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
NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone. EFM Notebook Index
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!
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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!
Clover’s new organic milk carton
In today’s post I address a question from a Notebook reader about the new carton that Clover Sonoma dairy is using for their organic milk.
Wendy asks, “If the new Clover milk carton is made of renewable materials does that mean it can be recycled or composted?”
Like conventional cartons, the new carton is made primarily of paper from trees. Unlike conventional cartons, the paperboard is sandwiched between two strips of liner made from a bioplastic derived from sugar cane. Conventional cartons use plastic liners made from petroleum or natural gas.
The paper and bioplastic used to make the new carton are renewable resources, meaning those that will grow back in the span of a human life. And, compared to conventional cartons, their manufacture results in less emission of greenhouse gases. Plus, they are somewhat better able to biodegrade in soil and compost than are conventional plastics.
Still, cultivation of any crop can negatively affect the environment unless farmers use responsible practices like crop rotation and responsible irrigation, as well as avoiding pesticides and certain fertilizers.
On balance, bioplastics get a cautious thumbs up in comparison to packaging made from conventional plastics, particularly if these renewable components are farmed sustainably!
Now, let’s turn directly to Wendy’s question!
It seems logical that a product containing all renewable material should be recyclable, or even compostable. Right???
But before you start flinging your Clover cartons enthusiastically into the recycling or compost bin, check your waste processing facility website!
If you live in San Francisco, you can recycle all paper milk and juice cartons as long as they are clean and dry, whether the liners are made from conventional plastic or bioplastic.
But, in Marin it depends on who your waste hauling company is. Residents served by Recology, such as those in Novato, can recycle any clean milk carton.
But, in Marin it depends on who your waste hauling company is. Residents served by Recology, such as those in Novato, can recycle any clean milk carton. But if your waste is handled by Marin Sanitary or the Tamalpais Community Services District (TCSD), you cannot recycle or compost either the conventional or the renewable milk cartons. Check out the Marin Sanitary website:
Where Should You Put the New Clover Milk Cartons?
Although the Clover milk cartons say “rinse and recycle”, with all products it is important to check with your local recycler to see if they have a market to recycle that item. Unfortunately, we do not have a way to recycle these cartons, so they still must go in the landfill.
Additionally, we cannot compost these cartons either. Although the plastic is “renewable and plant-based”, the resin itself still behaves like conventional plastic and will not break down in the compost.
(excerpt from the Marin Sanitary website)
So, kudos to Clover Sonoma, long an industry leader in terms of animal welfare and environmental protection, for their pioneering development of sustainable packaging.
Yes, we consumers can be more careful but how about limiting manufacture of these items?
In a future post, I will try to get to the bottom of all this regional variability in terms of what is or is not recyclable. Is there a chance of getting uniform standards for waste disposal before we all go mad? Stay tuned!
And in the meantime, please send me your burning questions about local environmental issues. If I use your question in a post, I will even send you a complimentary EFM water bottle!
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook!
Time for a turtle quiz! True or False?
1. Baby turtles are extremely cute.
2. Turtle fossils have been found from the Triassic period.
Answer: True! Turtle fossils from 220 million years ago show that turtle anatomy in prehistoric times was nearly identical to that of modern turtles.
3. Turtles are among the only animals that can breathe with their butts.
Answer: True!!!! Many turtles can use their cloaca to breathe when they are underwater. Essentially the cloaca doubles as a set of gills, sucking in water and absorbing the oxygen within.
4. Native turtles are plentiful in California’s lakes, ponds, and rivers.
Answer: False! The only native freshwater turtle in California is rapidly disappearing and is now listed as a species of concern by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The situation is also dire in Washington and Oregon.
How did you do on the quiz? If you are like me, you may have gotten the first two right but were dead wrong on the third and fourth.
So let’s take a little time to learn about these creatures that are so familiar and yet exotic. And let’s find out what steps are being taken to save them from extinction. (Spoiler alert: I won’t be going further into the topic of cloacal respiration but you can look it up if you are interested.)
Status of Native Turtles in Northern California
Why are these once ubiquitous creatures disappearing? One problem is competition from the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). These are the turtles sold in pet stores; however, they are sometimes "released to the wild" by owners who can no longer care for them. Red-eared sliders are bigger and more aggressive than the shy pond turtle and compete ruthlessly with them for food. Also, they harm pond turtles by taking up their basking space. This is a problem because turtles depend on the sun to regulate their body temperature, and typically spend hours every day basking on rocks and logs.
Habitat loss is another problem for the pond turtle in areas that are urbanizing. In addition to an aquatic environment, where pond turtles spend most of their time, the females need to access sunny, grassy areas for nesting. In Marin, fire suppression efforts have created a shadier environment, making it harder for them to find good nesting sites. The further they travel the greater their risk of being hit by cars. Additionally, agricultural and vegetation management activities can disturb the habitat and destroy their nests.
Head Start for Turtles
The absence of an important species like the pond turtle can have a profound effect on the surrounding ecosystem. Juvenile turtles provide a source of food for larger predators, and juveniles and adults feed on various invertebrates and insects. Moreover, as denizens of the water and the land, turtles are important indicators of the health of these ecosystems.
