Conservation

RECENT POSTS

How to Save 890 Million Gallons of Water a Day

A new study out of the Pacific Institute in Oakland finds that California can save more than a million acre-feet of water each year — or 890 million gallons a day — through conservation and improved water efficiency.  That’s close to 12 times the annual water usage of the city of San Francisco, and it’s roughly equal to the water required to grow all the grain produced in California.

The report’s lead author, Heather Cooley, says the strategies outlined in this report can help the state achieve its goal of a 20% reduction of per capita urban water use by 2020.
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Rebuilding a Buffer Against Climate Impacts

Hear our radio feature on wetlands restoration in San Francisco Bay, to be aired Friday afternoon on The California Report.

As my colleague Paul Rogers reported this week, earth has begun to move in the biggest wetlands restoration ever undertaken on the West Coast. This week I took a brief tour of the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, near Hayward.

What is and what will be: Hundreds of acres of salt evaporation ponds, in the background, are being restored to tidal wetlands, as seen in the foreground of this scene from Eden Landing in Hayward. (All photos: Craig Miller)

Scanning much of the scene, “Eden” wasn’t exactly what came to mind. Vast, white expanses of salt and gypsum deposits are more reminiscent of Utah than a bay estuary. These are the remnants of a once booming salt harvesting industry.

But fueled partially by federal stimulus funding, bulldozers and backhoes are now reshaping levees there as part of the larger South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which will eventually return 630 acres of abandoned salt flats into tidal wetlands at Eden Landing, and thousands more in an arc around the south end of San Francisco Bay. Continue reading

Some “Low-Hanging Fruit” Still Hanging

(Photo: Craig Miller)

California’s commercial buildings suck up more than a third of all the electricity used in the state–and that’s too much.

That’s among the conclusions of a new report from the San Francisco-based think tank Next 10. The 12-page report points out that on average, such buildings could cut energy use by 30% just by upgrading insulation, and another 18-to-20% with more efficient lighting.

Though California leads the nation in its stingy use of electricity overall, the report notes that efficiency standards for new construction are “well below what is possible” and what standards are in place are not met by 40% of new buildings. Study co-author Tracey Grose says that’s partly because even if state-of-the-art equipment is installed, it isn’t always used as intended. There are no energy efficiency standards at all for existing buildings. In general, the study finds that energy use in most buildings could be cut by 80% with some basic upgrades.

The report, compiled by the consulting firm Collaborative Economics in Mountain View, and largely a compilation of existing work, also implies that there’s a built-in way to pay for some of these improvements. The authors cite studies showing that commercial tenants are willing to pay higher rents for “greener” space. The report also cites figures from the Building Owners & Managers Association, that some basic improvements in energy efficiency offer a three-to-one return on investment.

Power consumption varies widely within the commercial sector. Next 10 notes that restaurants are the biggest kilowatt hogs per square foot, followed by supermarkets and hospitals (when’s the last time you had to wear a sweater while grocery shopping because the frozen food section was chilling the whole store?).

According to the report, while raw consumption has continued to rise, efficiency in these buildings has leveled off in recent years. Overall, the nearly 6.8 million square feet of commercial space accounts for 37% of California’s electricity use, compared with 40% for commercial buildings nationwide. The latter accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report.

Next 10, which describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan organization” has been a vocal promoter of the economic benefits from greening the state’s economy.

Passionate About Panoche

The “33 x 20″ series continues today on Quest Radio, with the second of two parts on the proposed Solargen project in San Benito County. The report will be repeated on The California Report weekly magazine on Friday.

Catch up by listening to the first part and reading the accompanying blog post from last week.

PG and E already has transmission lines running along the Panoche valley floor.

PG and E already has transmission lines running along the Panoche valley floor. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

One thing becomes clear when you visit the Panoche Valley and the people that live and work there, everyone is charmed by it. The local ranchers, the environmental advocates, even the biologists hired by the Silicon Valley company that is looking at developing part of the valley for a commercial solar farm.

Thousands of acres of vast cattle land ringed by golden, scrub covered hills make up the Panoche Valley. The area has a vast, open beauty that seems very Californian. But in the springtime locals say it looks like Ireland. The land has also caught the eye of the CEO of Solargen Energy.

The company would like to build a 420 megawatt solar farm that would power about 120 thousand homes. To do so, Solargen would cover much of 4,700 acres of the valley with photo voltaic solar panels. Locals like chicken rancher Kim Williams worry it would change the character of the valley and harm wildlife. A group of local environmental advocates and ranchers have formed a group called Save Panoche Valley.

