Monday, June 20, 2011

California State Water Project Inspection Trip Revealing

Though I have been teaching California Water to Cal Poly/Pomona students for the past three years, I had not had the opportunity to visit the 'Holy Grail' of the California State Water Project until this past week. 

Thanks to an invitation from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California through Pasadena Board Director Tim Brick, I was invited to join 36 others in a behind the scenes 'inspection tour' of the State Water Project (SWP).

The two day trip was a whirlwind visit to the Oroville Dam, the Feather River Fish Hatchery, the Oroville Dam Visitor Center, the Delta and levees, the Banks Pumping Plant and the Skinner Fish Facility, with a briefing on current Bay-Delta issues at MWD's Sacramento office.

Our inspection group included a dynamic mix of water agency, water contractor, environmental, governmental, and education representatitves, which facilitated lively discussions both on the bus and during group lunch and dinner sessions.

Highlighting our first day was a trek up to Oroville Dam on the mighty Feather River. The photo above was taken from below the Fish Hatchery and gives a pretty panoramic view of the watershed, dam and hatchery, where salmon and steelhead are raised, then released into the River or San Francisco Bay.

The water release from the Dam that day was an amazing 8,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), the fastest June flow on record in the 40+ year history of SWP.

The second day of the trip focused on visits to the southern delta of islands and levees with terrific commentary by Curt Schmatte on the complex environmental issues facing the region.

The State Water Project, initially conceived by State Engineer Edward Hyatt (the Oroville Pumping Station is named after him) in 1931, was approved by the voters for bond funding in the Burns-Porter Act of 1960, with the construction of the first phase completed in 1971. The second authorized phase, the Peripheral Canal was never built, since the bond measure to fund it, Proposition 8, was defeated in 1982.

The largest American publically financed water works project, SWP's main purpose is to provide reliable water supply to 80% of Californians: urban and agricultural users in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California. The Project is also operated to improve water quality in the Delta, control Feather River flood waters, provide recreation, and enhance fish and wildlife.  The diversion gates at the Skinner Fish Facility (above photo) facilitate capture and relocation of fish downriver to prevent fish predation (death by predator, whether biological or human).

The key focus of this trip was on sustainability issues that will both ensure water reliability and ecological function, particularly relative to fish health. A half century of water pumping has taken its toll on the land along the delta levees, where subsidence has resulted in fields and groundwater storage areas now up to 30 feet below sea level. In addition, extensive pumping has negatively impacted fish spawning, especially the Delta smelt, resulting in court orders limiting pumping to protect fish habitat.

The 'Bay-Delta' portion of SWP covers over 700 miles of open canals and pipelines. The 'Bay' refers to San Francisco Bay while the 'Delta' refers to the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. An interesting fact is that the Delta itself is actually inland from the Bay, connected by the Suisun Marsh, where the ocean salt water meets river fresh water.

The MWD briefing included mapping of the Bay-Delta affected areas, an overview of the challenges in meeting water supply due to ecological damage and pumping restrictions, and a discussion of the 2009 water bond act approved by the state legislature scheduled to be placed on the November 2012 ballot seeking voter-approved funding. The site visits, like the one in the photo above of our group taken on the bridge at the Skinner Fish Facility offered dramatic evidence of these challenges.

The size and scope of the SWP in the Bay-Delta area was mind-boggling and our group covered a lot of territory in two short days: Pasadena-Burbank-Sacramento-Oroville-Sacramento-Southern Delta Cross Channel-Twitchell Island-Sherman Island-Franks Tract-Oakland-Burbank-Pasadena.

Clearly, there is still no consensus among water contractors, agricultural users and environmentalists over the properr CALFED solution for the Bay-Delta area. Nonetheless, the tour dramatically showed how vulnerable all Californians are if an 8.1 or greater earthquake strikes the area, which would result in a total collapse of the levee system and significant damage to pumping and diversion infrastructure.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Loss Of Open Space No One's Really Talking About...

We seem to be bombarded almost daily with these frightening headlines: State Parks to Close...Irvine's Wild Rivers Water Park to relocate to make way for an apartment complex...LA River projects on hold due to lack of funding.

Yet the most disturbing 'closures' are the places where many of us hold our first memories of childhood exploration in nature: The Summer Camp.

Throughout the country, Girl and Boy Scout Councils, church organizations, private families and civic organizations are doing the once unthinkable: closing their camps and putting the properties up for sale to raise revenue to keep their operations alive. More and more we are seeing large swaths of open space becoming abandoned by long-time property owners and tenants (as is the case of several camps within our National Forest system).

This trend is troubling for a number of reasons:

1. the great likelihood that these parcels will be purchased by those who intend to develop the land
2. the fact that many of these camps have learning-oriented recreational improvements in place that will likely be destroyed
3. the loss of 'one tank trips' to get families into nature during a time of economic turmoil

While this movement is nationwide, the example of one camp: Camp Sugarbush, where I spent much of my childhood as a Girl Scout camper, is illustrative of this sad trend.