So, in addition to managing invasive species and preserving habitat, what else can be done to prevent the pond turtle from going extinct?
I recently attended a Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy webinar describing current efforts to reintroduce the pond turtle to southern Marin County, where it had not been seen since 1998. The Head Start Project, a joint effort by multiple local partners, began four years ago and will continue for one more year. It is one of many similar projects being conducted in all three Western states.
The five-year project has proceeded in three phases: hatching and rearing young turtles, releasing them, and monitoring their welfare.
The first step was to locate nests and “borrow” eggs for relocation. Park staff in Pt Reyes, where there is a fairly stable population of pond turtles, searched high and low for turtle nests. This was no easy task because these turtles can roam as much as one third of a mile from their water source in search of a good spot for a nest. The nesting process begins with the female excavating a hole, depositing from 1 to 13 eggs, and then filling up the chamber with soil and plant material. To learn more, read this excellent article, which is accompanied by great photos and a video of the nesting process.
In the Head Start project, the newly hatched babies were transmitted to the San Francisco Zoo where they were cared for by zoo staff for about a year. Under these protected conditions they were able to grow three times as fast as turtles in the wild, quickly becoming “bigger than a bullfrog’s mouth” and thus able to avoid the clutches of the most dangerous predators.
To keep track of these precious creatures, staff glued a radio transmitter to the shell, each with a unique frequency so that the individual could be easily identified. The turtles also had an ID number painted on their shell.
When the release day arrived in this past year, 20 of the youthful turtles were transported to the Rodeo Lagoon Watershed and 14 were taken to the Redwood Creek Watershed (see map for location of these watersheds). Another 7 were released in several ponds in Point Reyes. Twenty turtles had already been released through the program in the Redwood Creek Watershed in a previous year.
Each turtle was monitored on a weekly basis to be sure that it was adapting successfully to its new environment. Later in the year, the staff set out net traps to catch the turtles for weighing, measuring, and a general welfare checkup, as well as to repair the transmitter if necessary.
So far, thanks to all of this meticulous care, most of the turtles released for the Head Start project are doing fine. Monitoring will continue for the fifth and final year of the project. Similar programs in Oregon and Washington have resulted in the successful release of over a thousand pond turtles.
What Can You Do to Help the Pond Turtle?
Use iNaturalist to monitor wildlife
You can start by using the iNaturalist app to document the location of any and all turtles that cross your path. You can do this citizen science work on your own or in coordination with established projects. For example, visitors at the MidPeninsula Regional Open Space Preserve have been asked to record turtle observations for the Midpen Biodiversity Index on iNaturalist.
Turtles aside, this app is very easy to use and a fun way to increase your engagement with the wildlife around you. Your kids might think it would be fun to identify a species commonly found in your area and then see if they can go out and find a member to photograph and add to the database.
Think carefully before acquiring a pet turtle
If you are tempted to get a pet turtle (or any other pet for that matter) do a lot of research about its care before you take the plunge. I learned this the hard way. When my son was 8 and in the thrall of four fun-loving cartoon ninja turtles, he asked for an aquatic turtle, and I naively agreed to get one.
Fast forward 26 years…the turtle still resides in my home, although my son himself has not lived here since 2005. First lesson learned: Turtles live a really long time if you take care of them properly. Second lesson learned: Taking care of them properly involves a lot of work.
If you do have a turtle that you can no longer care for, don’t set it free where it will terrorize the native turtles. Instead, find a rescue organization like Creepy Critters Rescue that will care for it.
Support programs to reintroduce turtles
Keep your eyes open for a turtle monitoring program such as that sponsored by the Marin Municipal Water District. In the past, MMWD volunteers have learned to monitor turtle habitat conditions, record their behavior, and educate the public during the spring when they are most visible. This is a flexible activity that families can do together, so it is a good opportunity to help children learn about wildlife in their area.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! 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!
What of the gentlewoman scientist? They are fewer in number but all the more interesting because of the societal barriers they had to overcome in order to pursue their passion for science. Let’s meet Alice Eastwood, a local hero who became one of the world’s most influential botanists.
Born in 1859 in Toronto, Eastwood lived with her working-class parents and siblings until her mother died when Alice was six. After spending years living in a convent, Alice and her sister were reunited with their father, a janitor, who had moved to Denver. Alice eventually completed high school but unlike most “gentlemen scientists” she received no post-secondary education.
By all accounts, Eastwood was extraordinarily intelligent and outgoing. She also had the physical stamina of an athlete. After moving to Denver, she began hiking throughout the Rockies to collect plant specimens, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find and identify plants throughout the world. Eventually she moved to California where she roamed throughout the Sierras as well as up into the Cascades. She was often alone on these early trips, but as professional botanists came to know and respect her, she was frequently accompanied by collaborators.
Although Alice Eastwood always lived in rented rooms in San Francisco, she loved Mt Tamalpais and often spent the weekend collecting plants there. She was fascinated by manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) and called attention to at least five new species on the mountain.
