The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!
The EFM Notebook
Photo by Robert Badger and Nita Winter
A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy
by Susan Holloway | Bio
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Sufficiently freaked out? Don’t stop reading…help is on the way! Federal, state, and county governments — prodded by advocates — are finally developing a system for regulating these bad boys.
Detlef Knappe and the Cape Fear River
Let’s take a look at one example of how industrial interests, local officials, scientists, and journalists have handled a serious contamination problem in one region. This is the case of the Chemours Chemical Company and the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The Cape Fear River feeds into a watershed that provides drinking water for 1.5 million people.
Nearly 10 years ago, North Carolina State University environmental engineer Detlef Knappe conducted research finding that the Cape Fear River was heavily contaminated with PFAS and other industrial chemicals.
In 2016 he reported these findings in scientific articles and he wrote directly to local and state officials about the problem. But his persistent efforts yielded zero returns until Vaughn Hagerty, a reporter at the Wilmington-Star News, published an article in 2017 on Knappe’s report.
Finally shamed into action, local agencies discovered that the source of the chemicals was a manufacturing plant owned by Chemours, an offshoot of DuPont.
It turns out that Chemours and DuPont had been dumping GenX, a very powerful chemical in the PFAS family, into the river for over 30 years.
"This 'emerging contaminant' GenX has actually been in the water since 1980. It's mystifying why Chemours, and before that DuPont, wasn't more careful in capturing chemicals in waste streams. For Fortune 500 companies, the cost of proper wastewater treatment and air pollution control would not be a big burden." Dr. Detlef Knappe
The state was finally able to pressure Chemours to stop polluting the Cape Fear River, which is great. However, the chemical contamination problem is far from solved for North Carolina water drinkers. Subsequent studies by Knappe and colleagues have identified PFAS and other industrial pollutants in many waterways in the state.
What are the key characteristics of this class of chemicals?
How, specifically, do PFAS get into our bodies? The most common way is through our drinking water.
“Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water. Source: Environmental Working Group
We ingest PFAS in other ways besides drinking contaminated water. For instance, PFAS are also used to coat the paper in fast food packaging. The chemicals leach into the hamburger and fries that we then scarf down. We also ingest PFAS when we eat fish that have lived in contaminated water, and when we eat fruits and vegetables irrigated with contaminated water. Children may absorb PFAS by crawling around and playing on PFAS-treated carpet. Nursing mothers exposed to PFAS pass along the chemicals to their infants, although the CDC considers the benefits of breastfeeding to outweigh the hazards of PFAS exposure.
Workers involved in processing PFAS and PFAS-containing materials may be exposed by inhaling them or absorbing them through their skin. Evidence compiled by the CDC found, for example, that a sample of workers at the 3M Company had nearly 1000 times as much PFOA (a very harmful category of PFAS) in their blood than did a community sample.
A major source of PFAS contamination is the firefighting foam often used on military bases and at commercial airports. A Department of Defense report released in March 2020 showed that many bases and surrounding communities are contaminated with PFAS.
Finally, several recent studies have shown a link between COVID-19 and PFAS, suggesting that PFAS exposure may increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases like COVID-19.
Industry response (or lack thereof)
For the past 60 years, chemical manufacturers have covered up evidence of the human and environmental impacts of PFAS. US industries have stopped manufacturing some dangerous kinds of PFAS but they nevertheless remain in the environment and our bodies because they were made and used domestically for decades, and biodegrade at an infinitesimally slow rate. And some products imported from other countries continue to contain them.
Industry scientists have developed replacement PFAS that they claim have improved safety profiles, but emerging studies suggest that replacement PFAS are similarly dangerous, equally persistent, and even more mobile than the older ones.
State governments step up
California has stepped up significantly in the last two years, adopting several PFAS-related policies including the following:
EPA: MIA on PFAS until last month
In contrast to individual states, the federal government has done little to regulate PFAS, sometimes acting with reckless-seeming disregard for public safety. One of the more shocking examples of this? Plans by the Department of Defense (DOD) to incinerate toxic firefighting foam.
“For years DOD used toxic firefighting foams containing PFAS during drills and fires in bases across the country. PFAS from these foams polluted the soil and water of neighboring communities. Facing multiple lawsuits and billions of dollars in potential liability from past releases, DOD chose to incinerate its unused firefighting foam. However, DOD failed to conduct any environmental review before approving this incineration, bringing into new communities the risk of PFAS emissions and other pollution that are proven to harm public health.” Source: Earthjustice
When Earthjustice and other environmental organizations found out about it through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, they sued the DOD to put a halt to this lethal practice.
DOD isn't the only problematic agency. The Environmental Protective Agency’s approval requirements for new chemicals are riddled with loopholes, and companies are often allowed skip notification requirements for PFAS.
Finally, however, on Oct. 18 of this year, the EPA announced steps to study and, to some extent, regulate PFAS. In its roadmap, the EPA described a plan to set drinking water limits on some toxic chemicals, require manufacturers to provide detailed reporting, and designate two of the most well-known PFAS as hazardous under Superfund law.
Marin County still working on disposable foodware ban
The Board of Supervisors just closed the public comment period but if you would like to follow the next steps, subscribe for updates!
What can you do?
Be a careful consumer: You can learn a lot more about PFAS in this excellent but rather technical article. In general, avoid items described as “nonstick”; reduce or eliminate fast food; check beauty product labels for the term “fluoro,” which indicates a fluorinated chemical; and use granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis filters for your drinking water. Oh, and don’t let any firefighters spray your children with foam!
Get some help from your friends: Why should the onus be on the consumer to avoid being poisoned by everyday products we buy in good faith? This month the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Clean Production Action (CPA) unveiled a new certification standard for disposable foodware. Their certification helps consumers know which disposable plates and bowls do not contain PFAS and other harmful chemicals.
PFAS-laden rugs are not acceptable!
Be a feisty consumer and advocate: Consumers can also contact brands to tell them to stop using PFAS in their products. IKEA, H&M, and Crate & Barrel are already eliminating highly fluorinated chemicals like PFAS from their product lines. Some restaurant chains like Chipotle and Taco Bell have pledged to remove PFAS from their food packaging. Hold their feet to the fire!
Support advocacy groups: As we have seen, we cannot yet depend on the federal government to take action to protect citizens from these life-threatening substances.
That’s why we need advocacy groups like the Center for Environmental Health, the Environmental Working Group, the Green Science Policy Institute, Earthjustice and other organizations to do the research, tell us what is going on, and put pressure on elected officials! Think about their good works when you figure out your year-end giving in December!
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future Notebook topics? Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.
I have moments when my personal actions to fight climate change seem pathetically ineffectual. I stand in my kitchen wondering whether the top of my plastic spray bottle is recyclable, or is just the bottle itself? Or neither? What difference does it make anyway, if the seas are already awash in plastic?
You may also experience this overwhelmed feeling at times. The challenge of addressing extensive, systemic problems like climate change can leave you feeling worried or hopeless.
How do environmental advocates effectively stimulate hope and commitment to action? I recently learned about the public narrative framework, which uses the power of narratives, or stories, to evoke positive emotions that spur people’s motivation to make things better. Remember the amazing speech then-Senator Obama gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention? That speech is a masterpiece of public narrative! Let’s find out about the framework and then see how Obama and others use it so effectively.
The public narrative framework is the brainchild of Marshall Ganz, an activist, leadership consultant, teacher, and writer. More about his amazing story later…but let’s focus on his ideas first. If you want to read more about his framework, please refer to the articles listed at the end of this post.
