It's common knowledge for Los Angeles residents to know that our water supply comes from some ambiguous place oft-referred to as "up north," without much regard as to the exact location of the source, much less the method by which it magically appears from our faucets, showers and sprinklers.
For the more historically and politically aware, we know that our water comes from various faraway sources, such as the Colorado River, but most notably (and notoriously) from California's Owens Valley -- still an unknown locality to most of us city folk, or at the very least, "that place on the way to Mammoth."
Last December, following a disappointing episode in my life, I exiled myself and sought solace in that very place, intentionally far from the big city. As a native Californian, the allure of a part of the state I had not yet been to was an extremely appealing one, and I decided to lay my hat in a town called Independence, some 220 miles north of Los Angeles. Population: 600.
As official badges go, the Forest Service's is pretty plain -- but very much to the point. At its center, a lone pine tree splits the letters U and S, letters that serve doubly to denote the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organizations whose names are emblazoned across the top and bottom of the shield. It is a deft, clean, legible, and historic symbol, having been the agency's central logo since its establishment in 1905.
For many current and past employees, it is also a badge of honor, a reflection of their deep and abiding attachment to their one-time or present-day roles as stewards of America's national forests. So you'll understand if they get a little testy when someone proposes to mess with this sign of their lifelong devotion to the public good.
I heard the water splashing long before I saw its fall.
The sound -- a clear, thin cascade -- drew me east toward the dawn as I moved up the gravel-rough horse trail paralleling Thompson Creek diversion channel in northern Claremont. Streaming west in the concrete bed was a slow flow from the previous day's rain: I knew more about how these waters would get to the Pacific than I did about their source.
The deep ditch drops away from Thompson Creek dam, one of a number of flood-control structures built in the aftermath of the devastating 1938 flood that crashed through Claremont and much of the Pomona Valley and that wreaked havoc through the Southland. The channel cuts along the base of the foothills before turning south into the city of Pomona, where it merges with other ditches and culverts, an infrastructure that swings past Ganesha Park and Cal Poly-Pomona and then slides by nondescript warehouses and industrial parks before slipping between low-lying hills in Pomona's southwestern quadrant. As it pushes past La Puente, City of Industry, and Avocado Heights, this long-running channel finally converges with the San Gabriel River hard by the 60 and 605 freeway interchange, a multi-layered intersection of the riparian and vehicular.
The cute little bird in the photo here is a Say's phoebe. It's a small songbird in the flycatcher family that's very common in the western United States. Common enough, in fact, that it's rated as a species of "Least Concern" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
That doesn't mean the Say's phoebe isn't important. The birds help control insect populations. They provide a source of food for larger animals, and they sing nicely. And it would seem they're of extreme importance to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). At least compared to eagles.
Building a good fire is a matter of balance. Bright flames are cheerful, but if your intent is to keep one side of you tolerably warm, your fire must neither be too efficient nor too wasteful. You must stack your firewood loosely enough that air can flow through freely, but not too loosely. Each burning log heats the burning logs nearest it. Too much space between them and the fire will slacken. Too little and the fuel keeps its heat to itself. On a desert night like this, a cold one in March 2005, you want to coax the fire to share every bit of warmth it can.
For the tenth time I poke at my little campfire and think about my father.
Desert kit foxes are in trouble, facing threats from industrial development of their habitat to a deadly outbreak of distemper that's killing untold numbers of foxes. This week, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed to list the fox as a Threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act (CalESA), a move that if successful would afford the fox a bit of protection from development of its habitat.
A Laguna Beach-based marine life rescue group has seen such an increase in the number of severely dehydrated and malnourished sea lion pups this season that the organization is calling it an epidemic.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center rescued a dozen sea lions Saturday, a record for the nonprofit in a single day, according to the group's head of development, Melissa Sciacca.
"It's absolutely in crisis mode in our center," Sciacca said.
Eighty-six marine mammals are now being treated there, she said, adding that all but two are sea lions, Sciacca said.
"We haven't had this number of animals in 15 years," Sciacca said. It was a particularly rainy "El Nino" year in 1998.
Most of the sea lion pups are coming ashore severely malnourished and dehydrated, Sciacca said. The problem has reached "epidemic proportions" along the Orange County coast, she said.
"One of the foundational principles of the U.S. Forest Service is water," observed Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in an interview with me in mid-February. His observation was made in reference to the impact of the Clean Water Act on and importance to watershed management within the national forests. His insight is now a matter of heightened concern as a shifting climate alters the levels of precipitation across the country.
But to understand the hydrological challenges of our immediate present, and the drier future they may presage, it is critical to recognize the implicit thrust of Tidwell's comment: history matters.
No one better understood the power of water to define life in the American west than the 19th-century activists and scientists who articulated the need for the creation of the national forests. They predicated their arguments on a close reading of the land and the tight ecological relationship they believed existed between upstream watersheds and downstream economies.
On climate change, the Obama administration seems to be finding its voice.
That was not always the case: because President Obama was not about to let climate change disrupt his second-term chances, during his first term he sat quietly as Republicans vociferously attacked anyone trying to construct an effective climate-change policy for the nation.
These assaults, Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies told Bill Moyers recently, were part of a larger "disinformation campaign" that the fossil-fuel industry has funded: "I mean, they're very happy, thank you very much, with the status quo," delighted with the results of their actions "to get people to believe that the experts do not agree."
Among those who deferred was the Obama administration, and that's still true to some extent. In mid-February more than 40,000 climate activists rallied around the White House as part of the nation's largest such fossil-free rally ever, but the president was a no-show. Instead, he was on a Florida golf course, shooting a sunny round with oil-and-gas executives.
This tone-deaf moment aside, off the links President Obama and the executive branch are starting to speak about the urgent need to protect life on Earth.