It is hard to overstate Eastwood’s contribution to our understanding of plant life in Marin. Between her work and that of her successor at CAS, John Thomas Howell, we have an inventory of plants on Mt Tam that spans nearly one hundred years, a hugely valuable baseline for ongoing documentation of the changes to plant life on the mountain.
Citizen Scientists and the Sea Star
Toward the middle of the 20th century, amateur scientists like Alice Eastwood became less common as scientific research became the province of highly trained academics with substantial funding from public and private institutions. In recent years, however, the role of citizen scientists has again gained legitimacy in the natural and social sciences. How can naturalistic observation by nonprofessionals contribute to scientific knowledge these days?
The most common use of citizen scientists has been to count things or measure them within the confines of a delineated plot of land or sea. Citizen scientists count Monarch butterflies in an attempt to understand their precipitous decline, for example. Equally important are the citizen scientists monitoring the massive die-off among the sea star population from Baja California up to Alaska.
The primary vehicle of this epidemic event is sea star wasting syndrome, in which the sea star literally dissolves within a matter of days. The cause of the syndrome may be related to a little understood virus; climate change and ocean acidification may also be implicated. Millions of sea stars have died since 2013, and in some places there are literally none left.
There have been tantalizing resurgences of sea star populations in some areas, but the reason for these changes is poorly understood and no one knows whether these renewed communities will continue to flourish.
Two formerly common but now nearly extinct species of sea star are the ochre sea star and the sunflower sea star. They have a wide diet, including mussels, barnacles, snails, limpets, sea urchins, and chitons. They have few predators, although seagulls and sea otters occasionally eat them.
A barren kelp forest overrun with urchins
This decline in the sea star population has triggered a “trophic cascade,” a domino effect when a failure at the top of the hierarchy affects species located the next level down, which in turn affect the level below them. The demise of the sea star has led to a huge increase in mussels and sea urchins which have then consumed the kelp forests that supply habitats for marine life and also help in sequestering carbon. In California, 90% of the kelp forests have been lost. It’s a catastrophe.
How can citizen scientists help? The Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) is a large consortium of research groups working with citizen scientists to collect compatible data that are entered into a centralized database. Long-Term Monitoring and Biodiversity Surveys occur throughout the year at sites ranging from Southeast Alaska to Mexico.
One species that has been selected for annual monitoring is the ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceous). In this project, researchers train citizen volunteers in species identification, proper measurement techniques and disease category designation, and accompany them in the field to assist with site selection. This numerical data, along with photographic evidence of diseased individuals, is then combined with that from other groups to track the occurrence of wasting disease on a local and coast-wide scale.
Go to the MARINe website to see how you can become involved!
Duxbury Reef near Bolinas with
demarcated data collection sites
Engaging Youth in Citizen Science
As important as it is for adults to become engaged in citizen science, it’s also crucial that kids begin learning how to address our environmental challenges. Professor Heidi Ballard at UC Davis and her colleagues at the Center for Citizen and Community Science (CCCS) have conducted a number of projects that help students engage in scientific research in their own communities.
One project sponsored by the CCCS is a long-term ecological monitoring study of milkweed plants and the monarch butterflies that rely on them. High school students participate as summer interns, measuring the plants and keeping track of the activity of monarchs that visit them.
In addition to absorbing the basic science content, the interns learn how to communicate the findings to the public and how to take responsibility for the quality of their data. They also begin to self-identify as experts (hmmm, be careful what you wish for!).
Participatory Action Research: Citizen Scientists as Advocates
Once these issues are identified, citizen scientists participate in figuring out how to collect relevant data, how to analyze it, and how to find solutions based on the research results. The role of the professional researcher is to facilitate and participate in the process.
One example may help illustrate. On a Caribbean island called Saba, a nature conservancy noted an alarming decline in the local shark population. A participatory action research project was proposed to find solutions to the disappearing shark problem based on understanding the perspectives of all the local stakeholders, including local fishing families, conservationists, and local government and church representatives.
Initial interviews revealed something very important…there was little interest among community members in saving sharks! Given this basic mismatch between the perceptions of the nature conservancy and those of the community, finding effective solutions to the problem could prove to be difficult.
However, subsequent exchanges revealed that community members had serious concerns about the declining population of redfish, the main catch for local fisherfolk and divers. They attributed this decline to overfishing as well as predation by an invasive species called the lionfish. Community members were also concerned about damage to the local coral reef.
Lengthy conversations and negotiations resulted in a decision to introduce a yearly recovery period for the redfish. Funds were also obtained for the development of more effective traps for capturing lionfish. Lionfish are pretty tasty, and a local campaign was developed to encourage visitors and community members to start eating more of them. Their sale provided a source of income during the season when fishing for redfish was not permitted.
And to top it off, the increased redfish population and reduced lionfish population has a positive effect on the shark population because…wait for it…sharks prey on redfish but not on lionfish! As the marine ecology regains its balance, the coral reef is expected to recover, providing additional ecological benefits for sharks. Win, win, win!