Ganz emphasizes the importance of two ways of knowing, the kind with the head and the kind with the heart. No offense to rational, analytic thinking based on evidence but I am going to focus here on what he has to say about emotion!
The main point is this: Narratives engage people in experiencing the emotions that arise during a challenging circumstance, a process that also brings their values into focus and motivates them to meet the challenge with action.
Let’s take an example to illustrate this web of feelings, beliefs, and actions. I feel very sad when I see a picture of a seagull tangled in a plastic fishing line. That strong emotion signals the value I place on the wellbeing of wildlife, as well as my belief that people have a responsibility to help other living creatures. When these emotions and beliefs are activated, I am motivated to do something about plastic pollution, including recycle plastic bottles.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I don’t have any particular response to the trapped seagull. None of my values are particularly called to the fore. So I am unlikely to do anything to reduce the amount of plastic in the ocean.
Is there a connection between action and other emotions besides sadness? Absolutely! Ganz groups emotions into two categories. Emotions that inhibit action include inertia, fear, self-doubt, isolation, and apathy. Those that facilitate action are urgency, hope, the sense that you can make a difference (known by its acronym, UCMAD), solidarity, and anger. The goal for advocacy leadership is to highlight stories that are action motivators.
Why Focus on Narratives?
The challenge presents the characters (pigs, in this case) with an urgent need to pay attention to the danger and choose an action. You probably remember the kind of house each pig decides to build to protect himself from the wolf. The pigs' housing choices signal to the reader their respective values. Only one pig is hardworking enough to put the effort into building a solid house. So that pig’s values (hard work) lead to an action (building a brick house), that leads to a positive outcome (not being eaten).
This tale, which has been around for centuries in various guises, engages the reader’s emotions, and in doing so, it painlessly encourages reflection on how to best survive in a dangerous world!
Enough about pigs! What about the environment?
Ganz describes three kinds of narrative. In a story of self you recount how you have responded to a challenge by making choices to act in a certain way. An effective story of self focuses on choice points, moments when our values become clear to us. In the words of Ganz and his colleagues: “We all have stories of pain, or we wouldn’t think the world needs changing. We all have stories of hope, or we wouldn’t think we could change it.”
The third kind of narrative is the story of now. The story of now focuses on the next action that is required. For instance, you might ask the Supervisor to join you and other residents in the fight against plastic food ware, and urge her to author a bill outlawing its use.
The Story of an Unlikely Hero
The story of Marshall Ganz is inspirational. Born in 1943, Ganz grew up in Bakersfield, the son of a rabbi and a teacher. His family moved to Germany for three years following WW II, where his father served as an army chaplain working with Holocaust survivors. While the young Marshall did not understand the complexity of the war at an intellectual level, he experienced the deep emotional trauma of those survivors who passed through his home.
In the summer of 1964, then a college student at Harvard, Ganz became involved in the Mississippi Summer Project, and stayed on to work for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). As he writes in his book, Why David Sometimes Wins, “Mississippi had taught many of us that it was not an exception, but rather a clearly drawn example of how race, politics, and power work in America.”
Nearly 30 years after dropping out, Ganz return to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree and earn a PhD in sociology. He became a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he developed (and still teaches) courses on the role of public narrative and leadership. Ganz has also contributed his expertise to many initiatives outside the University, including a project addressing leadership in the Sierra Club, and the formation of Camp Obamas to organize volunteers in Barack Obama’s 2007-8 campaign for president.
In his writing, Ganz often sums up his ideas with a quote from Rabbi Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem during the first century BCE: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”
The Supreme Master of Public Narrative
In the beginning of his speech Obama introduces himself, addressing the ways in which his upbringing is unconventional while also reframing it as actually consistent with the American story. His narrative frames his grandfather and father’s story as an inspiring one of personal effort while also showing how it synchs with the American story of opportunity, linking his story of self with a story of us.
Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack….But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son. Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place: America, which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before…I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.
But does Senator Obama allow us to bask in the glow of American awesomeness? No, he continues by describing the urgent need for action to preserve America’s values and commitments, stimulating our emotional responses towards people who have not yet benefited from those commitments.
I say to you tonight: we have more work to do. More to do for the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour.
And finally, the story of now! Elect John Kerry, a man who understands and embodies those shared values.
Want to Learn More about Public Narrative?
Read these articles by Ganz and his colleagues:
Comprehensive essay on public narrative
Participant guide to Public Narrative for organizers
Report on the organizational effectiveness of the Sierra Club’s Groups and Chapters
Take a look at two examples of Public Narrative:
Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention
Tom Hank’s op-ed persuading us to make community college tuition-free for two years; did you know that he attended Chabot College?
Check out this fresh take on the Three Little Pigs:
Green Jelly’s weird musical version (not for little children) of the story. It adds an important twist to the story by making the third pig an A student who can afford to study architecture at Harvard because his father is a famous rock star. Kudos to Green Jelly for including the role of resources in responding to the challenge of building a sturdy house.
That’s it for this installment of the Notebook! I give special thanks to Trevor Stevenson, whose EFM class on Persuasive Strategies for advocates introduced me to these powerful ideas.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website for more stunning images of wildlife.
In this post I want to change that habit and focus on an inconspicuous and unappreciated plant, the pickleweed, which exists in an underrated ecosystem, the salt marsh. I think the example of the pickleweed can illustrate how every element of an ecosystem is an essential part of an interdependent network. The pickleweed not only illuminates the meaning of biodiversity but also points to ways we can support, protect, and restore the biodiversity of local ecosystems.
The scientific name for the pickleweed is Salicornia. It is a widespread genus of succulent, salt-tolerant plants that grow in salt marshes, on beaches, and among mangroves. Pickleweed is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, as well as in southern Africa.
Pickleweed takes salt water up through the roots and stores salt in the top “pickles.” In the fall this part turns red and falls off, ridding the plants of the salt.
What is a salt marsh?
Marsh plants are distributed across different tidal levels depending on their ability to withstand the stress of daily immersion in saltwater. Eelgrass beds often grow in channel bottoms. They are essential in preventing erosion, increasing water clarity and quality, sequestering carbon, and proving food for other marine life.
Other vegetation occurs in at various levels above the mean sea level. For instance, cordgrass is found at the lowest elevations, while pickleweed typically grows on slightly higher ground. Not surprisingly, higher marshes are home to a greater number of plant species than the lower ones. Bay Area salt marshes are also home to the Ridgway’s rail and the California black rail, both endangered.
Why are salt marshes important?
Let’s recall that removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is a crucial way of slowing climate change. In general, plants are carbon factories. They take CO2 from the air and make it into leaves and roots. It’s magic!
The only hitch is that plants typically release carbon when they decompose. However, certain plants are less problematic in this respect. For instance, large trees like Coastal Redwoods don’t release the carbon ensconced in their deeply buried roots.
Plants living in salt marshes are also great at retaining carbon. Marsh plants like the pickleweed decompose and stay locked in the watery environment of the marsh, where their carbon cannot be released into the atmosphere.
The complex relations linking carbon, the pickleweed, the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, and the Ohlone peoples illustrate a crucial fact about biodiversity.
Bothin Marsh: Restoration in Progress
Over 90% of the Bay Area’s salt marshes have been developed over the last 100 years. However, restoration has become increasingly common as marshy areas are acquired by environmentalist groups and state agencies.
