds - fly,” we learned from bird expert Eddie Bartley about which birds migrate and where they go. Some birds travel hundreds, even thousands of miles. How can something so small perform such an athletic task, often with little or no rest along the way and without a Smartphone to look up directions on? I called Bartley back, and here is what I learned.
In spring, as the days start to get longer, birds’ bodies start to undergo changes. Just as teenagers experience hormonal changes, so too do birds. Every species of bird, and even within individual bird populations, has different physiological modifications caused by hormonal change. Unlike people, birds experience the changes every year and within a short time frame. Imagine going through puberty every year!
The bird’s hypothalamus triggers hormones in the pituitary gland. Hormones affect future egg-laying and stimulate the thyroid. Thyroxine affects the growth and pigmentation of feathers. Males develop more color to impress the girls. The adrenals are stimulated; testosterone and estrogen production are increased. And the part of the brain that controls singing is stimulated. (Hey-ba-by! Hey-ba-by!)
In addition to raging hormones, pancreatic enzymes trigger eating behavior. The birds start to stuff themselves, a condition called hyperphagia (over-eating). As the bird gorge themselves on whatever they can find to eat, they layer on fat. The pancreas produces more insulin, increasing the concentration of blood sugar.
These extraordinary changes are happening to birds right now. The medium and long-distance migrants - the birds in the tropics, Mexico, and the southern United States - are bulking up for the Big Push north. They are waiting for their nesting territory to thaw out and then they will start their spring migration.
But birds can’t watch the weather channel to find out what is going on in the home nesting area. The Big Push is triggered by the photo-period, the amount of daylight every day. Photo-period is a more reliable indicator of what is happening in another part of the world than the local weather in the birds’ wintering grounds. Scientists have proven this by experimenting with giving birds different photo- periods and observing how the birds react to the change in the amount of light during the day.
As the days get longer, the birds’ sex organs increase in size and the muscles associated with long-distant flight bulk up. By the time the increasing daylight tells them to leave, birds must be in peak physiological shape.
Local weather does, however, play a part in when the birds decide to take off on the Big Push. In North America in the spring, there are more low pressure zones and the winds blow counter-clockwise. Birds will catch the northbound winds on the edges of these low pressure zones. For example, in California as the days get longer and the temperature climbs, birds will ride the winds to head north.
Fall migration is in many ways a mirror image of the spring changes. In the fall, as high pressure builds, the winds come from the northwest and the birds use them to aid in their southbound flight.
After the mating and nesting season are over, the birds don’t need the sex organs, and the organs reduce in size. Kidneys also reduce in size, because they are not needed as much during the migration.
Hyperphagia still occurs. Shorebirds can double their weight. Imagine if you went from 150 lbs. to 300 lbs in a few months. As the birds fly, all that newly acquired fat gets burned off.
In spring or in fall, how do birds find their way across hundreds or even thousands of miles of land and sea? According to Bartley, they follow a wide variety of clues due to the unique abilities with which they are born.
Birds that fly during the day can see polarization patterns that let them locate the vposition of the sun, even on cloudy days.
Songbirds navigate at night by star maps. Researchers have placed them in planetariums and then rearranged the star maps to see which direction the birds go. (And no, I don’t know who cleans up after all this.) Songbirds get so restless at night that the Germans have a word for it - Zugunruhe or migrating restlessness. Songbirds need the stars, and they won’t migrate when it is cloudy. They also depend on tailwinds to help them travel long distances.
Many birds are diurnal and migrate during the day. Swallows, swifts, and raptors all benefit from the thermal uplift during the warmer daytime hours.
Some birds migrate by using landmarks such as mountains and rivers. They get better at it as they gain more experience. Ducks and pelicans travel in flocks, sharing the knowledge of the more experienced birds.
Doves and pigeons navigate photo-magnetically, using magnetic material at the base of their bill to detect the magnetic patterns of the earth. This same geo-magnetism is used by salmon to return back to their place of birth.
Some birds may even be able to navigate by scent. This would be especially helpful in finding an island in a large body of water, where there are no distinguishing landmarks.
How far and fast can birds go? Again, there are as many answers as there are birds.
A barn swallow might travel 90 miles in a day. A red knot might travel 90 miles or up to 600 miles in a day. A hawk might travel 10 miles one day and 300 miles the next day. Hummingbirds make an amazing journey across the Gulf of Mexico. The ruby-throated hummingbird travels 500 miles non-stop in an epic one-day journey.