Calling All Citizens
For starters, you can participate in City Nature Challenge 2021. This event got started in 2016 as a competition between San Francisco and Los Angeles to see how many different plant and animal species residents could photograph in their respective urban settings. It is now an international event, with hundreds of cities participating all around the world. This year, all volunteers will take pictures of wildlife between April 24th and 27th, and then load them into a common database to be identified in the subsequent week by experts. Check out their website to find out how to get involved.
Have you heard of the Marin Wildlife Picture Index Project, a One Tam long-term monitoring program of mammals on Mt Tam? Millions of images have been collected through a network of motion-activated cameras on the mountain, and hundreds of volunteers have helped to identify the species captured on film. As the pandemic subsides the opportunities for citizen science will flourish, so keep an eye on their website.
Also, I recommend a book by local author Mary Ellen Hannibal called Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction. In this book, she describes her participation in an astonishing number of citizen science projects around the Bay Area. And she takes you through the development of the citizen-science movement as well as her personal journey as she struggles with the sudden death of her father. Whether you want to count raptors or slosh around in tide pools, Hannibal’s book will get you going.
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!
It’s comparatively hard to get people to worry about, for example, the devastating drop in dung beetles in the Mediterranean countries. (Wait a second…a quick internet search shows I may not be right about dung beetles. They have a lot of fans out there.)
But there are many reasons to worry about cute as well as noncute insects. Without an abundant and diverse population of insects neither we nor the charismatic vertebrates will survive either. The loss of a gnat deprives a bird of food, which is then not available to pollinate the plants needed to feed the antelope that is in turn a source of food for the gorgeous cheetah. It’s the circle of life, people!
Abundance vs. Diversity
Data emerging from studies world-wide suggests that warnings of an insect apocalypse are no exaggeration. For instance, a comprehensive research review published in 2019 by Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys estimated that more than 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. And the overall number of insects is also dropping, at a rate of 2.5% per year.
Factors Associated with Insect Declines (Source: Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys)
Most highly successful species are generalists in the sense that they will eat anything. I am looking at you, cockroaches and opossums! Meanwhile, those with more specific dietary preferences are much more vulnerable if their sole food source is not available.
The most powerful driver of insect decline is habitat destruction caused by intensive agriculture, urbanization, and deforestation as well as pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers.
These same factors are also contributing to a global decline in biodiversity, of which the insect apocalypse is one important part.
Learning to Share in Urban Spaces: A Conversation with Dr. Paul da Silva
Paul began our conversation by introducing me to the concept of “spare or share,” a debate among environmentalists as to whether it is more important to spare large tracts of land for nature’s exclusive use, or to share with nature by finding ways to integrate biodiversity conservation into human landscapes.
Entomologists like E. O. Wilson have long advised that we spare 50 percent of the earth’s land surface for pristine nature, finding ways to manage agricultural activities and urban development in the remaining half.
However, strong arguments for sharing have been made by others, including Kremen and Merenlender at UC Berkeley, who favor “working lands” conservation. They argue for the establishment of buffer zones surrounding open space to protect habitat and resources for some species while facilitating dispersal and climate change adaptation for others.
Expanding our Horizons
How can we create effective ways of sharing space in the urban and suburban landscapes in Marin and throughout the Bay Area? Paul da Silva is particularly adamant that we include as many native plants in our gardens and public spaces as possible in order to support insect diversity.
Why has this goal been harder to achieve than you might have thought? Paul identifies one stumbling block, noting that we humans are generalists and that makes it hard for us to realize that many of our local insects need specific native plants in order to survive.
Also, in Marin we can grow a huge variety of gorgeous plants from all over the world. I admit that I am very partial to Japanese gardens and have definitely strayed from a steady diet of Manzanita! But the more I have learned about the native options, the more able I am to create an interesting garden from ecologically supportive plants.
Looking at the Lawn
Paul suggests that we reflect on the following goals before putting in a lawn: How desirable is the aesthetic look of a homogenous green lawn? Do we want the space to hold up to a lot of foot traffic? How prepared are we to put in the time and costs associated with mowing, fertilizing, watering, and weeding? And how important are the environmental goals of avoiding pesticides, enhancing biological diversity, maximizing carbon sequestration, and increasing soil permeability?
Then, having identified our goals, how do we figure out what to actually do? To help us take this next step, Paul has developed a taxonomy of ten types of lawn or lawn substitute. Each contains a particular grouping of plants that meets a particular constellation of goals. Here are four types that are most consistent with the goals pertaining to enhanced diversity and that require relatively little maintenance.
Creeping thyme and Clover
Paul’s lawn matrix really helped me think through my options as I continue to transition toward using native plants in my yard. Click here if you want the details.
Last Thoughts on Biodiversity
The webinar, Birds and Bees of Mt. Tam, featured two great talks, one by Renee Cormier, avian ecologist at Point Blue and the other by Gretchen LeBuhn, professor in the Department of Biology at San Francisco State. Both scientists described their own recent research to document the abundance and diversity of species in various regions and ecosystems within Marin.Some highlights from their talks:
Contact One Tam to access the video from this webinar, which was held on February 11. You may have to become a member first, but that’s not a bad idea either!