Bothin Marsh is a 106 acre preserve along Richardson Bay between the Highway 101 bridge and the communities of Tam Valley and Almonte. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Marin County Parks are collaborating on a restoration of the marsh, the Evolving Shorelines Project.
A brief glimpse of the history of Bothin Marsh can lend insight into challenges to preserving and restoring a biodiverse ecosystem.
Students waiting for commuter train at the new train stop on the Mill Valley line fronting the high school. November 1908.
Shell middens dating from over 5,000 years ago confirm the longstanding presence of indigenous communities in the marsh area. At that time the marsh was much larger than it is today, extending into what is now Tam Valley. After incursion by the Spanish in the 1700s, the resident indigenous communities were nearly wiped out by widespread disease, forced labor, and other forms of mistreatment. In subsequent years, cattle were introduced to the area, competing for grazing space with deer and elk, which were also hunted by the settlers. Controlled fires, used by Coast Miwoks for fire suppression, were discontinued. And commercial logging began on Mt. Tamalpais. These activities altered the shape of the marsh, changed the tidal patterns, and upset the usual routes through which sedimentation occurred. In turn, these changes diminished the plant and animal life supported by the marsh.
In the 1840s homesteading was established along the marshes, and water was diverted for farms and household use. In the 1870s, a 4,000-foot-long railroad trestle was constructed across Richardson Bay, followed by a second trestle near Coyote Creek. Berms were built to contain fill intended to create space for development. The development never occurred but the berms and fill remain. Additionally, two creeks feeding into the marsh were re-routed into engineered channels, dramatically altering its hydrology. By the 1960s, the marsh was completely disconnected from the tides, and sediment from the watersheds was channeled into Richardson Bay instead of nourishing the marsh.
In recent years, a new threat to the marsh has arisen in the form of sustained sea level rise. Changes in the depth and movement of water in Richardson Bay have caused wave-induced erosion along the edges of the marsh, causing much of it to be inundated during king tides.
The history of Bothin Marsh illustrates what happens when the balance of an ecosystem that evolved and flourished for thousands of years is radically disrupted. In the case of Bothin, the mutually beneficial relationships of human communities with plant and animal life became a casualty of the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants followed by subsequent expansionist goals of developing the land for housing and financial gain.
Restoration in progress
At Bothin Marsh, efforts are underway to address the challenges posed by past alterations of the marsh ecosystem as well as rising sea levels. The project goals are to increase sedimentation to provide habitat for diverse plant and animal life and to prevent the marsh from inundation as the sea level continues to rise. In addition, the plan will preserve and enhance the recreational opportunities afforded by the Bay Trail.
In phase one, trail resurfacing and bridge repairs are in progress to improve access to the existing Bay Trail. Small-scale adaptation measures such as creating marsh mounds are also underway, creating habitat for vegetation in high marsh areas.
The second phase is still in the planning stages. The Bay Trail will either be elevated or moved to the edge of the marsh. Coyote Creek will be “unstraightened” and returned to a natural meandering waterway in order to increase the amount of sedimentation in the marsh. These measures and other are intended to accommodate two to four feet of SLR, currently projected to occur by 2060.
Read the adaptation concepts report for all the project details, including plans for subsequent phases of the restoration project. A second report provides a detailed account of the history of the marsh, including old maps documenting all the changes that have occurred in the past two centuries.
Ecosystem change is inevitable, and we cannot expect the natural world to revert to a prior state. One comfort is that plants, animals (and people) have an amazing ability to adapt to new conditions. The pickleweed’s ingenious system for adapting to a salty environment by absorbing salt water into its expendable pickles is a case in point. Sometimes, however, extreme adaptation fails to maintain a balanced and viable ecosystem, necessitating human intervention. Finding this balance is one challenge for restoration efforts at Bothin Marsh.
What Can You Do?
Nobody wants to stay locked in a place of pain. We want to see reconciliation. We want to see a world where we can see our culture uplifted even by institutions in the past haven’t done right by our people.
Support the Cafe Ohlone
Here’s your chance to sample pickleweed! Cafe Ohlone is slated to open in November in the Phoebe A.Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. In addition to sharing the Ohlone culture and storytelling, the cafe will feature dishes using native ingredients like smoked trout with bay laurel-blackberry sauce.
Cafe owners Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino are eager to engage with the campus community, while also acknowledging the irony of locating their restaurant in a building named after a member of the Hearst family, whose acquisition of tremendous wealth in the mid-1800s came at the expense of local indigenous communities.
Support a local organization
Become a member of one of the organizations engaged in the restoration of Bothin Marsh, such as the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The Parks Conservancy is active in fundraising, community engagement, and co-project management. Some of their projects include restoring the Crissy Field tidal marsh, and extending the trail system in Marin, including at Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands. In addition to the Bothin Marsh restoration they are presently working on a multi-year Redwood Renewal project at Muir Woods.
Learn more about biodiverse regions of South America
Just 5% of the world’s population occupies 24% of the land surface that is home to 80% of global biodiversity. Although biodiversity is primarily supported in lands occupied by indigenous people, they are rarely included in global efforts to protect these fragile areas. This National Geographic article about the indigenous community living in the Yasuni National Park in northeastern Ecuador is particularly informative concerning efforts to support indigenous rights to self-determination, well-being, traditional knowledge, and a healthy environment.
Sign up for EFM classes on biodiversity
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to the participants at the September 9 EFM webinar called Biodiversity and Climate change: David Ackerly, Justin Robinson, and Mark Hertsgaard. Their inspiring presentations shaped the contours of this blog post! Thanks also to the great presentations by Rob LaPorte and Veronica Pearson on the recent EFM fieldtrip to Bothin Marsh. To view the webinar, contact Kim Rago (email@example.com).
Effects of the Drought on Housing for Low-Income Residents
As one of the least affordable and least diverse counties, Marin has been asked by the State to build around 15,000 new affordable residences over the next ten years.
In the MMWD, a controversial proposal to suspend all new water service hookups is on the table. A ban on new water hookups would create major delays for proposed housing developments targeting lower income residents.
Similarly, a 74-unit multifamily complex proposed for Marin City already approved for low- and extremely low-income residents is now in limbo.
Critics of the suspension argue that, while restricting new service connections does reduce water demand, other options may be more effective, including wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and groundwater storage.
Citing the county’s history of exclusionary zoning, some observers have expressed concern that the suspensions are simply a handy excuse to limit unwanted new housing for low-income residents.
The North Marin WD has already enacted a ban on new water hookups in its Novato service area, although it allows for development to move forward if the project does not install landscapes that use drinking water supply.
Housing and Conservation Tensions in Siskiyou County
This tension between housing advocates and water conservation officials in Marin echoes even more serious strife in Siskiyou County between county officials and Hmong American farmers.
During the Vietnam war the US recruited tens of thousands of Hmong to fight against the North Vietnamese in Laos. At the war’s end, many of these fighters and their families moved to the US, including a considerable number who came to California.
Marijuana cultivation in other communities in the county was not similarly targeted, according to the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus, which have filed a brief alleging that county officials have violated the Hmong American residents’ constitutional rights.
What about Effects on Wildlife?
So what is the effect of severe drought on wildlife? The sources I have consulted make three essential points.
First, during a drought, most animals travel farther than usual for food and water. They may venture into backyards to sample the plants, drink from birdbaths, and rummage for insects. To do so, they must often cross roadways, where they are at risk of being hit by cars.