Migration speeds also vary widely. Most birds (90 %) fly at 15 to 45 mph. (Yes, that’s miles per hour.) In general, larger birds fly faster, and all are affected by the direction and speed of the wind. Songbirds travel at 10 to 30 mph. Raptors may lolligag around or get motivated and travel at 20 to 45 mph. Waterfowl such as ducks and loons travel at 30 to 50 mph.
Wing loading affects how high and far birds can fly. The loading is calculated by a complex formula involving the weight of the bird compared to the surface of the wing and other factors. You’ve probably noticed that some birds have a hard time getting off the ground and others soar easily. Wing shape and size all affect how easily a bird takes off, how high they can fly, and how long they can stay afloat in the air.
With differing flight capabilities, it is not surprising that birds have their own preferred air corridors as they migrate.
Among songbirds, 75% travel at elevations of 500 to 2,000 feet. Raptors range from 700 to 4,000 feet. Waterfowl travel from 1,200 to 4,000 feet. Shorebirds can fly at 1,000 to 13,000 feet elevation. Bar-headed geese fly over Mt. Everest and have been seen by aircraft at 30,000 feet. These geese have specialized hemoglobin that can store higher amounts of oxygen.
Even if we cannot always see them, birds can see us - or rather, they can see our building lights.
According to the Golden Gate Audubon Society website, birds that migrate at night can be drawn off course by tall, lighted structures along their flight path. Drawn by the bright city lights, birds sometimes collide with buildings or rooftop structures. At the speed they are travelling, these collisions are usually fatal. Other times the birds will circle a lighted building until they drop from exhaustion.
Over 200 species migrate through the Bay Area in the spring and fall. Turning off unnecessary lighting at night not only saves energy costs but also saves the lives of these wayfarers as they wing their way over our sleeping neighborhoods.
Ask your company to participate in Lights Out for Birds. Lights Out is a voluntary program where building owners, managers, and tenants work together to ensure that unnecessary lighting is turned off during migration periods. Spring migration dates for the Lights Out program are February 15 through May 30.
Bartley reminds us that all this wonderful information gathered by scientists applies to the birds they have observed. Birds may be part of a flock, but just as with people, there will always be birds who fly to a different drummer.
In addition, a lot of migration is not detected by us. At the Raptor Observatory, Bartley watches birds that eventually fly so high they can’t be seen against the blue sky. Bartley suggests, “Just go out and admire it wherever you can.”
Katherine Howard is a local open-space and environmental advocate.
The Real Dirt-y Dozen
12 Do’s and Don’ts for great garden soil health
Last November in “Dishing the Dirt at Thanksgiving,” we interviewed soils aficionado and Sierra Club Loma Prieta Soils Committee co-Chair Anne Stauffer about soil health and how important it is to growing your Thanksgiving meal. I expect that you all sat around the holiday dinner table, digesting your food along with the article, and asked yourselves, ‘Well, how about my home garden? What can I do to be more environmentally aware as I garden?’
It just so happens that Stauffer has some easy tips you can use for a flourishing home garden. Here are her twelve Do’s and Don’ts for great soil health for your garden:
1. Don’t Use Herbicides and Pesticides.
Herbicides and pesticides kill not only “bad” critters (aphids, snails, slugs) but also the “good” ones (earthworms, ladybugs, bees, butterflies, birds, and on and on.)
2. Don’t Compact Your Soil.
Lay out paths for people to walk on. Every time you walk through a garden bed, you are squishing the tiny pockets of air and water that soil microbes have formed and need to survive. Yes, soil life-forms need air and water, too!
3. Don’t rake up leaves, pine needles or other debris.
OK, maybe we are too late with this suggestion this year (unless you are a laid-back gardener.) But think of your leaves and pine needles as free organic mulch! Leave the leaves. (This may not apply to roses and some other plants if diseases are present, but for the most part, this is a good rule of thumb.)
4. Don’t dig or till unnecessarily.
Digging and tilling disturb and can even kill soil fungi, worms, and other beneficial microbes. Make planting holes just big enough for the plant’s root ball.
5. Don’t use synthetic fertilizers.
Did you know that synthetic fertilizers actually harm soil health? Plants become dependent on the fertilizer, and their roots stop working with soil life-forms. The soil microbes that would naturally nourish your plants then die off or move away — and you are stuck buying more synthetic fertilizer.
