Nature's Odd Couple: Gray Whales and El Segundo Blue Butterflies

A gray whale tail and El Segundo blue butterfly.
| Photos: Left - Sam Beebe/Flickr/Creative Commons License; Right - stonebird/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We drove to Point Vicente on Palos Verdes Peninsula to look for gray whales. We came away even more impressed by a tiny butterfly, the El Segundo Blue.

The large-bodied mammal travels as much as 12,000 miles a year to fulfill its lifecycle demands, whereas the El Segundo Blue (ESB) goes nowhere, finding all it needs on a single plant rooted in the steep bluffs above the surging ocean through which the iconic whales annually migrate.

Neither strategy, it turns out, has been risk free.

Elmer Avenue: A Sun Valley Native Plant Oasis, With a Purpose

Drought-tolerant Autumn Sage flowers bloom in the parkway of an Elmer Avenue residence in Sun Valley, irrigated by stormwater runoff from the street.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

On an uncharacteristically hot late winter weekend in the east San Fernando Valley, the community of Sun Valley lived up to its name. The thermometer surpassed 90 degrees, the streets were dusty, and all evidence of the Southland's largest downpour in two years, which occurred mere weeks ago, had all but evaporated, swirling in the dust kicked up by the Valley winds. Even with the long shadows forming in the late afternoon, the sight of virtually no clouds and the towering sun-baked San Gabriel Mountains to the east, were visual proof alone that this day felt more August than March.

On this particular street, the sound of mariachi, ranchera, Latin ballads, and techno music blast out of household stereos, a common soundtrack for the eastern SFV. But here, amidst sidewalk-less suburban streets, this block looks...rather different: A meandering pedestrian pathway separates the front yards of xeriscaped gardens or severely curtailed lawns from the sunken parkways bearing drought-tolerant bushes and wildflowers, with rocks and stones lining the bottom. And down the street, what appears to be a former alley is a verdant oasis of California native plants, accompanied by a public walkway and colored images of flora, fauna, and a prescient quote from John Muir.

This is the 7700 block of Elmer Avenue, between Stagg and Keswick streets, just east of Tujunga Avenue. It is the site of the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project, a pilot urban stormwater program of The Council for Watershed Health, in collaboration with the city of Los Angeles and other government and nonprofit partners.

Irrigation Districts are Pumping Groundwater, Making Money, and Undercutting Their Future

The signs are everywhere. Two sets of them line the eastern and western flanks of I-5 as it runs through the Central Valley and they narrate competing stories about the current drought wracking California.

The most in-your-face are the now-ubiquitous billboards and placards decrying the lack of water flowing to Big Ag operations. The culprit for this low(er) flow is not climate-driven drought, they shout, but Congress.

Some of the messages demonize particular politicians (Nancy Pelosi is a favorite target, though she has not been House Speaker for years). Most strike an ominous note, as if a conspiracy was afoot: Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl! No Water = No Jobs! No Water = Higher Food Prices! A handful of others encourage Southern Californians to see their shared pain; water restrictions, these declare, bite just as hard in Kern and King counties as they do in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Yet this week as we zoomed past these markers of a polarized and polarizing political landscape, the physical terrain offered a counter narrative. Everywhere, water was on the move. Ditches fanning out from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project were flush, a rush of white gold on its way to irrigate row crops, orchards, and groves. The sun glinted off flooded rice fields. Sprinklers arced across new beds that stretched out to the horizon, aerosoling the sky with a rainbow hue. Tractor and pickup tires were mud-encased.

The source of this water is something of a puzzle.

Obama Just Expanded the California Coastal National Monument

Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. | Photo: Courtesy Dept. of the Inteior

President Obama's 2014 State of the Union speech contained lots of promises. They won't all be fulfilled, of course, but one of them, only hinted at in his January 28 address, has just been realized.

The intimation was tucked into a paragraph focused on how America was achieving greater energy independence and why natural gas was "the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change." Here's Obama closing thought, a seemingly off-handed remark: "And while we're at it, I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."