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks very much to Dr. Paul Da Silva for sharing his ideas for enhancing biodiversity here in Marin.
Banner photo credit: 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!
Answer: They are all pollinators, and absolutely essential to the survival of plants throughout the world.
In this post I focus on butterflies, particularly the Western Monarch. You may already know that the Western Monarch is on the brink of disappearing. The situation in Marin is particularly dire. An article in the Point Reyes Light recently reported on local efforts spearheaded by Mia Monroe and Morgan Patton to count the Monarchs at Marin overwintering sites: “So far this year, 150 monarchs were counted in Bolinas, five in Stinson Beach and two in Muir Beach.” In contrast, 22,253 Monarchs were counted in Bolinas, for example, in 2015.
Monroe and Patton cite a variety of general causes for the butterfly’s decline, including climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss. In Northern California, these environmental threats were compounded in the last two years by unusually hot and windy weather accompanied by massive wildfires. The result is a near total absence of Western Monarchs on our coast.
The Life of a Female Monarch
To understand how to revive the Monarch it is a good idea to know something about the life cycle of these creatures. Let’s start with the birth of a baby Monarch (I know, that sounds like the first line of a BBC documentary on the royal family).
Summoning her energy, the female Monarch lays 300-500 eggs on the leaves of a milkweed plant, attaching each precious bundle to the leaf with a bit of glue she secretes. After anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, the eggs hatch into larvae. The green and black striped babies eat milkweed and nothing else for about two weeks. Then they spin a chrysalis to protect themselves while they transform in a week or two into an adult butterfly.
But the caterpillars aren’t just getting plump during their two weeks of munching on milkweed. In fact, the milkweed contains toxins that caterpillars are able to store in their bodies. These toxins render the adult butterflies poisonous to birds and other predators, who associate the distinctive orange and black color pattern with mortal danger and therefore leave the butterflies alone.
If adult Monarchs emerge in the spring or early summer, they disperse throughout the Western US to go through successive breeding generations. But if they’re born in the later summer or fall, they head toward warmer climes. Monarchs in the Western states generally migrate to the coast, while those east of the Rockies often fly all the way to Mexico to overwinter. For more information on this amazing journey, check out the website of the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to pollinator conservation.
How to Help the Western Monarch
Activists nominated the Monarch to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2020. The US Fish and Wildlife Service affirmed that protected status was warranted but did not take action at this time. However, there are a number of other national, state, and local groups dedicated to saving the Monarch. For example, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has established a Western Monarch Working Group to promote “unified, ecosystem-based management approaches at the landscape-level” to the protection of the Monarch.
Individual citizens have an important role to play as well. In the Point Reyes Light article referenced above, Morgan Patton of the Environmental Action Committee of Marin (EAC) has noted that, “One of the most important things to emphasize is that individual actions for habitat support are just as important as large-scale habitat restoration. They are primarily migrating through private property, and the action people take in their own gardens has an impact.”
If you want to learn more about the current status of the Western Monarch and what you can do to help, take a look at the EAC website. Or you can investigate the possibility of becoming a “Monarch Waystation” by planting milkweed, monitoring visitations, and reporting your observations to a portal that aggregates the data across all contributors.
On the Somewhat Brighter Side: Other Butterflies in Marin
Compared to the plight of the Monarch, many species of butterfly are doing relatively well. Marin County is home to more than 70 butterfly species, and all of them would love to stop by your yard for a sip of nectar.
Coastal Green Hairstreak
The best plants for butterflies are California natives. Having evolved together, native plants can provide native butterflies the nectar they need to thrive and the leaves required by their larvae. Butterflies are picky about where they lay their eggs because, as we saw in the case of the Monarch, caterpillars can eat only certain plants.
Another reason to look for native plants is that when non-natives travel across state boundaries they are treated with pesticides. These toxins persist as the plant grows and can be ingested by pollinators.
What inspired me about Insight Garden Program was it was a safe place where I learned to meditate and discover my reconnection to nature and the gardens. This has allowed me to successfully transition to a stable job and be present with my family and community in a way that I never have before. I have a different way of being in the world and the space that I hold in it.
-Bilial Coleman, IGP graduate
It’s one thing to encourage privileged citizens of the Bay Area to establish pollinator gardens. But what about residents who do not have space to plant a garden, who may have had little opportunity to learn about horticulture, or who are living with pressing financial concerns?
In the course of my research for this post, I came across two inspiring programs that seek to support environmental as well as social and criminal justice for residents of marginalized communities in the Bay Area.
In 2002, Beth Waitkus founded the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison. Waitkus and her colleagues developed a curriculum focused on vocational gardening and landscaping training. In 2003, IGP built a 1,600 square foot native plant and flower garden in the prison yard. In addition to learning about horticulture, IGP participants learn strategies to reconnect to the self, the community, and the natural world. The IGP program calls this an “inner” and “outer” gardening approach. The IGP program is now being implemented in eleven prisons in California as well as in a number of other institutions throughout the US.