6. Do get rid of that lawn. Try California natives instead.
California native plants thrive in our soils and dry climate. Natives also support California’s endangered bugs—butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles—and therefore the birds, lizards, and other creatures that eat those bugs.
7. Do encourage fungi in your soil.
Soil fungi work with and “extend” roots, maximizing plants’ ability to draw nutrients from the soil. Mulch and organic compost help with this. See more below.
8. Do plant cover crops.
Cover crops nourish and rebuild depleted soils by adding vital plant nutrients and increasing soil aeration. Some cover crops are sweet peas, fava beans, California lupine, California barley, wheat, and wild rye.
9. Do grow numerous, diverse plants.
Stauffer says that, “the greater the diversity and number of plants, the healthier the soil.” Deep-rooted perennials, such as many native California grasses, are especially beneficial. They extend throughout a larger area of the soil and form networks with more fungi, bacteria, and microbes.
10. Do use organic compost.
You, too, can make rich, organic compost at home using food scraps, yard cuttings, and shredded newspaper. Many websites give instructions for this free source of soil nutrients. Apply the finished compost to the surface of your soil and cover with lots of mulch (see #12.)
11. Do make compost extract to quickly improve soil health.
You can use your organic compost to make a liquid extract fertilizer. Stauffer’s recipe: “Add a few trowels of organic compost to a bucket of water, stir vigorously, and promptly pour it around your plants.”
12. Do add mulch, mulch, mulch.
Apply a few inches of organic mulch to your planting beds. Leave a three-inch mulch-free diameter around each of your plants to prevent plant diseases. Mulch helps to moderate soil temperature and saves water. As the mulch breaks down, it provides food for all those underground critters so important to soil health.
As you nourish your garden, you are nourishing the earth as a whole. Healthy soil helps clean the air, holds up to 30% more water, and nurtures strong, beautiful plants, whether in acres of cropland or in your own small backyard.
Lessons we learn in our gardens show us the way to helping care for our Mother Earth.
The Ghost of Christmas Present(s)
Ruth Abbe has taken the problem of trash to heart. She inherited her obsession with garbage from her father, who once said that if he hadn’t become a surgeon, he would have gone into dealing with trash. That was in 1987, when the famed garbage barge along the east coast of the US was wandering from port to port, looking for a place to dump New York City’s excess trash.
Abbe has participated in various campaigns for sustainable recycling and is now the Chair of the Sierra Club California Zero Waste and Recycling Committee. According to Abbe, the zero-waste approach is “one of the fastest, cheapest, and most effective strategies to protect the climate.”
How much of an impact can limiting waste have? Quite a bit, it turns out. The products we use create an enormous waste stream from production to shipping to arriving at our homes. Recycling is important, but the real key to cutting down on waste is to stop production at the source. According to Abbe, for every ton of municipal solid waste that we produce, there are 71 tons of ‘upstream’ waste generated. We don’t see the additional 71 tons, because it usually occurs far from where we live.
One simple way we can influence the worldwide impact of waste is to purchase fewer products. It may seem that I am being a bit of a Grinch to mention this during the holidays, when consumerism reaches a fevered peak. On the other hand, maybe this is the best time to talk about it. Changing a few habits might even lead to new family traditions that can be shared for a much brighter future for the earth.
Abbe suggests that we review our traditions in view of their deeper meaning. Gift-giving is done to express generosity and affection; its goal is not to fatten a corporation’s bottom line. Decorating our homes celebrates family life and wards off the winter’s darkness; it can also express stewardship for the earth and the desire to have a renewed and reenergized nature in the spring, when the light returns.
Decorating and gift-giving both lend themselves to simple, environmentally-friendly upgrades.
You have probably already replaced your decorative lights with LED’s. When you go to sleep, program light timers to turn off those outdoor lights that your neighbors love (or not). Darkness at night also protects wildlife that is harmed by too much lighting.
Are you a candle person? Most candles these days are made of paraffin, a petroleum by-product created from sludge waste when crude oil is refined into gasoline. How romantic (not)! Instead, try beeswax, vegetable wax, or GMO-free soy wax candles. LED tea lights are both pretty and less likely to set the house on fire if the cat/dog knocks them over.
Next, the Christmas Tree. If it is not Christmas for you without a live tree, Abbe recommends shopping at a tree farm with responsible practices (no pesticides, no old-growth clear-cutting). But however your fresh tree is grown, recycling is de rigeuer. For San Franciscans, Recology’s website gives collection dates and instructions on how to prepare your ex-Xmas tree for recycling. Recology accepts flocked trees but other recyclers may not. Check with your local recycling center to be sure.