Kim Williams runs Your Family Farm in the Panoche valley and is opposed to the Solargen project.

Kim Williams runs Your Family Farm in the Panoche valley and is opposed to the Solargen project. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

Solargen, as required by law, has hired a team of wildlife biologists to do environmental surveys of the area which, it turns out, is home to several endangered species. Michelle Korpos, the leader of the team, has also developed a fondness for Panoche Valley where she has been working for the past year. Everyday she and group of biologists march out to the project site, and surrounding hills, searching out fox dens, canvassing creek beds and geo-tagging lizard scat.

Michelle Korpos, along with other biologists, has been hired by Solargen to run wildlife surveys for an Environmental Impact Report.

Michelle Korpos, along with other biologists, has been hired by Solargen to run wildlife surveys for an Environmental Impact Report. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

Charlie McCullough has owned his cattle ranch, one of the biggest in the area, since the early fifties and was born in San Benito County. He is one of five ranchers who has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen. But McCullough is feeling remorseful that his decision could lead to such a change in the valley he loves.

 Charlie McCullough has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen for their big solar project.

Charlie McCullough has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen for their big solar project. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

The only commercial business in town is the Panoche Valley Inn which is not really an inn at all but a bar that serves as a stop for tired ranchers at the end of the day and birders and bikers on sunny weekends. The owner hopes the project’s contstruction jobs mean more business over the six year build out. But even the number of jobs Solargen promises to create has become contentious.

Larry Lopez, owner of the Panoche Inn, hopes construction of a big solar array would bring in more business.

Larry Lopez, owner of the Panoche Inn, hopes construction of a big solar array would bring in more business. Photo: Craig Miller.

One thing is for sure, the valley gets lots of sun, 90-percent of the solar intensity of the Mojave desert. But the Mojave, with its protected federal lands and desert tortoises, has turned out to be a nightmare for big solar entrepreneurs. Listen to our stories on the Panoche Valley which now finds itself in the middle of the debate over big solar. It’s all part of our series, “33 by 20,” a look at the obstacles in the way of California’s plan for utilities to generate one third of their electricity from clean energy by 2020. Here’s a map of solar intensity throughout the U.S.

A Sauna…for Science

The sauna at Toolik Field Station

The sauna at Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Last night I celebrated my first summer solstice in the Arctic by participating in one of the most beloved activities here at Toolik Field Station.  I took a sauna. Then I jumped in the lake, which still had ice on it one week ago, according to the Toolik Naturalist’s Journal.  The sauna at Toolik is spoken about in almost reverential tones, and with good reason.  It’s a small wooden cabin a few dozen yards from the main camp, perched at the water’s edge, and there’s a window that lets you soak up the stunning expanse of lake, tundra, and mountains, while you warm your bones after a plunge in the frigid waters.  “Sauna Nirvana” was how one of the scientists described the experience.

But people don’t just love the sauna for the view and the warmth.  They also love it because here at Toolik, it’s the main way to get clean.  The process entails warming up in the sauna, running outside and dumping lake water over yourself, soaping up with some biodegradeable cleanser, dumping more lake water over yourself, and then running back into the sauna so you don’t freeze to death.  Or, if you are hard-core, you can skip the water-dumping part and just jump in the lake.

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The station didn’t have any showers at all until 2001 (researchers have been coming here since 1975), and even now, residents are limited to two two-minute showers per week.  Water conservation here is taken very seriously, not because there isn’t enough supply, but because all of the waste water from the showers, kitchen, and outhouses, has to be trucked 140 miles north to Prudhoe Bay for disposal at a cost of $1.24 per gallon.  Because this is such an active research site, scientists aren’t too keen on the idea of a leach field right next to the spots where they are sampling nitrogen and phosphorus.  So, in the name of science, we sauna.

Last summer, 85,680 gallons of waste water were trucked out of Toolik, which translates to 9.77 gallons of water per day, per person, according to Michael Abels, the Toolik Operations Supervisor.   Compare that with the 99 gallons per day that San Franciscans use, per capita, or the 287 gallons in Sacramento.  True, the conditions here are pretty extreme, but it’s an interesting experiment to see what it’s like to get along on 10 gallons of water each day. Of course, no one here is watering any lawns or trying to keep a swimming pool full.  And since we’re only allowed one load of laundry every two weeks, maybe everyone smells a little differently than they do in the rest of the US–but I think most people here would agree that living on 10 gallons of water a day isn’t half bad.