Planting Justice is another impressive local program focused on environmental, social, and criminal justice. Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders co-founded the organization with four programs in mind: landscaping, education, grassroots fundraising and urban farming training. Their program draws on the permaculture model of sustainable design.
Planting Justice also runs a large organic nursery in Oakland, with proceeds benefiting local communities and formerly incarcerated citizens. They are oriented toward mail order business, and their extensive stock is truly impressive, with many varieties of rare and heirloom plants. They are also developing a retail-oriented site in El Sobrante, where customers will be able to obtain high quality organic plants as well as support formerly incarcerated individuals’ successful transition to life in their community.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks to Christopher Jadallah for sharing his knowledge of pollinators, and for introducing me to the Insight Garden Program.
As this post comes out, appalling political events are taking place across the country. Nevertheless, I continue to hope and believe that the incoming government will be far more proactive than the outgoing one on environmental issues.
The events of the last years, months, and days have shown me how important it is to advocate for environmental and social justice. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the EFM and for your interest in the Notebook.
Banner photo credit: 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!
With all the pandemic and political madness, why should you take an interest in bees? Because they are totally cool, essential to our survival, and in dire need of our help. Let’s get our bee-related synapses firing with a pop quiz!
1. We’ll start with an easy one…Which of the following is a bee?
Answer: Did you pick the fuzzy one? Good job!
Answer: Thousands! This surprised me…
3. Which of the following insects are experiencing huge die-offs?
b. Bees, yellow jackets, and wasps
c. None of the above
Answer: The bee population is plummeting, but yellow jackets and wasps are doing fine, which doesn’t seem fair.
4. What can you do to support the bee community? a. Establish pollinator plants in your yard
b. Encourage elected officials to consider the needs of pollinators when landscaping public areas
c. Remove and relocate unwanted bee colonies humanely
d. Count bees as a citizen scientist
e. All of the above
Answer: These are all good ideas. Read on for the details!
What Be a Bee?
The kind of bee you may be most familiar with is the honey bee, which was imported from Europe in the middle of the 17th century. There are also thousands of species of wild native bees, one of which is the bumble bee. To keep things simple, I will focus mainly on the honey bee and the bumble bee.
You can probably tell them apart. The round fuzzy bumble bee has two sets of wings. The smaller, thinner honey bee has one set of wings and its head is more separate from its body.
These two kinds of bees are quite different in terms of their behavior. Honey bees are very social and live with thousands of friends and family members. Honey bees use caves, rock cavities and hollow trees as natural nesting sites, and of course they are also kept by bee keepers.
Queen honey bee surrounded by attendants. Sorry Slim Harpo and the Rolling Stones, but there is no such thing as a “king bee.”
Bumble bees are also social, but their hives are usually limited to a few hundred individuals. They build nests in burrows or holes in the ground. Most other types of native bees are solitary, but like bumble bees they frequently nest in the ground.
How do these bees stack up in terms of their performance as pollinators? Domesticated honey bees are invaluable to American agriculture. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Honey bees are like flying dollar bills buzzing over U.S. crops….About one-third of the food eaten by Americans comes from crops pollinated by honey bees.”
The crazy thing is that honey bees are not THAT great at pollinating compared to many native bees. For instance, contrast the honey bee with the more patient, focused bumble bee. Bumble bees don’t dash around responding to signals from each other like honey bees do; rather, they quickly and efficiently remove the pollen from a single area. And because they are relatively large they can carry heavier loads than the honey bee. They are also better at learning how to extract pollen from different flowers, so they are good at cross-pollination. And they are more resistant than the relatively flimsy honey bee to cold weather, rain, and limited light conditions.
Even though honey bees get most of the attention, native bees are also useful for pollinating crops. They have a special way of vibrating their bodies to break pollen free as they gather it. This “buzz pollination” makes them particularly good at collecting pollen from greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, whose anthers release pollen when vibrated.
Threats to Bees
Honey bees are also succumbing to mites, fungi, viruses, and bacterial diseases. Pesticides are a huge problem, particularly neionicotinoids, a type of systemic insecticide that is applied to seeds but which remains active throughout the plant’s lifecycle. Bees who ingest the pollen or nectar of treated plants can develop a neurological disorder that leaves them disoriented and confused. Yet another problem is that floral diversity has been reduced as farms are increasingly planted with a single crop.
Native bees, which often share habitat with honey bees, are under stress from many of the same environmental threats. For instance, recent research has shown that bumble bees are particularly vulnerable to global warming. Because they are large and covered with hair, they stay comfortably warm in cold weather but are miserable when it is hot.
Scientists, government officials, and environmental activists are addressing the plight of the native bees but the situation is extremely dire, and some species have already become extinct.
Native plant garden in Pt. Reyes Station
What Can YOU Do?
Plant a bee-friendly garden
If you have some garden space, whether it is big or small, you can put in some plants to support honey bees and native bees. Basically, they need flowers that provide nectar (sugar and amino acids) and pollen (protein).