Living Christmas trees are another option. Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF) lends out living trees to “adopt” for the season. After the holidays, the trees will be planted to grace our streets. Or you can purchase a tree at a nursery and then plant it in your backyard after the holidays. Be forewarned - evergreens can grow quickly and get big! But that can be a good thing, right?
Most artificial trees are made of PVC and, unfortunately, the global pollutant dioxin is a byproduct of the PVC lifecycle. However, if reused year after year, an artificial tree has less impact over time. Or perhaps you can pick one up second-hand! Abbe’s “family tree” is a hand-me-down from her husband’s grandmother.
Shopping for used holiday decorations is a great trash saver. Thrift shops trot out their seasonal treasure troves each holiday. Or go to the source - Nature. Branches, pine cones, and crafts handmade from wood or other natural materials all express the holidays and most can be composted or, even better, tucked away in your own treasure trove for next year.
Selecting gifts is a challenge for all of us. A good first step is to find out diplomatically if someone actually wants a specific gift. Did you know that around 35% of Americans have an unused holiday gift hidden in their closets?
Abbe recommends buying natural products, fair-trade certified items, and organic products. Food is a great gift -- and is usually used up.
Other environmental gifts include flatware that can be carried with you to use in restaurants, the newly popular metal straws in place of the evil plastic ones that are being phased out, and reusable coffee mugs with tops, for the caffeine aficionados.
Toys are problematic — some may be made of toxic plastic and have lead paint. Search online for subjects such as “Trouble in Toyland” to learn more.
Buy local. Buy local. Buy local.
If you have to order online, try to combine items into one order, and choose the slowest shipping speed. Emissions are much higher for items shipped by air compared to land or, best yet, water.
And now, the time has come to wrap your gifts. But wait — those fun metallic, glittery, plastic, or glossy wraps are usually not recyclable or compostable. Instead choose recycled paper, or at a minimum, paper that can be recycled. Better yet, match the wrapping to the gift and make it part of the gift -- wrap kitchen tools in a kitchen towel, a humorous book in the Sunday funnies, or clothes in a cloth shopping bag.
Not everyone wants more “stuff.” Try gift certificates for classes, meals, travel, activities or an hour or two of your time helping friends on a project. Abbe suggests that we think about our choices as we go through the season and see how we can cut back on the waste that is generated by our consumer-driven society. Try one or two of her suggestions; perfection is not required.
Learn more about the Sierra Club California Zero Waste Committee: https://www.sierraclub.org/california/cnrcc/zero-waste
A good start for Zero Waste information is at: Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives: http://www.no-burn.org/about-gaia/
Friends of the Urban Forest’s tree program:
Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Group of the Sierra Club.
Dishing the Dirt at Thanksgiving
••• October 2018 Issue •••
Photo: Eddie Bartley
As the crows — and other birds - fly
We tend to think of birds as very similar, but, according to Eddie Bartley, they can be as different from each other as a giraffe is from a mouse. Bartley is a docent at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin and teaches Master Birder classes in migration at the California Academy of Sciences.
This difference in bird species is especially true when it comes to migration, a stressful and risky venture for birds. We still need to learn a lot about the how and why of migration. We can deduce that the birds are searching for plentiful food, for a climate conducive to raising young, and for safety from predators. Overall, birds are like people-- they are looking for a good income and a safe neighborhood in which to raise the kids.
There are many kinds of bird migration, and the type of migration can even vary within a species. Some birds migrate thousands of miles and others just hop over to a nearby nesting area. However, within a given species there is a typical pattern. According to Bartley, “Every species has its own story.”
For example, the Orange-crowned Warbler lives high in the Sierras in the summer and drops down in elevation in the winter. This is an example of elevation migration -- birds moving uphill and downhill, according to the season.
The delightful Sooty Fox Sparrow is a mid-distance traveler. The mid-distance migrants can move from southern Alaska to British Columbia or even as far as the Bay Area.
The neo-tropical migrants, such as the North American Warblers, can move from the northern boreal forests and tundra to Central America or even South America. Wilson’s Warbler breeds in the Bay Area and then journeys to Mexico for the winter.
Swainson’s Hawks breed in Northern California and then fly off to Argentina for the winter.