Clock Ticking for Solar Developers

The “33 x 20″ series continues Monday on Quest Radio, with the first of two parts on the proposed Solargen project in San Benito County. The reports will be repeated on The California Report weekly magazine.

Well hidden among the coast ranges of San Benito County, there’s a valley where, as one ecologist put it, “the hammer is hitting the anvil.” Mike Westphal of the Bureau of Land Management’s Hollister field office was describing the current tension playing out in Panoche Valley between two environmental goals: the mandate to combat global warming with a transition to renewable energy, and the desire to conserve the habitat of endangered animals, as well as California’s remaining ag land.

Solargen argues that Panoche Valley is a rare combination of great sun, proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Solargen argues that Panoche Valley is a rare combination of great sun, proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. (Photo: Craig Miller)

As part of our collaborative series: “33 x 20: California’s Clean Power Countdown,” Quest Senior Editor Andrea Kissack and I have been exploring the effort by Solargen Energy to develop Panoche Valley as a utility-scale solar power array (the state defines “utility-scale” as any facility that produces 200 megawatts of electricity or more).

Like many developers, Solargen CEO Mike Peterson is racing to break ground by the end of this year, in order to cash in on up-front stimulus money from the federal government. He says Panoche Valley presents a rare alignment of attributes for solar power: high solar potential (he says 90% of the Mojave), relative proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. Peterson told me that the lines already in place have enough available capacity to handle his 420 megawatts of solar power, though a spokeswoman for PG&E says that question is still under study.

Meanwhile, some farmers and wildlife advocates have opposed the plan, saying big solar “farms” are better placed on “degraded” land. Ron Garthwaite, who runs Claravale organic dairy, says “This is just not the place to put it. There’s other places which have no ag value and which have less of a natural value where they could put it.”

Standing at the valley's north end, BLM ecologist Mike Westphal points to where 2,000 acres might be covered in PV solar panels. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Standing at the valley's north end, BLM ecologist Mike Westphal points to where 2,000 acres might be covered in PV solar panels. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Westphal, whose agency is not directly involved in assessing the project, sees the valley as a rare microcosm for the once unspoiled habitat of the San Joaquin Valley, just over the hill. “What we really need to think hard about is do we want to risk ecosystems to get energy,” he told me, scanning the valley from Shotgun Pass at the north end.  “That’s what’s going on here in Panoche Valley is we’re making this equation: how much do we want to risk the continued endangerment or extinction of this ecosystem in order to get more energy? That’s the crux of this conflict here.”

In this video clip, BLM ecologist Michael Westphal gives Craig Miller an overview of the valley, looking south from Shotgun Pass.

Solargen is shelling out for a $1.3 million-dollar environmental impact report, which Peterson says does not include measures such as the two dozen biologists and a detachment of scat-sniffing dogs, trained to track down the droppings of other critters for DNA analysis. The results help determine what species are there. Peterson says the total tab in “preparing and preparing for the EIR” now tops $7 million.

In Part 2 of our Panoche Valley “case study,” Andrea Kissack will have a closer look at the wildlife issues. That report runs next Monday, June 28, on Quest Radio.

As for the Governor’s ambitious goal to have renewable energy sources account for one third of the state’s electrical generation by 2020, Peterson describes the process as “surprisingly harder than you would expect.” He says he ponders how to “get this done in a way that is able to meet the mandates, but also be a good steward to the environment, and try to make people happy. And we won’t be able to please everybody.”

He’s right about that. Dairyman Garthwaite says of the state’s quest for renewables: “Just because somebody in Sacramento says something, doesn’t mean that it can happen–or should happen. I mean there’s all kinds of political things involved in that, there’s lobbyists involved in that. People want to make money.”

Climate Watch intern Chris Penalosa mapped some of California’s larger solar projects in development, below.


View Utility Scale Solar Projects in California in a larger map

Has the Southwest Passed “Peak Water”?