Here are some things to think about in terms of food...
1. Plant in groups to increase pollination efficiency. If a pollinator can visit the same type of flower over and over, it doesn’t have to relearn how to enter the flower and can transfer pollen to the same species more efficiently.
2. Plant with bloom season in mind, providing food from early spring to late fall.
3. Select plants of different heights with flowers of varying colors and scents.
Bees also need a variety of options for protection and nesting…
A few other things to keep in mind...
Consider the area outside your own property boundaries. Maybe you can get together with your neighbors to coordinate plantings in the strips between the sidewalk and road.
Also, it’s essential to avoid pesticides!!
Nurseries that specialize in native California plants include Annie’s Annuals and Perennials in Richmond and O’Donnells Nursery in Fairfax. You can find plant lists and other information on the website of the California Native Plant Society’s Marin Chapter. Or visit botanical gardens like the one above the UC Berkeley campus or the Marin Art and Garden Center.
Given how beneficial bees are, and how threatened, most people want to support them if possible. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to remove them. Honey bees and most native bees should not be exterminated; rather, you can hire a beekeeper to relocate them.
A couple years ago I hired a specialist, Chris Conrad, to remove two beehives, located in a soffit below my roof. Chris carefully vacuumed the adult bees out of the hive and into the lower section of a special box. He removed the honeycomb with its baby bee residents and attached it to a frame inserted into the upper section of the box. Then he allowed the vacuumed bees to join the young ones on the frame. He relocated the bees to his bee yard along with the honeycomb and honey they needed to re-establish the colony.
If you want to relocate the bees elsewhere on your property, Chris will bring them back after they’ve had a few weeks to regroup in his yard.
Citizen Science: Counting Bees!
The bee count will run through 2023, and the program encourages participants to sign up at its website or send an email to email@example.com. Volunteers will be given an app to upload photos and basic information about the location where the photos were taken. Scientists will identify the bees in the photos and record the information for their database.
The program is based in part on similar efforts to track bird populations. You may have heard of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which relies on nearly 300 “citizen scientists,” volunteers who count migrating hawks and other raptors as they stream over the Marin Headlands in the fall.
Support Local Efforts to Create Public Space for Pollinators
Many of you have probably driven along Redhill Avenue and seen the new median strip that was installed recently, thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor. The other day I went over to take a closer look at the plantings.
A primary goal of the project was to design a median that retains stormwater in order to decrease the amount flowing into neighboring creeks. The median strip is bisected lengthwise by a “river” of multicolored stones varying from one to three or four inches in diameter. The stone river is dotted with beautiful boulders covered with lichen and moss. An array of mostly native shrubs and grasses is artfully scattered beside the stones, with a diversity of plant texture, color, and size. Medium size trees including Japanese maples and Western Strawberry trees provide additional interest. So cool! You can find the plant list on the town of San Anselmo website. This is a great example of an attractive public space that provides essential food and nesting space for bees and other pollinators.
Heading to San Anselmo on Red Hill median
of texture and color
Plenty of color even in winter
Convenient landing pad for a hungry bee
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: 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 to see more birds, flowers, and other images.
Did you know that 9% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector? But environmentalists, scientists, and farmers are identifying farming techniques that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it, not just offsetting agricultural emissions but also drawing down excess CO2 created by other activities.
A Very Brief History of Agriculture in the United States
Corn and other crops were cultivated by Indigenous peoples in North America for more than 7,000 years before the arrival of the first English settlers. This agricultural knowledge was passed along in the 1600s when the Wampanoag native residents taught the English colonists how to clear land, till fields, and grow the corn that was crucial to their initial survival.
While the agricultural practices of the Native peoples were sustainable for thousands of years preceding the colonists’ arrival, the adoption of new farming methods by subsequent waves of settlers changed the ecological context considerably. During the 1800’s, many practices intended to increase crop yield became widespread including fertilization, use of pesticides, irrigation, and the use of gas-powered tractors. While these developments increased productivity, they also damaged the health of the soil. Moreover, destruction of vast areas of grassland in the Midwest eventually led to the catastrophic loss of topsoil during the drought and subsequent dust storms of the 1930s.
The Chemistry-Phobe’s Guide to Carbon
I tend to zone out when anyone talks about chemicals. I admit that Chemistry was my least favorite class in school. I developed a huge mental block concerning the term for the basic unit of measurement in chemistry: “mole.” And believe me it’s hard to succeed in chemistry class if you keep picturing the wrong kind of mole. But bear with me, we can do this.
According to UC Davis researcher Jessica Chiartas, “The soil represents a huge mass of natural resource under our feet. If we’re only thinking about farming the surface of it, we’re missing an opportunity. Carbon is like a second crop.” Why is she so excited about carbon?
Carbon is a chemical element like hydrogen or nitrogen. It is a basic building block of biomolecules and is found in all organic matter. Carbon exists on Earth in solid, dissolved and gaseous forms.