Some birds don’t migrate. They are the permanent residents or sedentary birds. The California towhee likes to hang out around home, as does the Wrentit. In fact, the Wrentit is such a couch potato that it rarely travels more than a mile from where it first fledged.
Although migration is stressful, not migrating can also present survival problems for a species. At one time, Wrentits were common in San Francisco. They have since been almost eliminated from the City (or extirpated, in bird lingo) due to loss of their preferred habitat.
Some birds within the same species migrate differently from each other. Our Anna’s Hummingbird can be seen zooming around San Francisco year-round, but some Anna’s fly off to winter in the desert and then return to San Francisco in the summer. Other Anna’s breed high in the Sierras and drop down to the desert in winter.
And then there is post-breeding dispersal. It is not really a migration but rather the kids moving out of the house to find a new place to live, court, and produce grand-birds. They won’t return home, to live in that spare room. Many raptors raised in Northern California end up dining on rodents in the Salinas Valley for their first winter and fan out from there to find new territory.
And some birds are either independent minded or just get lost, usually in their first year. They are the vagrants. These are the birds you read about in the newspaper, with photos of large groups (flocks?) of people with giant, long-lens cameras gathering for a glimpse of the bird of a lifetime. Vagrants may act as pioneers, looking for a new home to extend the range of their species.
If you like looking at birds, San Francisco is the place to be. The Bay Area is located along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route extending from the Arctic tundra to South America. According to Bartley, almost one-half of all species of birds in the United States have been seen in San Francisco.
Many birds raise their young here in the spring and summer, and so autumn is when we have the most birds. Sadly, the first winter for young birds is when they are most likely to expire. Some species have only a 30% survival rate! They are lost over the winter mainly due to starvation, predation, and disease.
You can help the birds who are just passing through on their arduous journeys as well as those who stay for the winter (or the summer). Bartley advises that you can “paint your garden” with birds by growing those plants that attract the birds that you want to see. Keep your housecat indoors (better for the cat, too), provide fresh water, keep your bird feeder clean to prevent the spread of disease, and don’t use rodenticides, herbicides, or pesticides. Songbirds, in particular, rely on insects. As Bartley says, “They don’t call them flycatchers because they eat fruit.”
Support legislation on “bird-safe” windows and the Lights Out for Birds campaigns. Many birds navigate by the stars, and artificial light can be a big problem for them. We’ll cover the “how they do it” of migration in a future article.
And the crows - how do they fly? Well, according to the Cornell bird website, some migrate, some are resident, and sometimes both behaviors take place in one population of crows.
Want to learn more?
Both migrating raptors and the raptor dispersal can be seen from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin, which hosts birdwatching during the migration seasons. http://www.parksconservancy.org/programs/ggro/`
You can reach Eddie Bartley at: firstname.lastname@example.org
• • • APRIL 2018 Issue • • •
Untangling an Albatross chick from plastic waste Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Not even recycling can fix this problem
To gain insight into the complexities of environmental health, I sat down with John Rizzo, a member of both the SF Group and Chapter Executive Committees of the Sierra Club. Rizzo is also a technical adviser to World Clean-up Day. We talked about his work around decreasing pollution in our oceans and waterways. Rizzo had just returned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Sixth International Marine Debris conference in San Diego.
At the end of our discussion, my head was spinning from the scope of the problem of plastics in our oceans. Impacts range from the now-famous Pacific Gyre, a floating mass of garbage that is twice the size of Texas, to small bottle caps that sea birds feed to their chicks (who then die), and all the way down to microplastics, tiny particles which are infecting everything in the world and whose impact has yet to be fully studied and understood.
Perhaps the best place to start is somewhere in the middle.
As an example, let’s study the life of a plasticized coffee cup from a coffee shop in Chicago. If that cup were thrown into the Chicago River, it could float down to the Mississippi and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Current could carry it across the Atlantic Ocean as far as the coast of Ireland. That is, if it didn’t break down into tiny microplastics. In that case it might end up on the ocean floor and be scooped up by denizens of the deep. Or algae could attach to it, and the plastic would be eaten along with the algae. (Maybe we should skip the seafood for dinner and go for the veggie special.)
What is certain is that our earth is being overwhelmed with debris, and, in the case of plastic, it is not going to disappear on its own. Plastics can not only poison and injure marine life but they can also disrupt human hormones, litter our beaches, and clog our streams and landfills.
