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.

Putting Descartes Before the Coarse: How Industry Blinds Us To Beauty

So awesome.
| Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

I had a friend once who had a running joke he liked to tell. We'd be hiking through some impossibly wild country -- Upstate New York forests grow thick and balky -- and it would be tough going. Sinking ankle-deep in leaf mold, the fungus scent in our lungs and the roots vying to twist our ankles, we'd find the remotest, most inaccessible hill we could. We'd climb it. We'd look out from the summit.

Views are hard-won in that part of the world. A hundred feet of relief and a clear line of sight in more than one direction was a treasure worth any amount of poison ivy. We'd stand there, savoring the view into the next township, and catch our breath. The shackles loosened a bit from around our ankles and our throats. Our spines straightened. My friend Greg would raise an arm. He would point at the horizon like a conquistador, saying "We put the shopping mall there." A flick of his hand. "The gated community will go over there."

It was an unthinkably ridiculous sentiment, an obnoxious thought, and we would laugh. Who could think there was beauty in taking a living stretch of wild earth and subjugating it?

Twenty-first century American aesthetes, that's who.

The Past is the Future at San Pedro's White Point Nature Preserve

Coastal sage scrub plants cover the hillside at White Point Nature Preserve in San Pedro.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

The Palos Verdes Peninsula not only forms the most distinctive feature of L.A. County's
coastline, but it offers one of the most stunning views in all of California, from cliffs to coves to breathtaking vistas of Santa Catalina Island and the setting sun.

But the inland side of the road possesses its own natural beauty as well. At the extreme southwesternmost point of the city of Los Angeles, in western San Pedro at Paseo Del Mar and the southern end of Western Avenue, lies the White Point Nature Preserve, a 102-acre plot of land that appears as an empty, vacant parcel to the uninitiated, but serves as a quiet, natural respite from the urban world.

The preserve, owned by the City of Los Angeles as a public park and managed by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, is criscrossed by easy hiking trails, popular with locals and their canine companions. But dogs aren't the only animals welcome there. California grey squirrels, lizards, snakes (most of which are harmless), insects, and local and migratory birds call this preserve their home, or at the very least their temporary stopover.

The land on which the preserve sits on has quite a history of its own. For nearly 5,000 years it served as the food gathering grounds for Southern California's native Tongva (a.k.a. Gabrieleño) people, until it became grazing land in the 19th century for Spanish-era Rancho San Pedro and later part of the Sepulveda family's Rancho de los Palos Verdes. Starting in the 1890s, the land supported the abalone fishing industry run primarily by Japanese immigrants, who lived in the surrounding area for half a century, later establishing farms there until their internment at the start of World War II. In the next decade, it became part of the Cold War defense system as the location of the LA-43 Nike anti-aircaft missile launch site (the remnants still visible at the preserve today) until its de-commission in the 1970s.

Colorado Balks at Adopting California's Wildfire Policies. That's Not Good

California and Colorado may be quite different places, but they share this in common: fire.

Each state has experienced massive wildfires across time. Each contains fire-adapted ecosystems. Each has large numbers of people living in fire zones. Each currently is locked into an lengthening fire season and, relatedly, an extended drought. And each therefore goes through the same drill every fire season.

When flames erupt in the Sierra or Rockies, the Coastal or Front Ranges, as the smoke-choking, thunderous roar reminds those downwind of a runaway locomotive, residents who live in its rumbling path flee (if they are smart). Racing to fill the void are the first responders, local and county fire departments, state and federal agencies, brave souls putting themselves into the line of fire to defend the oft-indefensible.

About the politics of fire, however, the Golden State appears to be a good deal more proactive than the Centennial.

Strawberry Fields Forever? Infill Development vs. Agriculture in L.A. County

Detail of Vargars Farms' shuttered strawberry stand in Claremont, CA. | Photo: Courtesy Judith Lipsett

Brunch was boisterous. Old friends from San Antonio were in town and we gathered around the dining room table in full view of our sun-drenched backyard, munching an array of spring-fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. The conversation was fast, funny, and convivial, but in a rare, quiet moment one of our Texas guests asked what we had done to the strawberries -- what made them so sweet: sugar? "Nothing added," my wife smiled. "This is how they grow in Southern California."

