California’s poised to become the first state to ban plastic bags

On the 8th of November, if California voters pass a referendum on the ballot known as Proposition 67, the state will become the first in the country to ban single-use plastic bags at groceries, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Considering that Californians go through some 10 to 20 billion plastic bags per year, each one in use for an average of 15 minutes, this could make a big difference.

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

I get it. Plastic bags are useful and convenient. But so were polystyrene-foam products, and we managed to abandon them in the 1990s because they were damaging the ozone layer. It’s time for us to adapt to the 21st century and be less wasteful with plastic. You can still pay 10 cents for a paper bag if you really need it.

Plastic bags pollute our oceans, coastlines and streets. A recent study found that one-fourth of fish sampled in California markets had plastic debris in them, and shellfish had even more. If we were to continue with business as usual, we could have more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050, according to a study last year. Another study found that 90% of seabirds worldwide swallow plastic, and sea turtles get tangled in or eat the bags too, unfortunately mistaking them for jellyfish.

Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, using the fossil fuels natural gas and petroleum. Only a few kinds are recyclable, and the others don’t decay. Well they do break down very very slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years, during which time they may kill or poison untold numbers of seabirds and turtles.

San Diego, my home town, became the 150th municipality in the state with a ban. The majority of Californians have begun to adapt to the ban. But when the state legislature passed it in 2014 (Senate Bill 270), people opposed to it—including the plastic industry, libertarians, and a few others—collected petition signatures opposed to it. The governor, other leading policy-makers, Democrats and Greens, and numerous environmental groups support the bill.

Now the plastic bag ban is on the ballot, for everyone to decide. A “yes” vote on Prop 67 would make uphold the legislation, while a “no” would overturn it. Two years ago, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed broad support for a plastic ban, with nearly sixty percent of people supporting it and about a third opposed. A new poll may reveal a shift in public opinion, though I suspect that my fellow Californians will stick with the plastic bag ban.

And then we could see other states, like Massachusetts, follow suit. A few other state governments, in contrast, are trying to ban plastic bag bans, but if California is successful with their ban, maybe they’ll reconsider. Then a decade down the road…who knows, maybe the whole country will abandon plastic bags!

More News from Monterey: Otter Rescue, Coastal Economy, Fog Maps

Here’s a few new stories I reported on and wrote for the Monterey Herald newspaper over the past couple weeks:

 

Helping otter pups survive El Niño

When a stranded sea otter baby was rescued on Carmel Beach by Monterey Bay Aquarium workers in January, it was a rare enough event to be featured on the television news.

But with more El Niño-strengthened rainstorms returning to the Monterey Bay, these rescues might become more commonplace.

Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors enjoy the sea otter exhibit during the 1:30 feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Friday. (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors enjoy the sea otter exhibit during the 1:30 feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Friday. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

Storms increase the potential for pups to be separated, said Tim Tinker, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Santa Cruz. Otters like to feed closer to shore in shallower water, where the waves are bigger during El Niño. Storms also rip up kelp forests, giving the animals less shelter and resting areas, he added.

Only a few otters have been rescued so far this year, said Andrew Johnson, manager of the aquarium’s Sea Otter Program. “We’re holding our collective breath about the effect of conditions out there.”

Most pups are born between late fall and early spring, and they require many months of nursing and weaning. Adult otters spend much of their time foraging for food, as they need to eat 25 percent of their body weight every day. But an otter mother can’t forage as much and becomes weak by the end of the weaning period.

“She’s on the razor’s edge. It sounds pretty harrowing, but that’s the way they are,” said Tinker. Storms can split up otter pups from their mothers during this particularly vulnerable period. On their own, pups struggle to survive and don’t have much time before they starve or freeze to death.

This is where the aquarium’s sea otter rescue program comes in. Often responding to calls from citizens and networks of volunteers, their staff annually rescue dozens of distressed otters stranded on the shore. Sometimes a pup can be heard before it is seen, chirping or squeaking for its lost mother. In addition to suffering from food limitations, older otters are sometimes found to be sick with disease or injured by white sharks.