Recycling is not going to take care of this massive problem. Even with concerted efforts at recycling, only about 9% of plastics are recycled worldwide, and that is only in the countries that have developed the infrastructure to do it. Poor communities just don’t have the resources to develop recycling programs. At the NOAA conference, one speaker showed pictures of beaches in poor communities littered with plastic garbage, while the wealthier areas enjoyed pristine coastlines.
Compostable bags and utensils are also, apparently, not the answer - at least not yet. Rizzo learned that there are no standards for biodegradable bags or utensils as there are for, say, organic vegetables. Some materials break down easily, others do not. Some bio-degradable bags were even found to have microplastics in them! The conscientious NOAA conference provided metal forks, cloth napkins and china cups. Come to think of it, for all of us tired of eating off of plastic, this is a pleasant solution to a serious problem.
Plastics are all around us - a complex problem with many moving parts that must be addressed on multiple fronts, including governmental regulation. As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?
To help staunch the flow of plastics into our environment, the following legislation has been introduced in Sacramento.
Assembly Bill 2779 (Stone) will require companies to produce a bottle cap that stays attached to the bottle after opening. Senate Bills 835 and 836 (Glazer) ban smoking on state beaches and in state parks. (You guessed it -- cigarette filters contain plastic.) And Assembly Bill 1884 (Calderon) requires restaurants to provide single-use plastic straws only upon request.
What you can do:
• Use as little plastic as possible.
• Support AB 2779 (Stone), SB 835 and 836 (Blazer) and
AB 1884 (Calderon).
• Join up with others on World Clean-up Day
(September 15th, 2018).
• More to come on that in a few months!
Did I say to use as little plastic as possible?
Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.
••• June 2018 Issue •••
Fate of the earth in the hands of women’s education
Over the last 200 years, the earth’s population has increased from one billion to over seven billion people and is projected to grow to 11.1 billion by the year 2100. This growth will have enormous impacts on the natural environment, on the extinction of many species, and even on the future of our own species. Despite these impacts, over-population remains a sensitive topic to introduce into discussions about the environment.
To learn more about the best ways to approach this topic, I spoke with Karen Gaia Pitts, an environmental activist who has studied population issues for years and is currently a member of the Sierra Club Sustainable Population through Equity and Health Committee. Pitts referred me to environmental writer Paul Hawken’s new compendium, Drawdown, in which a coalition of scientists, economists, and other experts quantitatively evaluate the most effective ways to reverse global warming. Of the 100 solutions listed, girls’ education and family planning rank in the top 10 ways to lower emissions.
Supporting girl’s education in the era of the #metoo movement is a no-brainer, but adding in family planning can lead to a mine field of fear of government control over our personal lives and concern over religious beliefs.
For example, past policies that have dictated the number of children per family have been contentious; extreme programs such as forced sterilization are not something that most people want to replicate. These types of programs are based on the assumption that on their own, women will choose to have as many children as possible.
It turns out that this is not the case. In Drawdown, Hawken states that 225 million women in lower-income countries “want the ability to choose whether and when to become pregnant but lack the necessary access to contraception -- resulting in some 74 million unintended pregnancies each year.”
Despite this, in many countries the rate of population increase has leveled off or decreased. What has led to this change in family sizes?
Many factors come into play but, according to Pitts, making family planning information widely available in their native language to women and girls, combined with providing convenient access to safe, routine, and low cost or free health care, have been shown to be effective in giving women power over their lives and therefore over their choice as to the size of their families.
What about religious objections? Studies have shown that the majority of women who are members of traditionally conservative religious groups have tried or will regularly use contraceptives -- if the contraceptives are available. It is important to emphasize that family planning programs involve much more than providing abortions.
In fact, family planning education combined with low-cost health options results in fewer abortions and better health care outcomes for both women and their babies.
The other major factor impacting population growth is education for girls. This is something we can all support as good for the girls themselves. But there are further benefits. Studies show that girls’ education results in fewer child marriages, choosing to start families later, choosing to have fewer children, a drop in maternal mortality, and healthier babies. Economically, education for girls results in higher wages and greater upward mobility for women and a greater contribution to economic growth.
One of the most stunning statistics Pitts shared is that, according to the Brookings Institution, a woman with 12 years of schooling will have four to five fewer children than a woman with little or no schooling.
But is universal girls’ education attainable? How much would it cost to educate all of the girls in lower and lower-middle-income countries through secondary education? The United Nations estimates about $39 billion annually above what is already being spent. Of course, that is a lot of money, but with hundreds of billions currently being spent by the United States government on military development, one is reminded of the 60’s bumper sticker -- “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” It is just a matter of setting the right priorities.