Second, predators tend to do much better than prey animals during a drought. Deer and rodents are quite vulnerable, particularly when they are young, whereas coyotes and raptors benefit from the abundance of weakened prey.
Third, the animals share water sources, which concentrates their populations and increases the risk of competition, conflict, and the spread of illnesses. The concentration of prey at a watering spot also offers a quick meal for predators like coyotes, owls, raptors, and mountain lions.
The drought also has specific effects on particular species. Coho salmon require streams that are cool, oxygenated and flowing. As the streams shrink, young salmon can get trapped in puddles, where they are picked off by predators, and adults may not have enough water to swim to spawning grounds.
For insects, it can be a difficult time, particularly for those that feed on moist plants. Not surprisingly, birds that eat insects are therefore more vulnerable than birds that rely on seeds, such as quail.
What I would call the mud-loving animals usually do OK in a drought. Frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and other amphibians can bury themselves in mud and remain there semi-hibernating for months and, in some cases, even years.
Overall, the diverse reactions of wildlife to extreme changes in their environment reminds us about the power of adaptation.
Should You Set out Water for Wildlife?
Although it is hard to ignore a thirsty or hungry animal, wildlife biologists do not recommend trying to provide them with food and water. For one thing, the food you offer may not be healthy for that animal, and, as noted above, when animals crowd around a source of food or water they are more likely to transmit diseases to each other.
Additionally, some of the animals we help may become dependent on humans and lose the ability to fend for themselves. They may also lose their fear of people and become aggressive. If you are familiar with the Tennessee Valley trail in Mill Valley, you will have seen the signs warning people not to feed the coyotes because they have become aggressive in their demands for food from hikers.
So What Can You Do?
You can donate to Wildcare, a wildlife hospital and educational center in San Rafael. WildCare offers medical care to over 3,500 animals a year. They also offer environmental education for adults and children, as well as community engagement, and effective advocacy for the protection of wildlife. It’s also possible to volunteer for Wildcare, which can be a very rewarding experience.
Learning about a long-undetected
water leak is a shock
To find out, I took advantage of MMWD’s 75% discount on the Flume Smart Home Water Monitor. The system includes an app, a “bridge” that sits in your home and connects to the WiFi, and a second device that attaches to your existing water meter and reads its mind as it sends water to your home. The result is that you get minute-by-minute information about your water use.
I got one recently and can confirm that it really is easy in install. After two weeks of procrastination, I had it up and running in half an hour.
Among other things, I learned that providing my turtle with clean water consumed 11 gallons of water.
Best of all, you can see immediately when you have a leak. This is far better than learning about a leak when your water bill comes and you owe three times the normal amount, as happened to me this spring.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! One more thing…The gubernatorial recall election is exceedingly close. Be sure to vote on or before September 14!
I am not really a battery aficionado per se. Part of me wanted to write about owls or something else that is majestic, cute, or beautiful.
But the serious fact of the matter is that batteries post environmental and health risks. And they are easily capable of igniting a fire, which is the last thing we need right now. The risks are manageable if and only if we dispose of them properly.
What is a Battery?
If you are like me, your answer to this question is, “I am no expert but I know a battery when I see one.” If you want to take your understanding to the next level, here is a one sentence explanation of how batteries work: Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and nickel react with chemical electrolytes inside the battery to produce power.
Now let’s move on to some basics about household batteries. I will be covering car batteries in a separate post.
Why Are Batteries Considered Hazardous?
The EPA defines hazardous waste as any substance with one or more of these characteristics:
Chock full of heavy metals, batteries are both reactive and toxic. If batteries end up in a landfill, the heavy metals can leach out into the surrounding soil and groundwater. If the batteries are incinerated, the heavy metals might be released into the air or can concentrate in the ash produced by the combustion process.
If you are interested in knowing more about the complex and extremely serious effects of heavy metals on human health, take a look at this review article.
Exploded batteries from e-cigarettes
The lithium batteries in e-cigarettes have been particularly problematic. Here in the US more than 2000 vapers were sent to the hospital with burn injuries between 2015 and 2017 following a battery explosion.
Even when lithium-ion batteries can no longer power a device, they retain a residual charge (i.e., they aren’t dead). If their terminals come into contact with other metals, they can create a spark, which is of course extremely dangerous. When you dispose of nine-volt batteries you should put a piece of tape over both terminals to prevent accidental ignition.
What Happens When Batteries are Reprocessed?
The batteries are sorted and then sent to a processing facility. Batteries containing useful heavy metals are processed at high temperatures in thermal vacuum vaporization units, where the metals are evaporated and condensed.
The recovered materials are used to make new goods. For example, the nickel in nickel-metal hydride batteries is recovered to make steel. It’s a long and costly process.
How are We Doing on Disposing of Batteries?
Quantifying the degree of battery disposal is a challenge, in part because there are many permitted location sites including the battery manufacturers.
According to Kimberly Scheibly, former Director of Compliance & Customer Relations at Marin Sanitary Service, “Past waste characterization studies from Marin show a small percentage of household hazardous waste in the waste stream; however, there really should be none.”
A national analysis of battery collection is conducted every year by Call2Recycle, the country’s largest consumer battery stewardship organization. They obtain data on household battery recycling and then rank the states in terms of amount of collected batteries compared with the state population. For the past couple of years California has come in fifth.
What enables a state to get a high ranking? According to Call2Recycle, top-ranked states are more likely to have municipal governments that actively lead disposal efforts. Municipal governments in lower ranked states do not have the necessary infrastructure and resources to support appropriate disposal, often leaving this important activity to retailers.
Battery disposal has become more complex than it was in the days where most of them were alkaline batteries that we put in our flashlights or in a child’s toy. We no longer expect to remove or replace the batteries in our smart phones, tablets, readers and other devices. When we dispose of these devices along with their batteries, it is more difficult to ensure the separate recycling of those batteries.
The changing face of retail is another factor that is making it harder to recover batteries. Collection efforts have traditionally depended on returning the batteries to local stores. With the rise of internet shopping, many stores have closed or greatly reduced their overall footprint. There isn’t a clear mechanism to support return to retail when the retailer is an internet site.
Exciting Progress in California
In California, there is good news on the horizon. The State Legislature is poised to pass a bill (SB289) to require producers of batteries and product-embedded batteries to develop, finance, and implement a program to recover and reprocess their products. Read more here to find out how you can support passage of this bill.
What You Can Do
The most important thing to remember is never to dispose of your batteries in curbside containers. If possible, take all your dead batteries to the Marin Hazardous Household Waste Facility in San Rafael. They take a lot more than batteries, too, so load up your car with all your old paint, electronics, motor oil, and anything else that is flammable and poisonous. It’s free for Marin residents, so bring some ID. If you have any questions, check out their informative and easy-to-navigate website.
If the Waste Facility location is not convenient for you, you can take your batteries to other permitted drop-off points including fire stations, city offices and police stations, and any number of hardware and grocery stores. Check out this article about locations in Marin and Sonoma, or go to the website for the Battery & Bulb Take Back Program. This program allows Marin residents to dispose of household batteries, fluorescent lamps, and fluorescent tubes by dropping them off at retail locations. No charge!
And again, please keep those batteries out of your curbside containers. They must be disposed of in permitted hazardous household waste locations, not in your curbside recycling or waste container.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook!
This week I would especially like to thank Laura Myers for her generous donation to support dissemination of the Notebook on social media! Kimberly Scheibly, Hilda Borko and Guy Ashcraft provided helpful comments on this post. And thanks also to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image for the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more.