When the animals meet certain criteria and respond well to treatment, then the rescue program adopts them. Staff members feed and care for the otters in giant circular tanks, filled with kelp and companions, with plenty of room to swim, play and rest. They pair the pups with a surrogate mother, who helps them grow and learn to survive on their own. After they recuperate, which can take months, the otters are tagged and released back into the wild. “We want them to go out and be a productive member of sea otter society,” said Johnson…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 5 March 2016. As usual, thanks to David Kellogg for editing assistance and to Vern Fisher and David Royal for their excellent photography.]

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News from Monterey: Low Water Levels, Fracking Debates

Here’s a couple new stories I reported on and wrote for the Monterey Herald newspaper over the past couple weeks:

 

Water levels on the rise, but slowly in Monterey County

As Northern California was pelted with rain to start the new year, there seemed to be reason to celebrate as the critically low levels at some lakes and reservoirs rose quickly.

Lake Shasta went up by half since the beginning of winter, to 46 percent of capacity. Folsom Lake, east of Sacramento, rose 44 feet in just over a month, and Lake Oroville rose 20 feet, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

A fishing boat motors across Lake Nacimiento in San Luis Obispo County on Tuesday, January 26, 2016.  The recent rains have raised the water level to 22% of capacity.  (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

A fishing boat motors across Lake Nacimiento in San Luis Obispo County on Tuesday, January 26, 2016. The recent rains have raised the water level to 22% of capacity. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

But that wasn’t the case everywhere, including the two Southern Monterey County lakes, Nacimiento and San Antonio, key bodies of water in recharging Salinas Valley aquifers.

As with all lakes and reservoirs throughout the state affected by years of drought, water levels at Nacimiento and San Antonio had become dire. Last summer, Lake San Antonio dramatically dropped to 3 percent of capacity and recreational facilities there were closed.

Last month, Lake Nacimiento stored water at only 16 to 17 percent of capacity. It has now risen to 22 percent.

“Most of the gains came from the last couple rain events over the past week,” said German Criollo, a hydrologist with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.

Lake San Antonio, on the other hand, currently remains at 3 percent of capacity. This is so low that engineers refer to it as a “dead pool”: gravity cannot pull any water out of the reservoir when it is at such levels…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 26 Jan. 2016.]

 

Fracking: Environmental group startled by pro-oil production radio/TV campaign

While Robert Frischmuth tuned in to the Democratic debate a few weeks back, he was startled to see a new commercial promoting oil and natural gas development in Monterey County. It turned out to be part of a TV and radio ad campaign, which promises economic benefits and thousands of jobs for the region.

Oil fields near San Ardo in southern Monterey County. (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

Oil fields near San Ardo in southern Monterey County. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

Frischmuth is a member of Protect Monterey County, a local nonprofit group that focuses on environmental issues. He and his colleagues believe the campaign comes in response to a ballot initiative they are preparing for the November election.

“We think it’s unprecedented that the oil companies would spend so lavishly on advertising when the initiative isn’t even drafted yet,” said Mary Hsia-Coron, another member of the group.

Californians for Energy Independence is credited on the video for sponsoring the ad. Its coalition includes Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp., and other oil and gas corporations.

“We’re supporting local energy production,” said Karen Hanretty, spokeswoman for Californians for Energy Independence. “These folks in Monterey would like to ban oil production in California, but that would be terrible for the state and terrible for the county.”

The ballot measure would likely support a ban on fracking, not all forms of oil well stimulation techniques…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 3 Feb. 2016. As usual, thanks to David Kellogg for help editing it.]

El Niño brings concerns of mudslides, flooding, and coastal erosion

Here’s two related stories I reported on and wrote for the Monterey Herald newspaper over the past week:

 

Concerns rise about mudslides in Monterey County

Higher-than-average rainfall last week, in the midst of an El Niño winter, has raised concerns about landslides and mudslides in Monterey County.