Pitts emphasized that population numbers also count for wealthy countries -- the higher the standard of living, the greater the environmental impact of each person. Estimates vary, but one 2015 Oxfam study stated that at a global level, the carbon emissions of the richest 10 percent are 11 times greater than those of the poorest 50 percent of the world.
Add that to the surprising fact that 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and it is obvious it is in everyone’s interest to advocate for comprehensive health care for women in the United States as well.
When given information and a choice, women will control their own family planning. And, in turn, our planet and all the life on it have a better chance not only of surviving but also of thriving.
Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.
•••July 2018 Issue •••
It’s a small world after all - at least when it comes to trash
Join over 1000 coastal and inland clean-up groups on California Coastal Clean-up Day — Saturday, September 15th.
In the April Castro Courier, we talked with John Rizzo about the problem of plastics in our oceans and briefly mentioned World Clean-Up Day. I promised to tell you more about it -- and therein lies a great story. . .
We shift our scene to the small but indomitable country of Estonia, a Baltic country that has been over-run repeatedly as greater powers tried to absorb it into their empires. But Estonia has emerged independent and is once again its own country. And the Estonians, on their own, have started a world-wide environmental movement, called World Clean-Up Day.
It all started back in 2007 when Rainer Nõlvak, a tech entrepreneur, returned home to Estonia after spending time abroad. He visited the island of Hiiumaa, a green sanctuary for him in the past. Except that it was no longer the wilderness he had known. It had been used as a giant trash heap -- complete with bedframes, tires, carpets and old chairs.
Estonia, like many other countries, had succumbed to something called “trash blindness,” where people get used to seeing garbage strewn about and accept it as normal.
Nõlvak was upset. He wanted to clean up the island, but he also realized that cleaning it up permanently involved not only picking up the garbage now but also raising awareness that dumping trash on the land was not a great idea - ever. To both clean the country and to raise awareness, his inspiration was to clean the entire country all at once -- in one day!
Nõlvak gathered together other like-minded local tech, business entrepreneurs and nature enthusiasts to plan a national cleanup campaign. They recruited specialists to develop a GPS mapping software app. Hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the country, recording and submitting data about major trash sites.
You may ask, how many sites could there be in this small country of approximately 16,000 square miles (129th largest in the world, according to Wikipedia)? Over 10,000 major sites were identified! The team then recruited local garbage companies to pick up the trash once it was collected and move it to recycling and trash collection areas.
One month before the planned date for this ambitious project, Nõlvak and friends were concerned that not enough people had signed up. They estimated that it would take tens of thousands of people to do the entire country in one day, but only 10,000 people had signed up. They then mounted a major media campaign and, as a result, on May 3rd, 2008, over 50,000 people turned out! That was 4% of Estonia’s population. The volunteers collected over 10,000 tons of trash in 5 hours.
From that beginning, a movement started. It spread through Eastern Europe to Western Europe and then the rest of the world. It now involves millions of people from over 185 countries. Enthusiastically titled World Clean-up Day, it is held yearly on a weekend in September and overlaps with the various international coastal and other clean-up days on that weekend.
Rizzo became involved when members of the group were visiting San Francisco. He was introduced to them by Adriel Hampton, an organizer at Nation Builder. (In addition to volunteering for the Sierra Club, Rizzo writes books about software and has links to many in the tech community.)
The World Clean-up Day team needed help to develop a citizen science database that could be used to record trash all over the world, not only to help identify trouble spots and get them cleaned up, but also with the awareness that to solve a problem first we need to define it carefully.
Rizzo helped them to set up the non-profit structure they needed to get assistance from companies such as IBM and others.
World Clean-Up Day’s goal is to create a database that can be used not only by the citizen scientists who participate in World Clean-up Day but also to combine that information with the data that organizations such as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the Ocean Conservancy, the Marine Debris Tracker, and American Rivers are now collecting. This will enable them to achieve a world-wide picture of the extent of the trash problem, so that it can be addressed effectively and, hopefully, solved.
As the proverb says, from small beginnings come great things.