Those provocative words may have slipped below many people's radar, but to activists pressing the president to use the Antiquities Act (1906) to set aside additional wildlands, they were an executive elixir. Because the act empowers Obama to designate new or expand the limits of current national monuments without congressional oversight -- a privilege Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton used repeatedly -- the signal seemed clear. The preservation of more scenic and significant landscapes was in the offing.

SoCal Needs to Plan for Drought, Even After Big Storms

The divine has a keen sense of irony. Last Saturday, the same day that the American Institute for Progressive Democracy, a Claremont-based think tank, presented a conference at Scripps College on water scarcity, the skies opened up.

As the Southland was hit with the largest "storm event" in close to three years, speaker after speaker walked to the Garrison Theater podium to talk about aridity, laying out its global dimensions, regional implications, and local ramifications.

The timing, however ironic, was also fortuitous: The dark clouds, hard rain, and thunder claps drove home the difference between weather (short-term analysis) and climate (long term). They exposed our feel-good penchant for the former over the latter, our default emphasis on small steps to insure water conservation that too-often ignores the necessary and systematic alterations to how California and the American west manages, distributes, and utilizes their water resources.

Trying to figure out what some of these bottom-up, lateral, and top-down strategies will be -- and how to integrate them -- was the central focus of the all-day conference, "Water Scarcity and Solutions: Global to Local," attended by upwards of 200 umbrella-toting folks.

If Bill Nye Was a Very Old Tree, What Kind of Very Old Tree Would He Be?

A relative youngster in the White Mountains | Photo: Nick Truland/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It would be hard to think of anyone who's done more to spread enthusiasm for science among American kids than Bill Nye. Since his show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" first went national 21 years ago, he's become synonymous with televised scientific wonder among people in demographics just a little bit younger than mine. And for good reason: he does a great job conveying complex concepts to developing minds.

Nye's gotten a little more press than usual lately after his much-publicized debate early in February with evolution denier Ken Ham, and one of those bits of additional press came in the form of a guest shot on February 14 on the HBO talk show "Real Time with Bill Maher."

While talking with Maher about why he didn't find Biblical Creation myth plausible, Nye ventured into my usual turf: the deserts of California. That's cool, but he made an error in basic fact that I can't help but pick at. I don't care how popular he and his bow tie are: I can show no mercy.

Save It on a Rainy Day: Rainwater Collection in the Drought Era

Musician Timothy Sellers' rainwater collection containers in his Highland Park home, made from 50-gallon Albanian pickle barrels.
| Photo: Courtesy Timothy Sellers

When it rains, it pours -- well, maybe not so much these days. As you may have already heard, from San Diego county to Siskiyou county, the entire state of California is in a drought. This past year's record dearth of rainfall and snowpack has affected everything from agriculture to energy production to recreational fishing to our state's famous wines.

But the most noticeable effect will be on our municipal water supplies, especially now that the California Department of Water Resources has announced that it will not be delivering any water from its reservoirs to local water agencies this spring, the first time it has ever done so in the 54-year history of the State Water Project, the 700-mile water conveyance network that serves much of the Golden State.

As Californians inevitably prepare for increased water conservation, even those of us who are resourceful enough to collect the free water that falls from the sky to use for outdoor landscaping and garden irrigation are especially concerned. With 44 percent of total household water usage in Los Angeles going towards landscaping use, rainwater collection, even in the drought era, is important. Perhaps, more important than ever.

When it rains, it may not exactly pour, but another saying still rings true: Every drop counts.

A Better Way to Restore Wildfire-Burned Forests

Arson-ignited and wind-whipped, the Old, Grand Prix, and Padua wildfires that blew up in October 2003 were among the many conflagrations erupting across Southern California that month. Collectively, the dozen or so infernos became known as the Fire Siege -- the most expansive, deadly, and costly in the region's modern history.