And those concerns are warranted. Although dangerous landslides have not been witnessed in the area this year, historically January and February is prime time. More than 60 percent of landslides happen in those months, when enough rain has been sopped up by the ground to loosen the soil, said John Stock, a U.S. Geological Survey landslide expert in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Vehicles get trapped in a mudslide on Highway 1 three miles south of Esalen on Feb. 13, 1987. The major winter storm caused this section of roadway to be closed for weeks. (Herald file photo)

Vehicles get trapped in a mudslide on Highway 1 three miles south of Esalen on Feb. 13, 1987. The major winter storm caused this section of roadway to be closed for weeks. (Herald file photo)

There are a few key elements for landslides: gravity and water. After four years of drought, the soil might take a little longer to be saturated by rain, but is still vulnerable.

“Weak rocks and steep slopes are the main factors, and they’re helped by rainfall,” said Chris Wills, a geologist for the California Geological Society.

Geologists have identified two varieties of landslides and debris flows: a fast-moving kind and a slow-moving kind. Fast-moving landslides tend to occur during or shortly after intense rainstorms. The soil acts like a sponge, soaking up water in its pores until no more water can be absorbed. Then the freely moving water exerts pressure and pushes the sand grains apart. On steep eroding hillsides, this can generate landslides, spreading shallow soil and rocks downhill.

Slow-moving landslides are much larger and deeper, typically happening after a delay — days, weeks or even months after a lot of rainfall has accumulated. Such a landslide occurred in La Conchita near Santa Barbara during the winter of 2005, killing 10 people and damaging dozens of homes. They begin by creeping down slower than at a speed of an inch per year, making them hard to spot. Then they accelerate as massive amounts of earth, boulders and trees tumble down.

“There are two reasons to worry about landslides,” said Wills. “Fast-moving ones can be dangerous to people, and deep slow-moving ones can affect roads, pipelines and houses built on them. These cause significant costs to society,” he added…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 10 Jan. 2016. Thanks to David Kellogg for editing assistance.]

 

Rainstorms, tides and El Niño are reshaping Monterey Bay beaches

Just as big waves wash away carefully constructed sand castles, El Niño threatens to transform Monterey County beaches and coastlines.

Every winter rainy season brings storms and heavy surf that erode shores and wash away sand, which waves return to the coast in summer. But El Niño generates extra rain and higher sea levels, which increases the erosion during intense and windy storms, affecting coastal bluffs and beaches around Carmel, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach and Monterey.

People watch as the Carmel River flows to the ocean at Carmel River State Beach on Monday, January 11, 2016.  County crews worked with equipment on Sunday to start the breach through the sand bar at the southern channel.  The river broke through on its own sometime Sunday night.  (Vern Fisher - Monterey Herald)

People watch as the Carmel River flows to the ocean at Carmel River State Beach on Monday, January 11, 2016. County crews worked with equipment on Sunday to start the breach through the sand bar at the southern channel. The river broke through on its own sometime Sunday night. (Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald)

“Southern Monterey Bay has the most highly erosive beaches in all of California,” said Paul Michel, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Continual rainstorms swelled the waters of Carmel River last week. After 10 p.m. Sunday, a sand barrier built to keep the river from breaching at the Carmel Lagoon was washed away, according to Melanie Beretti, program manager at the Monterey County Resource Management Agency. After considering bulldozing sand back in place, officials expressed concern about it just getting flushed out to sea, so they decided to hold back.

“We need to balance when and how to utilize the sand,” Beretti said.

The beach has been reopened to visitors, and the Resource Management Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continue to monitor the situation to protect the steelhead trout habitat in the lagoon.

This incident could be a small taste of much bigger things to come. Abnormally large storms and big tides could damage roads, bike paths, hiking trails, water lines, sewage systems or even homes close to the coast…

[For more, check out the entire story in the Monterey Herald, published on 11 Jan. 2016.]

Reporting from the American Geophysical Union: Fire Risk Maps, Rocky Mountain Forests, Sierra Nevada Water

Here are three new stories I reported on and wrote at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco a week ago:

 

Assessing U.S. Fire Risks Using Soil Moisture Satellite Data

Soaring hundreds of kilometers above the Earth, a NASA satellite monitors soil moisture in the ground far below, probing drought conditions. Scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) analyzed these data and combined them with wildfire information from the U.S. Forest Service and land cover data from the U.S. Geological Survey. They used the results to assess fire risks, taking the first important step toward developing predictive maps for fires throughout the continental United States.