Camp Sugarbush embraces almost 200 scenic wooded acres in rural Northeast Ohio and its name connotes the large stand of sugar maple trees growing in the area. This camp is highly improved with a lodge/dining hall, infirmary, heated swimming pool, small canoe lake, archery range, game fields, and an observatory. Overnight camping amenities include cabins, a primitive cabin, covered wagons (yes, you can sleep in them just like the pioneers did!), and perma-tents with cotting and mattresses. The lodge and cabin include flush toilets and hot showers (yay!).  All other units have their own pavilion, latrine, and running water. The camp offers day camping, overnight camping and primitive camping options.

For me, Camp Sugarbush was more than just a place to hang out at during the summer. Here I learned ritual and survival skills that still serve me well today. Among my 'firsts' at Camp Sugarbush: first archery lesson, first primitive camping experience, first canoeing, first campfire singalong, and first leather tanning. I hated the sound of the bugle at 6:30am waking us up and calling us to the flagpole for the morning camp opening ritual but loved making s'mores over the campfire. I hated repelling the nasty mosquitoes buzzing around but loved our hikes in the woods, learning the names of plants and trees, while in search of 'edible' berries. I learned the difference between poison oak and poison ivy. I learned how to watch out for snakes (by the way, this is a skill that applies to human snakes, too). I learned how to catch frogs. I hated latrine duty but learned the connection between human waste and our watershed at a young age. I loved the ride and commaderie on the camp bus and can still smell the hickory smoked campfire air.

A couple months ago, the Girl Scout Council of NE Ohio voted to close Camp Sugarbush and four others, with the plan to sell them to raise funds to keep the organization financially sustainable, while reorganizing camping activities around two 'leadership centers.' But what will the final fate of this and many other camp grounds nationwide mean?

Born of the 'garden movement' at the turn of the 20th Century and nurtured as church groups and youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire, and 4-H were founded and grew, the nature summer camp gave children and families the opportunity to leave the sooty, dirty industrial city where they lived and camp under the stars in nature.  According to the American Camp Association, summer camps serve over 10 million Americans at 12,000 accredited campsites.

Only 10 million? No wonder these open spaces are quickly becoming endangered species. Despite the cries about nature deficient disorder in our children due to urban upbringing, fewer youth than ever are engaging in overnight camping away from home.

Several factors have led to this decline: the rapid urbanization of America where today more than half the population lives in cities, stressed out two-income and single parent families who are struggling just to financially survive, and computer-video game-virtual reality technology that entertains more and more of our children, just to name a few.

And here's the saddest part:  unless you grew up in a camping family or attended camp as a child, you have probably forgotten how to camp and live outdoors.  Anecdotally, I'm always surprised how, when I take visitors down to the Arroyo Seco in very civilized Pasadena, they quake in their shoes when I mention wild critters in the area, especially snakes.

While nature can be enjoyed just for nature's sake through hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding, natural camp grounds are critical playgrounds for learning skills of survival and skills of teamwork and leadership. Moreover, since most camp grounds are located on a freshwater river or stream, these natural playgrounds are a key source of watershed education, too

Whether it's state parks, public campgrounds or civic/church owned camp sites, we risk losing some of our most precious low impact recreational open space if we cannot develop new models of joint use, cross-organizational collaboration, and revenue enhancement. And where are the land conservancies? While conservancies focus on ranch, farm, and urban interface properties, I've yet to see an organized effort to acquire and conserve these precious camp lands.

This summer, take your loved ones camping before it's too late. Better yet, bring along a friend or two and introduce them to the joy and wonder of living, for at least a brief time, in nature.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Arroyo Property of the Week - Sleek Pasadena Townhome

New to the market, this light and bright 2 bedroom plus den, 3 bath townhome on California Boulevard at Los Robles is priced under $450,000.

Boasting over 1500 square feet of living space, this front north-facing unit has spectacular views of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The spacious living room features hardwood floors, a fireplace, wet bar, and huge balcony for enjoying gorgeous sunsets.

The sleek Euro kitchen features an atrium style breakfast nook and the downstairs 'den' is perfect as a recreation room, office or third bedroom.

The townhome complex features a private community pool, lush landscaping and a huge courtyard with several fountains. HOA dues include earthquake insurance coverage. Yes, the unit includes two parking spaces and they are side by side!

Best of all is the perfect location of this townhome. Situated in the highly desired Madison Heights area of Pasadena, it has a terrific 72 walkability score. Bicyclists will love riding the 12 miles of bike lanes in Pasadena from this home, commutable to the Del Mar Gold Line station, Caltech, South Lake Shopping District, and my beloved Lower Arroyo Seco Nature Park.

This is a must see value in one of Pasadena's finest neighborhoods! Please call me at 323-230-9749 or email me at if you'd like to take a look!