Monarch enjoying a mud puddle
Bad News, Good News about Monarch Butterflies
The bad news is that Monarchs have been disappearing from the West Coast at an alarming rate over the last 40 years. Reasons for their decline include loss of breeding and overwintering habitat, climate change, pesticides, and natural predators.
The Monarch population in California and Baja California has dropped from 4.5 million to 2,000 in 40 years.
The good news is that many individuals and groups have rallied to the cause of saving the Western Monarch from extinction. Two great organizations focused on education, advocacy, and research are the Xerces Society and Monarch Joint Venture. Locally, the Pollinator Posse has been working effectively to educate the public and create habitat for butterflies, as has the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
The movement to recover Western Monarchs is multi-pronged. In Marin, there has been a significant push to encourage residents to plant native milkweed, essential to the survival on Monarch caterpillars, and to stop using insecticide to control garden pests. Read more about these efforts in an earlier Notebook post.
Habitat Improvement in Agricultural Lands
The Mysterious Disappearance of the Monarch Caterpillar
Risk to Monarch Caterpillars from Predators
European paper wasps may also be a factor in the loss of Monarch caterpillars this summer. First reported in North America in the 1970s, these insects are now widespread in urban areas. They have a strong proclivity to nest in sheltered places around buildings. Research suggests that urban gardens with lots of milkweed and pollinator plants may unintentionally create an “ecological trap” in which the congregated butterflies are vulnerable to predation by paper wasps who already inhabit the area. This may be at work in Marin, although we need more evidence to substantiate this hypothesis.
What can you do to mitigate the danger these predators pose to Monarch caterpillars? Yellow jackets are carnivorous, so don’t leave pet food outside and be sure garbage is contained in tightly sealed cans. If you find a wasp or yellow jacket nest, you can try to remove it yourself, or call the Mosquito & Vector Control Association of California at (916) 440-0826 for assistance. For other ideas, take a look at these suggestions from the UC Integrated Pest Management Program
Risk from Parasites and Parasitoids
Perhaps the most-studied parasite of Monarchs is Ophryocystis elektroschirra (OE). OE infections occur when a caterpillar ingests OE spores that have fallen from an infected adult butterfly onto a milkweed leaf. The spores then take up residence in the caterpillar’s gut.
Caterpillars with a particularly high dose of OE parasites are likely to die before reaching the pupa state. Surviving infected adults often have difficulty emerging from their pupal cases and expanding their wings. They are generally smaller and shorter-lived than uninfected adults.
One third of Western Monarchs are heavily infected with OE. Generally, non-migrating Monarchs are much more heavily infected than those that migrate to an overwintering site. Access to non-native tropical milkweed, which flowers throughout the year, reduces the need to migrate, suggesting that it is not a good choice for Bay Area gardens.
One parasitoid that loves Monarch caterpillars is the Tachinid fly, which resembles a large house fly. Female Tachinids lay eggs on Monarch caterpillars. One study of a common Tachinid parasitoid found it in about 13% of wild Monarch caterpillars.
It’s hard to appreciate predators, parasites, and parasitoids when we suspect them of scarfing down Monarch caterpillars. However, these “natural enemies” offer a sustainable way of controlling garden and agricultural pests compared to using pesticides. It is just with respect to the Monarch caterpillar that these creatures are on the wrong side of justice.
Risks from Pesticides
Neonics were initially marketed as being less harmful than other insecticides, but we now know their devastating impacts on pollinators and beneficial insects. Experimental studies as well as those conducted in agricultural settings focusing specifically on Monarch caterpillars show that their growth and survival is adversely affected by exposure to neonics.
Pressure from consumers and conservation organizations has led some large retailers to label plants treated with neonics. But the hope is that they will cease selling this type of plant altogether.
More Ideas for Action
Become a Monarch Parent? Given the high mortality of Monarch caterpillars, it is tempting to gather eggs and bring them inside where you can nurture them throughout their development. Indeed, Monarchs reared in this way are much more likely to survive than those in the wild. However, there are serious drawbacks to captive rearing, and it is not recommended by Xerces or the Monarch Joint Venture. Here’s a good summary of the issue. While they do not endorse large-scale attempts at captive rearing, MJV gives the OK to people interested in rearing them “for enjoyment, education, or community science.”
Teach others. If you work with (or have) elementary-aged children take a look at this great toolkit from the World Wildlife Fund. It is well-written and full of ideas for activities. Journey North also has some great resources for kids.
Plant native milkweed. Ask your local nursery to start supplying native milkweed and pollinator plants that are free of insecticides. Organize a group to collect and propagate milkweed seed. Plant native milkweed and be sure not to get the tropical kind!
Get into puddling. Monarchs obtain moisture and important minerals from mud. Create a puddling area for Monarchs by digging a wide, shallow depression in the ground and lining it with plastic weed barrier or pond liner. Or just use a shallow dish. Then add a 1-2 inch layer of landscape sand mixed with soil, along with just enough water to keep it wet. You can also put in a few rocks to serve as landing and basking places.
Get help! The Pollinator Habitat Help Desk line offers anyone in the United States personal recommendations and answers to your pollinator questions. Give them a call at 833-MILKWEE (833-645-5933) between 9 and 5 PM Central Time, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to Mia Monroe, Wynter Vaughn, and Alice Cason for their helpful suggestions on this post. And thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image for the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more!
Today we are talking about hummingbirds. Let’s start with a quiz.
True or False?
Read on to find out how you did on the quiz!
Hummingbirds are endangered in California: FALSE!
Human habitation and roads can fragment and degrade natural habitat. But the Anna’s hummingbird is thriving, especially in urban and suburban areas! Whaaaat?! It’s mostly because they happily make use of the nectar in our flowery landscaping, and they very much enjoy the nectar feeders that we often put in our yards.
I think most of us would agree that hummingbirds are beautiful and amazing creatures. But what do they do besides looking great? Answer: they are great pollinators!
I confess that until now I thought that lots of birds were pollinators. But the reading I’ve done for this post has helped me realize that very few of them perform this vital function. In the US, it is the hummingbirds who are the premiere bird pollinators. The species that Californians see most commonly is the one that lives here year-round: Anna’s hummingbird.
California is also a rest stop for migrating Allen’s, Rufous, and Black-Chinned hummingbirds. (Hang on, does anyone really think that hummingbirds actually have a chin?)
A hummingbird egg is the size of a jelly bean: TRUE!
No one would expect Hummingbird eggs to be big. These are the smallest birds in the world, weighing little more than a penny. But let’s take a minute to appreciate their development from avian Tic Tac to independent bird.
First the female constructs an intricately woven nest from plant down, mosses, and carefully placed lichen. She uses spiderweb silk to line the inside. The spiderweb silk can expand as the chicks get bigger. That is so cool!
Click here to see more beautiful images from Tara Lemezis
The female sits on the eggs until they hatch and then cares for the blind, bald babies, darting out every 20 minutes and returning to offer regurgitated nectar and partially digested insects.
In 18-23 days, hummingbirds begin taking short forays out of the nest, and the mother focuses on helping them learn where to find nectar and how to forage for insects. And then they are off!
Hummingbirds can fly upside down: TRUE!
Flying backwards? No problem!
Upside down? No big deal!
When it comes to movement, I can’t think of a more agile creature than the hummingbird. Their seemingly effortless athletic skill is almost annoying!