Burning trees and brush in the 2013 Rim Fire, which burned more than 1000 square kilometers in California's Stanislaus National Forest. The Rim Fire was the largest ever recorded for the Sierra Nevada mountain range. (Credit: Mike McMillan, USFS , CC BY-NC 2.0)

Burning trees and brush in the 2013 Rim Fire, which burned more than 1000 square kilometers in California’s Stanislaus National Forest. The Rim Fire was the largest ever recorded for the Sierra Nevada mountain range. (Credit: Mike McMillan, USFS , CC BY-NC 2.0)

The JPL scientists, a team led by Nick Rousseau in NASA’s DEVELOP Applied Sciences Program, find that soil moisture data alone can approximately explain the distribution and extent of fires, from the Sierra Nevada to the western plains to the Florida wetlands. Their results determine how much the dryness of regions indicates fuel available for fires. They reported their findings on Wednesday at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif.

Every year, wildfire outbreaks cause economic loss, property damage, and environmental degradation. Local, state, and federal agencies want to prepare for fire activity, and knowledge about particularly high risk areas would help them do so. If these new maps could be used to predict wildfire potential, then they would be an invaluable resource.

“This shows how much overall area is likely to burn, which could be a useful tool when Congress allocates resources for fire management,” said Sparkle Malone, a research ecologist at Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colo., who was not involved in the study.

[For more, check out the entire article in Eos magazine, published on 17 Dec. 2015. Thanks to Peter Weiss and Nancy Mcguire for help with editing it.]

 

Climate change and bark beetles spell doom for Rocky Mountain spruce forests

The combination of climate change and spruce bark beetles could drastically alter Rocky Mountain spruce and pine tree populations over the next three centuries, according to a new study. Using an improved model of forest growth, death, and regeneration, a group of scientists predicts that spruce populations will decline and lodgepole pines will take their place.

Nearly every mature spruce tree has been killed by spruce beetle in this area of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service; photo: Brian Howell)

Nearly every mature spruce tree has been killed by spruce beetle in this area of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service; photo: Brian Howell)

According to new research presented at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, the demographics of a forested region can be dramatically affected by insect outbreaks and fires over time. In addition, different kinds of trees have different tolerance to drought, strong winds and temperature changes. “These act to create competition between individual species and even between trees,” said Adrianna Foster, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia and lead author of the new study.

Bark beetles are tiny–only a quarter inch in length, smaller than a grain of rice–but given the opportunity, they can rapidly consume a forest. According to the U.S. Forest Service, over the past 15 years, pine beetles have devastated Rocky Mountain forests, killing off tens of millions of lodgepole pines. But if the new study’s predictions are correct, the trees stand to make a comeback as spruce trees decline, according to Foster.

[For more, check out the entire article on the GeoSpace blog site, published on 21 Dec. 2015. Thanks to Lauren Lipuma for editing assistance.]

 

Parts of Sierra Nevada Mountains more susceptible to drought than previously thought, study finds

Particular areas in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains have a high capacity to store water but are more susceptible to droughts than previously thought, new research finds.

The Salt Springs Reservoir, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento, has experienced dropping water levels, barely covering the lowest gauges installed by the U.S. Geological Survey. (Credit: Rowan Gaffney)

The Salt Springs Reservoir, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento, has experienced dropping water levels, barely covering the lowest gauges installed by the U.S. Geological Survey. (Credit: Rowan Gaffney)

“The areas we think that are most resilient to drought are actually more vulnerable to the transition from historical droughts to more extreme ones, like the one happening now,” said Rowan Gaffney, a geoscientist at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lead author of the study.

Every year, accumulated snowpack in the region stores water, which melts during the summer and recharges groundwater that flows into river and stream areas. Ecosystems, communities and agricultural irrigation depend on that water downstream, Gaffney said.