Under the earth’s surface, carbon is stored in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas as well as in some kinds of rocks. When fossil fuels are burned, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere as a gas (carbon dioxide or CO2), where it traps heat and contributes to global warming. Decomposing organic matter on the surface of the earth also releases CO2 into the air.
Now take a look at the ocean. The ocean is a carbon sink (or repository) because it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. However, this absorption also makes the water more acidic. The amount of damage done depends on the balance of these conflicting processes.
Now let’s get to the sequestration of CO2 in biomass (i.e., plants, trees, and algae). You may or may not remember that photosynthesis is the process of using light energy from the sun along with CO2 and water in the atmosphere to make food for plants, trees, and algae. When the greenery dies, the constituent carbon becomes part of the soil.
We can support this sequestration process by improving the health of the soil used in agriculture. When soil is healthy, plants grow to their maximum productivity and are thus better able to absorb and sequester carbon so that it doesn’t go back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.
How Can Farmers Give a Boost to Carbon Sequestration?
Farmers are uniquely positioned to assist in drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere. I was surprised to learn that plants are better suited for this sequestration than trees. Unlike trees, plants sequester most of their carbon underground. Even if the plant burns, the carbon stays fixed in the roots and soil. So, while forests have the ability to store more carbon, grasslands are more resilient in unstable conditions created by climate change.
For this reason, scientists and farmers are becoming more and more excited about the possibilities of soil-based carbon sequestration.
After all, 40% of land in the United States is farmland...an abundant storage area for carbon!
Effective Practices for Creating Healthy Soil
Conventional agricultural practices typically involve stripping the soil of all plants other than the primary cash crop, usually with the assistance of pesticides and aggressive tillage. The alternative is to encourage the growth of diverse plant life in addition to the primary crop. Here are several ways to do that.
Cover cropping. Cover cropping refers to seeding fields between harvests. Cover crops may include either a single species or a mix of seasonal grasses and other plants. As explained by the Fibershed Carbon Farming Education program, the roots from the cover keep the topsoil in place and aerate the soil as they penetrate it, helping the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive. This healthy soil also promotes the abundant growth of the primary cash crop.
Planting windbreaks. Planting native trees and shrubs creates a barrier to prevent the wind from drying out the soil and blowing it around. They also provide wildlife habitat and resources for bees and other pollinators.
Rotational grazing. After crops have been harvested, farmers can allow animals to graze in the fields in order to remove some of the dried-out, dying remnants and allow weeds and other green plants to emerge. These little green interlopers reduce fire risk and increase carbon sequestration.
Opportunities for Change
Here in California, several important programs have been developed to assist farmers and ranchers develop a plan for enhancing the potential of their land to sequester carbon. One of these is the Healthy Soils Initiative, which helps farmers increase carbon sequestration by supporting their efforts to improve plant health and crop yields, increase water retention by the soil, and prevent erosion.
Another important initiative is the Carbon Farming Network. The Network is a coalition of support organizations and land trusts along with 41 of California’s 96 Regional Conservation Districts. These districts work with farmers, ranchers, and foresters to maximize carbon storage in soils by implementing regenerative land management practices based on local conditions. The Network sponsors trainings and workshops to share information and facilitate peer-to-peer learning among its practitioner members. They are particularly attuned to the needs of farmers from marginalized groups, including women and people of color. The Network has facilitated the completion of 57 carbon farm plans to date, encompassing approximately 46,000 acres across the state.
What Can You Do?
Consider patronizing businesses that follow the sustainable farming practices associated with healthy soil. One sterling example is Coyuchi, a purveyor of organic bedding, towels, and apparel that supports regional farms and ranches. Based in Point Reyes, Coyuchi has partnered with Fibershed to support “carbon farming practices that actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, creating climate beneficial fibers.”
Another choice you can make is to buy organic dairy products from local farms. Orchard Valley operates as a collective of small farms across the country. Long committed to sustainability and high animal care standards, they recently secured funding to help member dairies develop methods to increase carbon sequestration and reduce green-house gas emissions. Straus Family Creamery is located in the town of Marshall on the site of a dairy farm established by Bill and Ellen Straus in the 1940s. In the 1980s, their son Albert Straus converted the farm to an all-organic operation and founded the first 100% certified organic creamery in the country. Today, products from the Creamery all come from the Straus farm itself or one of 12 other organic, family-owned farms located in Northern California. I myself am extremely partial to their whole milk Greek yogurt!
Click on this "buy direct" link supplied by Soil Centric to purchase from other producers that use regenerative farming and grazing practices.
One final note: Recently the EFM sponsored a webinar on Healthy Soils as part of the Forum 2020 program. I was educated and inspired by the presentations. Thanks so much to presenters Renata Brillinger of CALCAN, Cynthia Daley of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, and Jeff Creque of the Carbon Cycle Institute, to moderator Diana Conlon of Soil Centric, and to emcee Anne-Christine Strugnell of the EFM for their fascinating insights into the issues and solutions in this important area. Please contact Kim Rago at email@example.com if you are interested in viewing a video of the webinar.
Environmental Forum of Marin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and a United Way of the Bay Area Certified Agency.
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