The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!
The EFM Notebook
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
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!
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 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 email@example.com.
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: 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.
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!
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!
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