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

People have been talking about “peak oil” for decades now, debating when oil production will peak and then start to decline as remaining resources become scarcer and harder to access.   Less attention has been given to the idea of “peak water,” which is the subject of a new analysis by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.  The concepts of peak oil and peak water aren’t entirely analogous for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, overall, water is a renewable resource.  But there are limits to what water is renewable, and how fast supplies recharge.  While the world is not going to run out of water, the report authors argue, in parts of the world including the southwestern US, we’re likely long past the point of peak water.  That matters a lot, said study co-author Meena Palaniappan, because unlike oil, which is shipped across the world, water is still a local and regional issue.

“We’re not going to run out of water,” said Palaniappan, “but we’re going to see a change.  We’re at the end of cheap, easy access to water.  We’re going to have to go further, pay more, and expect less in terms of fresh water.”

The report divides peak water into three types: peak renewable water, the total annual supply of water from sources such as rainfall, rivers, and groundwater sources that are refilled relatively quickly; peak non-renewable water, which includes groundwater aquifers that either do not refill or do so extremely slowly; and peak ecological water, past which, the value of ecological services provided by water is greater than the value it provides in direct human services.  Or simply, it’s the point where taking water causes more ecological damage than it’s worth.

“The goal is to find the sweet spot, where we can maximize the human value water provides as well as the ecological value,” said Palaniappan.

In the western US, we are definitely past peak ecological water, said Palaniappan.  As evidence of this, she cited the Central Valley aquifer, which is being pumped down far faster than it can recharge and the Colorado River, which supplies Southern California with much of its water, and no longer reaches the ocean most years because every drop of it is appropriated for human use.

Last week, I was in Salt Lake City to talk with Terry Fulp, the Bureau of Reclamation‘s Deputy Regional Director of the Lower Colorado Region.  He said that after 10 years of drought on the Colorado, each of the seven states that draw from it are still getting their allotted water supply, and the reservoirs are about half full.  The Colorado River system, which supplies water to more than 30 million people, has a huge storage capacity, equal to four times the river’s annual flow, Fulp said. But increasing demand due to the drought and to population growth have the Bureau looking ahead at the challenges the system may be facing in the not-too-distant future.

“The supply and demand curves basically have crossed,” said Fulp.  “If you look over the last 100 years, the water supply has been above the demand, but demand has been growing, and essentially, today they have met.  We’re operating on a tight margin, a very tight margin, so the question is about projecting what we think the future will look like twenty years out.”

Like Palaniappan, Fulp says that conservation is critical and may become increasingly so in the near future. But even so, he said he doubts the demand for Colorado River water is going to decrease. The supply may, however.  Long droughts are common in the paleorecord, and water managers are planning for an additional 10-15% reduction in flow due to the effects of climate change.   This matters a great deal in a system where just about every drop is spoken for.  Fulp says that developing methods for accessing new water supplies, such as groundwater and desalinization plants, needs to be central to a long-term water management strategy for the region.

Rising Temps Taking a Toll on Lizards

The mesquite lizard is a member of the Sceloporus genus. Sinervo's study included 48 species of Sceloporus.

Sinervo's study included 48 species of the genus Sceloporus, of which the mesquite lizard (above) is a member.

A new study published this week in the journal Science finds that local lizard populations around the world are going extinct, likely due to climate change.  According to the research, conducted by a team of scientists including Barry Sinervo, a herpetologist at UC Santa Cruz, four percent of the world’s lizard populations have disappeared in the last 35 years, and another 20% of all lizard species could go extinct by 2080 if global temperatures continue to rise.

Using field observation and experiments, and computer modeling, Sinervo and his team determined that increased daytime temperatures in some areas have shortened the amount of time each day during which lizards can forage for food. The data–and that of collaborating scientists on five continents–indicates that higher temperatures and reduced feeding time correlates with the pattern of local extinctions among lizard species across the globe (the Science website has a slideshow explaining how the research was conducted).

Sinervo described his research today on the NPR program Science Friday as part of a panel discussing modern extinctions.  He was joined by UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Tony Barnosky and San Francisco State Biology professor Vance Vredenberg.  Christopher Joyce reported on the study’s findings yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Sea Otters May Lose Taxpayer Buoy

This is the second in a series of posts on recent developments at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its sister research institute.

A snoozing sea otter at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

A snoozing sea otter at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

An important source of funding for California Sea Otter research may be in jeopardy.

Since 2007, the California Sea Otter Fund has been one of several options for which state taxpayers could earmark money on their returns. That option may disappear. In order to maintain its slot on state tax forms, annual contributions need to attain a threshold set by the Franchise Tax Board. Lately, those donations have fallen about 25% short of the mark, currently set at more than $258,000. “It’s got to be the economy,” said Jim Curland, when I asked him if he could account for the lag. Curland works on marine programs for the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that works closely with scientists investigating recent declines in the number of sea otters along the California coast. The otter fund competes with about a dozen other programs seeking donations on state tax forms.