How can they do all this? Well, I can’t get deeply into hummingbird physiology here. But I will make an exception for one truly amazing thing – the construction of their tongues…Read on!
A hummingbird’s tongue wraps around the inside of its skull: TRUE!
Hummingbirds feed on nectar from flowers and feeders, as well as on small insects and spiders. They catch flying insects on the wing and they pluck spiders and trapped insects from spider webs. They also visit sapsucker holes and feed on sap and insects attracted to the holes.
Hummingbirds need a lot of calories to fuel themselves and must eat several times their weight every day. They feed on nectar about 5-10 times per hour for 30-60 seconds each time. They have good eyesight, and they can see brightly colored red and orange flowers better than their insect competitors.
Given the exigency of their quest for nourishment, they are very lucky to have the most amazing tongues in the animal kingdom. If you asked me a month ago how hummingbirds get nectar from plants, I would have guessed that they lap it out like a dog or suck it up through a straw-shaped tongue. I would have been wrong.
As you can see in Figure 1, hummingbirds have a long thin tongue that darts into the flower's corolla for nectar. When retracted, the hummingbird’s tongue is curled up in the skull and encircles the eye cavity. They share this feature with woodpeckers, whose tongue mitigates potential brain damage caused by incessant pecking.
But the precise mechanism by which the tongue captures nectar has been the focus of much scientific debate. Until recently, ornithologists thought the tongue functioned like a tiny, static tube, drawing up floral nectar via capillary action. However, ground-breaking research conducted by Alejandro Rico-Guevara at the University of Connecticut has shown that the tongue tip is a dynamic liquid-trapping device that changes its configuration and shape dramatically as it moves in and out of fluids.
You can get a sense of his findings from the lower four panels in Figure 1. The tongue starts out in a tube-like conformation. The two tips are close together. When the tongue touches the nectar, little structures called lamellae unfurl and the tips separate. When the tongue withdraws from the nectar, the lamellae roll inward, trapping the nectar as if into little cups. The tongue goes back in the beak with the lamellae compressed together to contain the nectar.
Whether or not you are a science nerd, I guarantee that you will enjoy this brief PBS video on Rico-Guevara’s work on hummingbird tongues as well as this other short one on the same project.
What Can You Do to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Yard?
The Anna’s hummingbird is flourishing around here, but it can never hurt to expand their options, particularly in a drought. Also, it’s fun to watch them. Here are some ideas for what you can do to support your local hummingbirds.
The topic of hummingbird feeders is somewhat controversial, but my reading suggests that red plastic feeders filled with sugar water are OK. Just don’t add red dye to the nectar and be sure to keep the feeders filled and clean. You don’t need to buy nectar; it’s easy to make it because the only ingredients are sugar and water. Here’s a recipe from the National Zoo.
The California Native Plant Society gives the feeders a tepid endorsement, noting that they “provide instant gratification” (I assume this means for the birds and the birdwatchers) but emphasizing the importance of also providing nectar-rich native plants that sustain hummingbirds without “additional human input.”
Go Native if You Can
You can significantly improve the habitat in your yard by removing nonnative and invasive plants. Two that are quite problematic in Marin are English ivy and the less known Japanese knotweed.
One of the best native plants for hummingbirds is the California Fuchsia, a perennial with lots of bright red flowers in summer and autumn. This plant will readily self-seed, and also spreads by rhizomes.
Keep Things a Bit Messy
As I have recommended in the past, it’s always good to go for variety and dishevelment rather than a pristine look in your yard. Piles of brush, sticks or yard refuse offer shelter, nesting habitat, nest-building materials, and insects. If you can, maintain a variety of native plants of varying sizes and growth patterns and with varying schedules for fruiting and leafing.
Don't Forget the Water!
Providing water is particularly important in summer and especially during a drought. Birds will drink it and they can also use it to cool off. From time to time, hummingbirds need to clean pollen and nectar from their feathers and beak, but they have very short legs so they don't like to bathe in deep water. They prefer rubbing against a wet surface, or flying through moving water such as a sprinkler. If they do venture into still water, it has to be less than a centimeter deep. For drinking, they like to sip from flowing water, or drink from little drops such as a raindrop on a leaf.
Keep Your Cats Indoors
Domestic cats kill billions of birds every year. So keep your cats inside, and do what you can to keep stray cats out of your yard. Here are some ideas for discouraging interlopers, which are also depicted in the image below.
Avoid Pesticides and Rodenticides
Toxic chemicals can kill birds or cause severe problems like reduced appetite and eggshell thinning. Also, the birds need bugs to eat!
Prevent Birds from Smacking into Your Windows.
The thud of a bird hitting the window is pretty sickening. As many as 1 billion birds die each year from collisions with windows. Try putting stickers or tape on the problematic windows to make them more visible to birds.
FINAL THOUGHT: Give some love to the character actors of the bird world
Here is Jack Gedney’s description of the California Towhee:
“California towhees are large, chunky and clumsy birds, almost uniformly plain brown except for a rusty patch under their tail… Each yard typically hosts one pair of towhees who will remain on site all year round, staying in touch with simple, “low battery warning” contact calls. Also known for entering open house doors and attacking their reflection in mirrors. So, they’re plain, unmusical, and unintelligent. But everyone loves them!”
Much as I support the California Towhee, I must take issue with the final comment, as their incessant monotonous chirping has been known to drive some people in my family insane.
And, OK, comparing Kathy Bates to a California Towhee does not seem at all fair to Bates, who is brilliant in her own right. But I hope to make the point that we easily fall in love with the scary, smart, beautiful, or ultra-cute animals, but let’s be there for the non-flashy ones too.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: email@example.com.
As usual, thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website to see more birds, flowers, and other images.
Let’s take a look at what is causing the drought and how the county is responding to it. And, in case you are experiencing crisis fatigue like I am, we’ll explore some resources to guide and support you until the rains return.
What is Causing the Drought?
The rainfall pattern in California is very different from that in other parts of the country. Growing up in San Francisco, my concept of “raining” was a light misty sprinkling. I was in for a surprise when I moved to Massachusetts, where cartoonishly large rain drops hurtled from the sky for hours on end (when it wasn’t snowing).
In fact, the light sprinkling type of rainfall is typically interspersed in California with bigger storms caused by flowing columns of water vapor called atmospheric rivers. These rivers of moisture are the main drivers of our water supply, with a single big storm typically supplying around 15% of the year’s water. In general, they have been hitting California with more intensity than in earlier years, with attendant disastrous flooding and mudslides.
However, sometimes the atmospheric rivers don’t materialize, and then we suffer from drought. In the winter of 2017, California was pummeled by 51 atmospheric river storms, 14 of which were classified as strong or extreme. That wet winter marked the end of the state’s five-year drought. But during the winter of 2019-20, there were just 43 storms, only one of which was strong. This past winter saw 30 atmospheric river storms, only two of them strong. Media accounts of this pattern use terms like “whiplash” to describe this alternating pattern of extreme wet and dry weather.
What we do know is that our water supply suffers without the rainfall contributed by atmospheric rivers, and some climate scientists argue that we should learn to embrace even the really strong ones. After all, the soil dries out more quickly now that the air is, on average, two degrees warmer than it was 50 years ago. Water from rainstorms and melting Sierra snow soaks into the parched soil instead of accumulating in rivers and reservoirs. So, as problematic as they are in terms of flooding, powerful atmospheric rivers may be more important to California’s future than we had previously realized.