Although not the largest -- the Cedar, which consumed 273,246 acres and killed 14 people, claims that unhappy title -- during its two week run, the Old/Grand Prix/Padua complex was dangerous enough. Individually ignited, these blazes ultimately merged into a single firestorm, roaring through canyon and foothill, upslope and down; they burned more than 161,000 acres of chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and oak savannah and torched more than 1,100 homes and structures. Six people lost their lives and an untold number of wildlife perished.

Like thick snowflakes, ash fell across a broad swath of communities hugging the San Gabriels, from San Dimas and Claremont to Etiwanda and Fontana, and all those nestled up against the San Bernardino range out east to Highland, a nearly 40-mile front of cinder, soot, and smoke.

A decade later these fires remain alive in human memory and in the charred terrain, marks sensitive and visible, grief-stricken and recovering. Healing is a slow, maybe always a partial process.

Hoping to nurture the land's restoration, in early February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new initiative dubbed the Chiefs' Joint Landscape Restoration Partnership. At its helm will be the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and this partnership, funded to the tune of $30 million, will launch an initial 13 projects in 12 states. The goal is to aid communities like those situated around the San Bernardino National Forest to build more defensible space, while also regenerating wildlife habitat and protecting key watersheds.

Do Republicans Care About State Rights? Not With California's Drought.

Don't judge this congressional legislation by its title. H.R. 3964, the Sacramento San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, only sounds as if it will offer a responsible, mitigatory fix to the climate-driven drought wracking California's Central Valley.

It is in fact a deeply cynical bill into which its House Republican sponsors have jammed a series of egregious assaults on the Golden State's constitutionally protected sovereignty.

But don't take my word for it. Read Attorney General Kamala Harris' denunciation of the predatory elements of the bill that California Republicans and House Speaker John Boehner rammed through Congress last week; it passed 229-191 (with Valley Democrats voting Aye).

The Nays should have won on constitutional grounds, Harris asserts. Not only would H.R. 3964 "abrogate long-standing provisions of California law designed to protect the State's natural resources and violate settled constitutional principles of state sovereignty," she wrote in the first paragraph of her February 4 letter, it would also "imperil the State's traditional authority to manage its natural resources without providing any meaningful emergency drought relief for the people of California."

With this as her warm up, Harris then unleashed a scathing indictment of a GOP-sanctioned federal overreach, enumerating her case blow by blow:

CA Drought Makes Great Political Theater, But What We Really Need is Action

California Republicans are grasping at straws. Governor Jerry Brown sounds parched. A crippling drought will do that to you.

Of late, the GOP has unpacked a new-old new message. Democrats are to blame for the drained reservoirs, low-flow rivers, withered vines, and desiccated orchards; its environmental policies are responsible for the state's bone-dry conditions.

Trying to rally what's left of its base in the Golden State, where less than 30 percent of voters call themselves Republicans, and particularly focusing on the Central Valley, one its remaining strongholds, strategists are trying to turn up the pressure. They even flew in House Speaker John Boehner to add muscle to their claims. The Ohio pol did his part, declaiming: "When you come to a place like California, and you come from my part of the world, you just shake your head and wonder what kinds of nonsense does the bureaucracy do out here? How you can favor fish over people is something that people from my part of the world never understand."

Sure they would. Ohioans have readily employed the Endangered Species Act to protect such aquatic species as the pugnose minnow, spotted darter, and lake sturgeon, as well as their riparian and lacustrine habitats; in doing so, they have shaped some important economic realities in the Buckeye State. Residents there know, as do their Californian counterparts, that this vital piece of federal protection not only is nonpartisan but that a Republican president, Richard Nixon, signed it into law in 1973.

That said, Boehner, and those for whom he is flaking, are more interested in optics than history. More compelled by what they believe are the images and sound bites that might make them more competitive in the 2014 House races. In the Central Valley, they're hoping that bad news on the (cracked) ground will translate into good news in the voting booth.