Two California sea otters doze in the yacht basin at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

Water mummies: Two California sea otters doze in regal repose in the yacht basin at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

The Monterey Bay Aquarium spends about a million dollars per year on sea otter research, according to spokesman Ken Peterson, who notes that female otters in particular, have been in decline. Scientists are trying to fund tagging and tracking programs to better understand changes in sea otter populations. “Any money out there that helps get answers is critical to their survival,” he told me. The California sea otter is listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act and has “fully protected” status under the California Fish & Game Code.

Curland says proceeds from the tax form donations are split between the state’s Department of Fish & Game and the Coastal Conservancy, which has helped fund a key study off of Big Sur.

If you’re looking for the climate connection here, don’t strain for it. I’ll confess to just being a sucker for the cause. But there may be one. Wildlife biologists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) and UC Santa Cruz, have postulated that as custodians of giant kelp forests, the otters may help optimize carbon sequestration.

Curland says the next three months will be crucial for the fund, as donations trickle in from late filers.

California Water Update: A Mostly Adequate Year

87760251Almost everywhere you look this week, California is dry. By which we mean the state is experiencing the first truly warm, rainless week since a series of Pacific storms blew through the state in mid-January.

Hydrologists for the state Department of Water Resources and the federal California-Nevada River Forecast Center expect the warm temperatures to trigger the first significant surge of snowmelt for the season. With slightly above-average snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada, that should help continue to raise reservoir levels. Our 2009-2010 rainy season is likely to go down in water history as adequate–short of hopes for a wet year but an improvement on the past three winters, which were much drier than average.

Admittedly, that’s the view from the city, where we get our water out of taps and garden hoses. The picture for agricultural users is not nearly as bright, as we were reminded earlier this week.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued an updated allocation for its customers in the Central Valley. The bureau offered a good news-bad news scenario. For CVP customers north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the news was mostly good. Agricultural contractors there will get at least 50% of promised deliveries this year; municipal and industrial customers will get 75%. South of the Delta, the news is not so good. Municipal and industrial users will get 75%, but farm customers are guaranteed just a quarter of the water they want.

That 25% zone south of the Delta includes the Westlands Water District and other areas on the west side of the San Joaquin Delta that have suffered severe water shortages, due mostly to the state’s prolonged dry spell and, less directly, to restrictions imposed on Delta pumping to protect Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

That’s the same area for which Sen. Dianne Feinstein tried to secure extra water this year–even if it meant overriding provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Feinstein’s effort to attach a water amendment to a federal jobs bill failed, but the move apparently prodded the Department of the Interior–the parent agency of the Bureau of Reclamation–to try to find more water for Westlands and its neighbors. This week’s allocation announcement included assurances that the department is still working to secure additional water for west side farmers.

The state Department of Water Resources, which also ships water from the Delta to customers in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond via the California Aqueduct, also issued an updated allocation announcement this week. The department said that for now it’s sticking with its guarantee of 15 percent of requested deliveries this year.

Why such a low figure? The department says it’s because of continuing “poor hydrological conditions” in the Feather River drainage that feeds the State Water Project’s principal reservoir, Lake Oroville. The main symptom of those conditions is the lake’s storage level, now just 57% of average for mid-March. For contrast, look at California’s main federal reservoir, Lake Shasta, less than 100 miles away from Oroville as the crow flies. It’s got 104% of average storage for the date (not to be confused with percent of capacity).

Here’s my amateur, off-the-cuff runoff-watcher’s observation of what’s behind the difference: The Shasta drainage, which captures the upper reaches of the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers as well as lesser streams, has benefited from several storms since mid-January that dumped heavy rains throughout the watershed. Those same storms have dropped lighter amounts of rain further south and east, including over the Feather watershed. The same effect can be seen in the American River basin, which flows into Folsom Lake. A month or so of intense precipitation last year eventually filled the lake; lighter rains this year have led to lower-than-average storage levels in Folsom (84 percent as of this week).

The final word on the water season, of course, will come from the Sierra snowpack and runoff. Stay tuned for the snow melt.

Check recent levels of California’s major reservoirs on the map, below:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map