How is Marin Preparing for the Drought?
In Marin, much of the preparation for drought conditions is being coordinated by the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), the agency that provides water to the majority of county residents. MMWD water is 100% locally sourced – 75% from seven reservoirs on Mt Tamalpais and 25% from the Russian River in Sonoma County. The North Marin Water district serves Novato and parts of West Marin; 80% of its water comes from Sonoma, and the other 20% is from Stafford Lake.
The MMWD board of directors began a public water conservation program in February of this year, with additional provisions and restrictions added in April and May. The newest restrictions are aimed at reducing water use by 40% districtwide. Some of the more important restrictions for households pertain to landscape irrigation (e.g., limit spray irrigation to two days a week, and drip irrigation to three days) and washing vehicles, driveways, and sidewalks (e.g, don’t!). Also, it’s important to fix leaks within 48 hours of discovering them (and you’ll get a rebate to cover the cost of repairs).
The MMWD also has suggestions for what you can do in your home during this crisis, including taking short showers, capturing and reusing water from showers, and waiting to run the dishwasher or washing machine until you have a full load.
If you are a Marin resident, you can find an extensive array of well-written, sensible tips and suggestions for reducing your water consumption on the MMWD website. You can also stop by a MMWD drought drive up event on Saturday June 12 and get a free water saving kit that includes, among other things a low-flow faucet aerator and showerhead as well as a five-minute shower timer.
To learn more about California’s response to the drought, I attended a virtual town hall meeting on the drought sponsored by Senator Mike McGuire on May 20. Speakers included representatives from Marin, Sonoma, and Mendocino County as well as the Yurok Tribe. One featured speaker was Ben Horenstein, the general manager of MMWD. He targeted lawn irrigation as a primary way to achieve the county’s 40% reduction goal. He underscored the fact that letting your lawn turn brown will probably not kill it, and you have to have faith that it will spring back to life when the rains finally come. For anyone willing to wean themselves off of lawns entirely, MMWD offers a lawn replacement program consisting of free consulations and rebates for the purchase of sheet mulching materials, drip irrigation components, and climate-appropriate plants.
Resilient Neighborhoods: Offering Support for Climate Action
The Resilient Neighborhoods program has been around since 2010, when it was created by long-time Marin resident Tamra Peters. Now with over 1,600 graduates, it is a fun and effective program for supporting important behavioral changes in households.
During prepandemic times, members of an Resilient Neighborhoods workshop would meet at a library or other community space, but our pandemic-era class was a Zoom experience that included 13 households from around the county. Some of the participants in our group were already very aware of carbon reduction strategies while others were beginning the journey. Regardless of our starting place, all of us learned a lot and made substantial changes in our daily lives.
We started by gathering data needed to calculate our household carbon footprint. This involved confessions about the number of vehicles owned by household members and miles driven per year, flight miles traveled per person, household energy consumption, food choices (i.e., meat eater vs. vegan or vegetarian), and recycling habits. Tamra and Outreach Associate Jen Hammond used this data to calculate each household’s total CO2 emissions, which we subsequently shared with the group, all of whom were non-judgmental and supportive.
With this reality starkly in mind, we then engaged in four more sessions where we learned how to take specific actions to reduce food and other types of waste, shift to a plant-based diet, cut CO2 emissions from our transportation, conserve energy and purchase electricity from renewable sources, prepare for climate-related emergencies, and contribute to building a climate movement.
We each filled out a Climate Action Plan in which we selected from a checklist of over 100 actions that either reduce green-house gas emissions or build a community resilient to disasters created by climate change. The idea was to undertake the selected actions during the program or to pledge to take them in the coming year. These behavioral changes are supported with an amazing array of written resources that provided detailed, constructive guidance on how to achieve our specific goals. Each action is quantified in terms of contribution to carbon reduction or community resiliency.
Emergency preparedness leads to community resilience
In the area of water conservation, the Plan offers a menu of 23 possible actions. In addition to the items recommended by the MMWD like limiting shower time, the list also includes some bigger-ticket actions like purchasing an Energy Star dishwasher or installing a WaterSense-labeled smart irrigation controller.
I was also interested in the Plan’s emergency preparation actions. I can proudly report that I assembled new emergency supply kits for my home and car and created a household preparedness plan that even has a place to sketch the floor plan of my home where I identify the location of my emergency supplies as well as shut-off points for gas, electricity, and water
At the end of the course, Tamra and Jen tallied up our actions (and intended actions for the coming year), and each of us learned how many pounds of CO2 had been (or will be) saved by our actions. We also learned how many “resiliency points” we had earned through the actions supportive of community resilience to disaster.
So go to resilientneighborhoods.org and sign up for a climate action team. There are two new sessions starting in June!
In this time of political polarization there is one topic on which consensus may just be possible: Gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs) are noisy and stinky, and they stir up dust tornados.
I concede that leaf blowers do a decent job of blowing leaves around. It’s no accident that there are over 11 million them in California.
But let’s establish the harmful things that GLBs do as well.
The most surprising thing I learned in my research for this post is that leaf blowers emit WAY more toxic emissions than cars. WAY WAY WAY more!
For the best-selling commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2016 Toyota Camry about 1100 miles, or approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Denver.
Source: California Air Resources Board Factsheet
The two-cycle engines used in GLBs are very inefficient; each one spews out, for instance, 11 pounds of CO2 per hour of use. This inefficiency relative to cars is a result of GLBs not being equipped with catalytic converters, which were introduced for car engines in 1975. Current versions of the catalytic converter reduce the emission of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitric oxide, and nitrogen oxide.
The small engines used in GLBs, lawn mowers, and weed whackers also emit large quantities of fine particulate matter, including black carbon.
Another by-product of incomplete gasoline combustion is benzene, which causes leukemia and other blood cell cancers as well as cardiovascular, neurological and respiratory diseases.
The spewing will continue unabated unless someone invents a mini catalytic converter for GLBs, or until they are banned.
Most people would agree that GLB are loud, but can we be more precise? According to manufacturer reports, the sound pressure level of commercial-grade machines typically exceeds 95 decibels in the ear of the operator, a level that is directly associated with hearing loss. Even for people standing 50 feet away, the equipment produces a racket that exceeds the daytime sound standards of 55 decibels set by the World Health Organization.
The low frequency of GLB noise is another issue. Low frequency sound travels farther and penetrates buildings more effectively than higher pitched sound. A GLB can negatively impact up to 90 surrounding homes in typical urban densities versus 6 homes for a powerful electric blower. All that ambient noise causes stress responses in humans, including raised cortisol levels. These stress responses are in turn associated with arterial hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Living in a Dustbowl
On a less catastrophic but nevertheless important note, GLBs can create clouds of whatever is in the air and on the ground. Pollens, fertilizers, pesticides, dirt, and other things are whipped into a cloud that wafts across yards, parks, and playgrounds. This is unpleasant for everyone in the vicinity, but is particularly dangerous for children, people with chronic asthma, and people who are exercising (hello, Marin).
Ironically, all of the blowing also damages the plants themselves. When used in flower beds and lawns, GLBs blow topsoil away from the crowns of plants and damage their roots. They also compact the soil, making it harder for air and water to permeate, and they blow away dry fertilizers. And they kill the beneficial microbes in the soil by starving them to death, resulting in fewer nutrients in the soil for plant uptake.
