Happy surprises for Thanksgiving day

November 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

A year ago, my Thanksgiving post was a tribute of sorts to an endangered species, the Vaquita marina, and a reflection on our consumption of water – an important cause of distress for this brackish-water dwelling, small porpoise:

I can tell you now, I thought that the tribute was an elegy to a dying species, the pitch for water conservation quite possibly a lost cause.  But I needed to learn more, to see this in person – even if that meant dragging out the melancholy. And so, I teamed with Josh Link on a series, Explorations of the Lower Colorado River – a humbling and amazing trip in which we saw how a people’s love for a land, commitment to all species, and creativity and capability was being rewarded, poco a poco, with adjustments and agreements and funding and projects that kept some habitat on life support.  But what was really needed was water for the river, for the delta.

This week, the hard work of these environmentalists in the Mexico and US border region has been rewarded:  a landmark pact between the two nations recognizing the delta’s need for water, and other measures.  It is a five-year treaty, so the flows are not secure. But it is an incredible beginning.

Today’s Thanksgiving celebrates an newfound abundance for a long-withered waterway, a lifeline and hope.

Congratulations, to all involved.

In the news:

National Geographic: A historic binational agreement gives new life to the Colorado River Delta

LA Times:  U.S. Mexico reach pact on Colorado River water sale

Huffington Post: An historic step towards saving the Colorado River and Delta

You can also see photos and news about the delta at the Save the Colorado River Delta Facebook page.  They’ve also posted video of Mexico’s Director General of the National Water Commission talking about the pact.

Creekfreak gets sent to the (not-a) Cornfield

September 28, 2009 § 3 Comments

But not in a Twilight Zone kind of a way!  I am giving a talk at the Farmlab/Not-A-Cornfield space, located next to the historic Cornfields aka Los Angeles State Historic Park.

When:  Friday October 9, noon

Where:  1745 North Spring Street, Unit 4, LA 90012

Under the umbrella of Los Angeles & Water, I’ll probably touch on all my favorite subjects – water, Los Angeles, creeks, urban design, political will, birth control…

Come on down!

Quiet unease on the Rio Grande

June 5, 2009 § 6 Comments

Rio Grande as seen from the air, approaching Albuquerque.

Rio Grande as seen from the air, approaching Albuquerque.

The Times piece broke my creekfreak silence.  I was on an unintended sabbatical, my grandfather having passed away, work piling high.  But I’m back now.   Being in New Mexico to be with family, I couldn’t help but also see the waterways.  Looking out during the descent into Albuquerque is always a pleasure – to see the Rio Grande’s welcoming green bosques, the adjacent farmland, cutting through the hot llano, this richness made possible only by the river.  For all our ipods and text-messaging and satellite imagery, it really is this simple an equation.  This is what keeps us going.  

And in New Mexico, as in the former Mexican California, the traditional hispano water-agriculture relationship is negotiated through a community water-sharing system, the acequias (that’s the NM word – zanjas being the angeleno word, both meaning ditch).  

Cottonwoods lining the acequia near my grandfather's house.

Cottonwoods lining the acequia near my grandfather's house.

The acequias are often lined with cottonwood trees, they might look almost like little streams, except they are in straight lines and have little berms and floodgates.  In Los Lunas, my cousins were telling me to look for pheasants, early in the morning, near the acequias.  Amaranth (“wild spinach” my mom called it), a green as well as a grain, also grows near water, and can be seen alongside the acequias.  They also served as community links – my cousins said – back in the day, anyway – it would be ok to walk along the acequias to get from one person’s house to another.  I might try it to walk over to the Rio Grande, which was a short distance away, they suggested.  The sheltering trees, next to the water, the growing food-stuffs, did create a sense of security and permanence for this city-dweller, but being an angelena, I drove.

Maintaining that permanence is the job of the mayordomo, the traffic controller of the water flows, who sees to it that each farm gets its allotment. My great-uncle held that role for the Acequia del Llano in Santa Fe for a while.  Mayordomos organize the ditch cleanings, make sure gates are opened and closed.  In the world of small-worlds, my co-worker told me he used to get yelled at to go open the floodgates, back when he worked at the Santa Fe Audubon Center years ago.  “Must have been your uncle” he laughed.  Years ago, when I last spoke to my great-uncle about it (he too has since passed on), he had been thinking of lining the ditch in concrete, to prevent losses to infiltration.  I did notice that some of the ditches in Los Lunas were also lined in concrete, and wondered if that affected the health of the cottonwoods.  This, after all, is the microcosm of the MWDs huge project, lining its canals in south San Diego County to prevent “losses” of water intended for cities and farms, that support wetlands and life south of the border.  

And thus creeps in the unease.  For water and New Mexico have an even more delicate dance than water and Southern California.  The finality of New Mexico’s finite resources are a little clearer than here in LA.  You see that llano out there, ready to move in if the water table drops, and it is dropping while urban development bears down on the desert landscape.  My cousins told me that some acequias are under pressure to sell out their rights.  And here, this is about more than water, it is about a way of life, a bonding with the land, a culture.  You sell out that water and you’ve sold out your culture, your legacy, your land (and, I was hearing, your right to bitch and moan about the changes you’ve sold out to).