Like the rest of the residents of the academic arcadia of Claremont, we have been spoiled by the flowering presence of a local strawberry patch; Vargas Farms has long managed the site, slotted on a rectangular set of six acres running parallel to the 210 freeway and framed to the west and north by Towne Avenue and Base Line Road.

I've loved walking by it in the early morning hours of winter, watching the crews build up the beds and lay down the irrigation system, labor overseen by bustling bands of killdeer birds that zigzagged across the fertile land. Their alarm call -- a taut, nasal kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee -- pierced even the rumble-whine of traffic beyond.

None of that energy, human or avian, was on display the other day. Weeds now choke the untended rows, the white pipes and sprinkler heads have vanished, and no killdeer raised their sharp voices. Come spring, we'll have to hunt for a new vendor of that tender, succulent berry.

The Bear Essentials: Have We Learned From Meatball?

The floral likeness of Glendale's Meatball The Bear adorns that city's Rose Parade float, which implores its human residents, 'Let's Be Neighbors' with its wild animal denizens.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

Only in Southern California could 2014 begin this way: Just hours after L.A.'s City Hall flashed eye-opening projections in a first-of-its-kind public party in front of tens of thousands of New Year's Eve revelers, a large black bear barreled through Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard -- to the delight of millions.

Sure, it was just a representation of a bear, made mostly of palm fiber, uva grass, corn silk, strawflower, onion seed, rice, and seaweed. But it was no ordinary bear: It was Meatball The Bear, the 600-pound hillside neighborhood interloper turned ursine folk hero, who, in 2012, couldn't get enough of Glendale (and Costco meatballs), despite twice being caught and released back into the wild.

In its 100th entry in this year's Tournament of Roses Parade, the City of Glendale had perhaps the best urban wildlife awareness campaign ever: A float entry featuring Meatball and some of his forest friends, including a coyote, a mule deer, a red-tailed hawk, a skunk, a raccoon, and a swinging Eastern fox squirrel, all seen by a million spectators on the streets of neighboring Pasadena and millions more on TV worldwide.

Even before New Year's Day, the design was one of the most-anticipated Rose Parade entries. Hundreds of volunteers, including entire groups of over 30 youths each, signed up to help decorate the float at Phoenix Decorating Company's Rose Palace on Raymond Avenue. Some even got turned away. After writing an article on improving our co-existence with local wildlife, I even felt compelled to help decorate the float myself (my mother and I got to do our first-ever petal-pushing volunteer stints, inserting plastic water-filled vials of pink-hued roses and gerberas into the float's foam foundation in the area below the skunk; we also volunteered decorating Western Asset Management's safari-themed float).

The Glendale float was one of the most popular floats in the parade, winning the parade's Governor's Trophy, representing the best depiction of life in California, and a KTLA-TV poll which viewers named Glendale's as their favorite entry.

The float's theme implored human residents, "Let's Be Neighbors" with the wildlife locals. With the Verdugo Mountains and the San Rafael Hills being within city boundaries, a good percentage of Glendale sits on the wildland urban interface -- the zone where human development overlaps with natural open space -- surely this was a lesson for all to learn?

Seeds of Change: The John Muir Exhibit At the Ontario Museum Offers Us a Way Forward

John Muir worked on a large canvas. He loved tall mountains and big places. His adoration of the Sierra Nevada knew no bounds; just as unfettered was his advocacy for the preservation of majestic valleys, soaring sequoias, and thick slabs of ice and rock. A tireless promoter of nature with a capital N, the grand was this garrulous man's muse.

His fascination with glaciers and their frigid force seems consistent with this outsized vision. Until, that is, you read Muir's response to Alaska's once-vast Davidson icesheet: "The mills of God ground slowly but exceedingly fine." What seemed so massive in scope was in fact best observed in its residue of pebbles and sand. Grit mattered enormously.

That's the essential theme of "Nature's Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir's Botanical Legacy," a new exhibit at the Ontario Museum of History and Art which runs until January 12 (relatedly, on Thursday, January 9, at 7:00 p.m., I will host at the museum a screening of the documentary, John Muir in the New World, with discussion to follow).