Looking for Solutions
The inherent problems with GLBs have grabbed the attention of many homeowners. In the chart below, you can see that residential users are far more likely to own electric leaf blowers than gas-powered ones. In contrast, landscaping companies rarely use electric versions of these items. This suggests that community and state regulations should consider carefully the needs and constraints of both types of user.
Source: Town of San Anselmo 2020 report
Community Regulation of Leaf Blowers
Many cities across the US have restricted the use of GLBs. Most town in Marin have adopted some kind of restriction on leaf blowers, starting with Mill Valley in 1993. These range from outright prohibitions on their use to limitations on hours or areas of use.
For example, Corte Madera bans the use of GLBs entirely, but allows the use of electric blowers from 9 to 5 on weekdays and 10 to 4 on Saturdays. In San Anselmo, motorized leaf blowers -- both gas and electric -- may only be used from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for a period not to exceed thirty minutes at a time per property.
Check out this MMWD handbook for great landscaping ideas that require little leaf blowing!
In unincorporated areas of Marin there is no specific restriction on landscaping equipment, including leaf blowers. To find out whether any actions were underway at the County level, I spoke with Crystal Martinez, aide to Marin County Supervisor Katie Rice. Ms. Martinez told me that the County takes the climate impact of GLBs very seriously and has been studying options for mitigating the damage. However, it is challenging to come up with a single policy that is equally well suited to communities as diverse as Kentfield, for example, and Point Reyes Station.
What works in San Geronimo may not work in Kentfield!
Another challenge is related to the cost of new equipment to homeowners and especially to landscapers, many of whom are low-wage earners. Many are reluctant to impose additional financial burdens on workers from these communities.
Some towns offer rebates toward the purchase of zero emissions equipment or have instituted an equipment buy-back program. These policies pose procedural challenges for towns that have instituted a ban, particularly concerning the process for providing rebates to landscapers who serve multiple communities. For more on the issues towns in Marin are facing, click here.
The state of California also acknowledges the climate impact of GLBs. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) began regulating emissions of equipment that uses two-stroke engines in 1990, with subsequent amendments specifying increasingly stringent standards. In 2019 the State again scrutinized this category of equipment to help meet its goal of reducing pollutant emissions, and evidence from a recent CARB workshop indicates that the agency will be acting on a proposed requirement of zero-emissions equipment in the Fall of 2021.
What Can You Do to Help?
That’s it for this post! If you are a regular Notebook reader, you may know that this week marks the ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY of the Notebook! Woohoo! 22 posts!!! It’s been so exciting for me to see this project come together over the past year. Special thanks go to graphic designer Gayle Marsh, who turns each post into a thing of beauty.
And thanks once again to
Rob Badger and Nita Winterfor sharing the image we use
for the Notebook banner!
Pets are wonderful but also pose some challenges, as you know if you’ve ever had a cat sit on your keyboard during a Zoom call. But what about the environmental impact of these beloved family members?
Let’s take a quick look at the challenges and how you can overcome them.
Cats and Dogs Like Meat
You’ve probably heard about the carbon footprint created by our meat-centric diet in the US. Compared to a plant-based diet, meat requires more energy, land, and water to produce, and has greater environmental consequences in terms of erosion, pesticides and waste. Previous studies have found that livestock production produces the equivalent of 260 million tons of carbon dioxide in the US.
To put it another way, if the 160 million dogs and cats in the US were citizens of their own country, their nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption, behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China.
Can Fido and Fluffy Survive on Tofu Burgers?
Should you consider a vegetarian diet for your dog — or maybe even go vegan? Dogs are omnivores, so they are capable of extracting key nutrients from plant-based sources. However, cats are carnivores. Their health will suffer if their diet is limited to plants.
For instance, dogs and cats cannot make vitamin D in their skin like humans do, so it needs to be in their diet. Dogs can extract vitamin D2 from plants, but cats really need D3, which is only found in animal sources.
So if you go this route, be very conscientious about planning a balanced diet for your pet, and monitor their health carefully.
What Else Can You Do?
Facing the Icky
If you have spent any time on Nextdoor you know that few issues rile up readers more than dog poop disposal habits (i.e., is it OK to put bagged poop in someone else’s garbage can). I will focus here on the environmental impact of how we dispose of pet waste.
Problems With Dog Poop
First, let’s face the cold, hard facts. With dogs, inevitably, comes poop. One source I found stated that dogs in Marin generate 11 million pounds of waste per year. If the owners pick it up, most of it goes in the landfill along with the plastic bags that are used to collect it.
Here I turn again to Dr. Okin at UCLA, who writes, ”If all of the feces from US dogs and cats, not including kitty litter and bags, were disposed as garbage, their feces would be equivalent to the total garbage produced by 6.63 million Americans, or approximately the population of Massachusetts.”
Dog waste is considered to be an environmental pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency because it can harbor viruses, bacteria and parasites — including harmful pathogens like e coli, giardia and salmonella. Studies have traced 20 to 30 percent of the bacteria in water samples from urban watersheds to dog waste.
In most cases, people prefer to pick up dog poop with plastic bags. It’s pretty well established that plastic bags contribute tremendously to our plastic trash problem. In the US, 14 billion plastic bags are consumed annually. These bags can have devastating effects on wildlife, especially marine animals like whales and sea turtles. For more, take a look at my prior posts on plastics.
The plastic bag is never going to be a good candidate for recycling. The economic realities of cheap new plastic production and low-cost oil and gas production make mechanical and chemical recycling processes economically uncompetitive and impractical at commercial scale.
What about “compostable” pet waste bags?
Some pet waste bags, like Biobags, are made from renewable sources like cornstarch. They are not, however, compostable except under special conditions. Composting requires specific levels of heat, water, and oxygen. But local landfill usually cannot provide these conditions.
Nor are they accepted at composting facilities in many communities!
In Marin, most green waste is delivered to WM EarthCare in Novato. WM EarthCare does not accept Biobags because they do not meet their standards for organic material.
So if you are served by Marin Sanitary Service, Tamalpais Community Services District, Mill Valley Refuse, Recology Sonoma Marin, or Novato Disposal — all of whom use WM EarthCare — you should not put “compostable” green pet waste bags in the compost bin.
The green waste from the communities of Sausalito and Marin City served by Bay Cities Refuse is delivered to the compost facility in West Contra Costa County; this facility accepts BioBags.
Moreover, because of the aforementioned bacteria and other gross stuff in dog poop, pet waste in a biobag can’t be publicly composted even if a facility has the capability of dealing with the bag!
Wave of the Future? Convert Poop to Energy
This technology can be adapted for processing dog waste and is being tested in several pilot projects with anaerobic digesters at dog parks in the United States.
Problems With Cat Litter
I imagine most people are OK with scooping used cat litter into a paper bag rather than a plastic one for disposal. But the litter itself poses a different problem. I am out of poop-related visual imagery, so I leave it to you to imagine all the waste and litter generated by the 90 million or so cats in the US (equivalent of the Great Wall of China stretching from San Francisco to Manhattan????)
More recently, companies have developed better options that use renewable resources like corn, grass seed, and wheat. Others are made of wood chips or recycled newspaper. Frugal cat owners might consider making their own cat litter by repurposing everyday materials that would otherwise end up in the waste stream. Plain sawdust apparently makes good cat litter, or you could make cat litter from old newspapers if you are crafts-oriented.
That’s it for this post! If you want to read more about pets and the environment, check out this recent article.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter
for sharing Rob’s beautiful image.
Check out their award-winning book or
visit their website to see more!
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