Sign in a field in Tomé, New Mexico.

Sign in a field in Tomé, New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Santa Fe has enacted very strict water conservation regulations to limit its diversions of water, presumably from the San Juan-Chama Diversion Project.  Did I just say there’s finality to New Mexico’s water resources?  As in Southern California, there is a federal project that diverts water from the Colorado River into New Mexico.  The already over-allocated Colorado River.  

And this diversion is holding, just barely, a lifeline to the endangered silvery minnow, minion of the Rio Grande.  Due to overpumping and development in Albuquerque.  Albuquerque has worked hard to wean itself of its prior waterhog ways – it has dropped per capita consumption from 250 gals/person/day to about 135-150.  Still has a way to go to meet Santa Fe’s 109, or Tucson’s 107, or if you believe the stats, LA’s 96 – but we all have a long way to go to compare with Barcelona’s 39 or Queensland’s 40-something.  And it probably will take bridging such a gap if Albuquerque – and the entire state of New Mexico  – seeks to maintain that vital and essential green valley that is the Rio Grande.

Oceans of water, water to waste

July 30, 2008 § 4 Comments

We began by draining our own aquifers, drying up springs and streams, converting a once impressive Mediterranean (not desert) landscape into, well, an urban desert:

“At the date of the settlement of Los Angeles a large portion of the country from the central part of the pueblo to the tide water of the sea through and over which the Los Angeles River now finds its way to the ocean was largely covered with a forest interspersed with tracts of marsh.  From that time until 1825 it was seldom, if in any year, that the river discharged even during the rainy season its waters into the sea.  Instead of having a river way to the sea, the waters spread over the country filling the depressions in the surface and forming lakes, ponds and marshes.” Colonel J.J. Warner, interviewed by James P. Reagan, 1914.  

Next we dried up Owens Lake, made a significant contribution to the depletion of the Bay Delta, and have deprived Mexico of about 90-95% of its historic Colorado River Flows.  And while few in Southern California shed tears for the Delta Smelt, even charismatic species like the Vaquita Porpoise (whose double-whammy is huge habitat loss historically + shrimp trawlers today) suffer in silence while we water our lawns and splash in our private swimming pools (or take very long baths, a personal failing).

And now the LA Times editorial staff is saying it’s time to bring the ocean into the mix.  They admit it’s so costly it will only provide for a small fraction of our water supply.  The enormous start up cost doesn’t scare them off.  They do responsibly point out we need to employ other methods.  But why go here at all?  Desal makes no sense:  it is costly, it is energy intensive at a time when we need to conserve energy, it has impacts to marine life, and it is bien posible that we will be creating hypersaline zones in the ocean near the plants.  

On the other hand, we consume 102 gallons of water per person per day, on average.  Some places consume more – I hear Beverly Hills averages 250-300 gallons/pp/pd and woe-betide-us La Cañada is in the 400-600 gallons/pp/pd range.  France and Spain, our Mediterranean brethren, consume an average of 42 and 69 gallons/pp/pd respectively.  Chic Barcelona averages 37 gallons/pp/pd.   

Clearly we can do better.  For starters, we need a water consumption target that isn’t based on current averages.  We need to decrease overall consumption.  We can easily do this: 50-60% of water consumed in LA goes to yards.  We can change our landscaping.  We can work out safe greywater harvesting – which is currently technically illegal for surface irrigation.  And we can continue to make advances with reusing our wastewater.  I do have serious concerns about pharmaceuticals and other drugs in our wastestream, but either way it’s going in rivers and into the ocean, or into our groundwater.  But most compelling to me are the opportunities to marry urban design with water recharge and river restoration.  We need water.  We also need (desperately) open space & housing.  We could stand to recover some lost and endangered species, like steelhead trout.  And thinking about food security – locally produced food – also makes sense.  

So what to do?  Take the inevitable (and for many inexorable) – urban densification, and be strategic about it.  Plan for greater density, and aggressively create open space around it. Re-establish floodplains, restore rivers.  Let the rivers bring back the fish, and utilize floodplains for parks and agriculture…and flooding and recharge. Find the soils of highest permeability (like in the San Ferndando Valley) and unpave areas below the canyons, let floods flood and groundwater recharge. Need I say it?  Exercise political will for the greater good.

We could re-shape this city, which is so often decried for its placelessness, sprawl, and concrete, into an ecological haven.  The Carlsbad desal plant will generate 50 million gallons of water a day. The Times states it costs between $850-$1500 per acre foot to desalinate ocean water – a cost to Carlsbad of $47.6 to $84 million/yr based on their estimates.  The plant itself will cost in excess of $300 million. Instead of encouraging a wasteful and destructive way of life, how about committing to investing at least as much money to make our landscapes work for us – using the existing natural processes of our region to not only provide us with water, but also bring back the life and environment that made this such an enticing place to early settlers?

Oceans of water – Los Angeles Times.

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