In the new study, Gaffney and fellow University of Nevada geoscientist Scott Tyler investigated the relationship between groundwater and stream flow in 10 strategically chosen locations throughout the Sierra Nevada in eastern California. High groundwater storage areas are losing the most water during the current drought, Gaffney reported at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

[For more, check out the entire article on the GeoSpace blog site, published on Dec. 2015.]

Californians and the Environment

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan thinktank based in San Francisco, recently conducted a survey of Californians’ views of environmental issues. This is particularly important in light of the ongoing drought in the southwest and the upcoming elections in November. According to the report (available in PDF format), the results are based on the responses of 1,705 adult residents throughout California, interviewed in English and Spanish by landline or cell phone, and they’re estimated to have a sampling error of 4% (at the 95% confidence level). I’ll describe what I see as their most interesting results, and if you want more information, I encourage you to read the report.

Global warming: A strong majority say they are very concerned (40%) or somewhat concerned (34%) about global warming. Approximately two thirds of Californians (68%) support the state law, AB 32, which requires California to reduce its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but the partisan divide (Democrats at 81% vs Republicans at 39%) has grown on this issue. 80% of Californians say that global warming is a very serious or somewhat serious threat to the economy and quality of life for California’s future. Only 45% of people are aware at all about the state’s cap-and-trade system, which took effect in 2012, but after being read a brief description, Californians are more likely to favor (51%) than oppose (40%) the program. Under a recent agreement between the governor and legislature, 25% of the revenues generated by the cap-and-trade program will be spent on high-speed rail, 35% on other mass transit projects and affordable housing near transit, and the rest for other purposes.

graph

Energy policies: overwhelming majorities of adults favor requiring automakers to significantly improve the fuel efficiency of cars sold in the U.S. (85%) and increasing federal funding to develop wind, solar, and hydrogen technology (78%). Strong majorities support the requirement that oil companies produce cleaner transportation fuels and the goal that a third of California’s electricity come from renewable energy sources. But residents’ support declines significantly if these two efforts lead to higher gas prices or electricity bills. (This is unfortunate, because gas and oil companies are heavily subsidized in the US, and maybe our gas and electricity bills are too low.) Most residents (64%) oppose building more nuclear power plants, as they have since the Fukushima disaster.

The survey includes other contentious issues: 54% of Californians oppose hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas extraction. But a majority (53%) support building the Keystone XL pipeline.

Water policies: Asked about some of the possible effects of global warming in California, majorities say they are very concerned about droughts (64%) or wildfires (61%) that are more severe. 35% say that water supply or drought is the most important environmental issue facing the state today (which is 27% higher than the fraction in a 2011 survey), and this is the first environmental survey in which air pollution was not the top issue. In another measure of concern about drought, strong majorities of residents (75%) say they favor their local water districts requiring residents to reduce water use. The CA legislature is discussing a $11.1 billion state bond for water projects that is currently on the November ballot, and a slim majority of likely voters would support it (51% yes, 26% no).

If you’re interested, the PPIC has useful information and publications on water policies and management of resources: see this page and this blog post series. Water policy analysts argue that in the Central Valley, where most agricultural water use occurs, the failure to manage groundwater sustainably limits its availability as a drought reserve. In urban areas, the greatest potential for further water savings lies in reducing landscaping irrigation—a shift requiring behavioral changes, not just the adoption of new technology. Finally, state and federal regulators must make tough decisions about how and when to allocate water during a drought: they must balance short-term economic impacts on urban and agricultural water users against long-term harm—even risk of extinction—of fish and wildlife.

People’s Climate March

This is a different topic and has nothing to do with the survey, but I want to use this opportunity to plug the People’s Climate March, which will be taking place on Sunday. (This website can direct you to events in your area.) One of the biggest marches and rallies will be in New York City, where the UN climate summit will soon be taking place. Even Ban Ki-moon will be participating! For San Diegans, you can find information about Sunday’s downtown events here. Californians also organized a “People’s Climate Train” to take activists and participants by train from the Bay Area through Denver and Chicago to New York, where they’ll be arriving tonight. Finally, I recommend reading this well written piece by Rebecca Solnit on Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and the need to raise our voices on Sunday.