What you can do:
To learn more about World Clean-up Day, their organization, mapping tools, world-wide trash database, and clean-up guidelines, go to www.letsdoitworld.org/worldwasteplatform/
World Clean-up Day does not have a group in California right now, but don’t worry - our coastline and creeks are covered! Join over 1,000 coastal and inland clean-up groups on California Coastal Clean-up Day, September 15th, 2018. https://www.coastal.ca.gov/publiced/ccd/ccd.html
Imagine if 4% of San Francisco’s 900,000 people came out - that would be 36,000 people!
Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.
Oroville Dam Spillway Photo Courtesy: Sierra Club SF Bay
To dam or not to dam?
As summer approaches and the winter rains become a distant memory, we are reminded once again that much of California is a desert. Newspapers editorialize about how to plan for future droughts. Sooner or later someone declares that California must build more dams. And yet those same newspapers featured terrifying photos of a large dam spillway failing and outlined the enormous costs involved not only if the dam fails but also if it just needs repairs.
To learn the dam facts (sorry), I contacted Sierra Club California Water Committee Co-chair Charlotte Allen. Allen became interested in water issues after reading “Cadillac Desert” in 1986. She found water policy to be fascinating - analyzing big systems, figuring out how they work, and applying environmental principles to improve the systems. Allen met her biggest challenge when she waded into researching California’s water system - the largest engineered water system in the world.
Allen is dubious about building more dams to prepare for drought. Dams are not environmentally beneficial; in fact, they often destroy stream ecology. Reservoirs lose a lot of water to evaporation, which will increase as world temperatures rise. Dams can fail if there is too much rain or if there are structural problems. If a dam fails, the potential for destruction downstream is enormous.
Allen concluded that, rather than dams, the answer lies in solutions such as water conservation, recycling waste water, increasing agricultural conservation, and banking today’s rain for future drought years.
Yes, water can be banked! Just as you put your hard-earned dollars into a savings account for a rainy day, water can be stored underground and withdrawn on a ‘dry’ day.
How is water banked? “Spread and sink,” says Allen. Let the water flow slowly over permeable soil and the water will soak into the underground aquifers. It will be waiting for you when you need it.
One example of “spread and sink” is the Yolo Bypass. You may have driven to Sacramento on Interstate 80, passing over a long causeway that looks out over usually dry fields. The Yolo Bypass was created in the early 1930’s as a flood plain to protect Sacramento and the surrounding areas when water rushes out of the Sierras and down to the Bay. An unplanned benefit of the bypass is that the water spreads out over the open land and slowly soaks into the soil, replenishing the aquifer below. The Yolo Bypass also provides habitat for hundreds of species throughout the year. Birds literally flock to it. It has become a major habitat area both for resting and nesting along the Pacific Flyway.
But how much water can we really store with water banking? Amazingly, a lot! Right now, above-ground water storage in California is only 50 million acre feet. (An acre foot is one acre of water, one foot deep, or 326,000 gallons.) California needs storage exceeding an additional 50 million acre feet. In other words, we need what we have now -- more than doubled! There is nowhere in the state to build enough dams to meet this need. But estimates of available groundwater storage range from 850 million acre feet to as much as 1.3 billion acre feet!
To achieve this storage, in addition to bypasses, water can be encouraged to percolate into aquifers by restoring mountain meadows, creating levee set-backs, and getting rid of the concrete in river channels.
These ‘spread and sink’ methods can replenish the groundwater basins better than dams, provide more habitat than dams, save more water than new dams, cost less to build than new dams, and are cheaper and easier to maintain than dams. And last, but certainly not least, they avoid the danger of having a dam collapse and flood out your town.
There is an additional benefit with encouraging groundwater storage. Much of California’s existing ground water is suffering from over-pumping. Over-exploitation of groundwater can result in devastating impacts such as salt-water intrusion into the groundwater and even compaction and eventual collapse of the aquifer in which it is stored. Both conditions are irreversible.
Farmers in the Central Valley, who depend completely on groundwater, are experimenting with groundwater recharge. For example, almond farmers are flooding their fields in the winter; the trees don’t seem to mind, and the depletion of the groundwater can be slowed down and, hopefully, eventually reversed.
Both the State and the various groups who need California’s water recognize the problems and are working to come up with new solutions -- without dams. But there is still a lot to do!
What you can do:
To learn about the range of water issues - including groundwater banking - and what you can do to make sure that all Californians can count on a safe and reliable water future, contact Allen at the Sierra Club California CNRCC (soon to be renamed CalConsCom) website:
Yolo Bypass - California Department of Fish and Wildlife website
Oroville Dam Spillway - Sierra Club California website