Dishing the Dirt at Thanksgiving
••• October 2018 Issue •••
Photo: Eddie Bartley
As the crows — and other birds - fly
We tend to think of birds as very similar, but, according to Eddie Bartley, they can be as different from each other as a giraffe is from a mouse. Bartley is a docent at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin and teaches Master Birder classes in migration at the California Academy of Sciences.
This difference in bird species is especially true when it comes to migration, a stressful and risky venture for birds. We still need to learn a lot about the how and why of migration. We can deduce that the birds are searching for plentiful food, for a climate conducive to raising young, and for safety from predators. Overall, birds are like people-- they are looking for a good income and a safe neighborhood in which to raise the kids.
There are many kinds of bird migration, and the type of migration can even vary within a species. Some birds migrate thousands of miles and others just hop over to a nearby nesting area. However, within a given species there is a typical pattern. According to Bartley, “Every species has its own story.”
For example, the Orange-crowned Warbler lives high in the Sierras in the summer and drops down in elevation in the winter. This is an example of elevation migration -- birds moving uphill and downhill, according to the season.
The delightful Sooty Fox Sparrow is a mid-distance traveler. The mid-distance migrants can move from southern Alaska to British Columbia or even as far as the Bay Area.
The neo-tropical migrants, such as the North American Warblers, can move from the northern boreal forests and tundra to Central America or even South America. Wilson’s Warbler breeds in the Bay Area and then journeys to Mexico for the winter.
Swainson’s Hawks breed in Northern California and then fly off to Argentina for the winter.
Some birds don’t migrate. They are the permanent residents or sedentary birds. The California towhee likes to hang out around home, as does the Wrentit. In fact, the Wrentit is such a couch potato that it rarely travels more than a mile from where it first fledged.
Although migration is stressful, not migrating can also present survival problems for a species. At one time, Wrentits were common in San Francisco. They have since been almost eliminated from the City (or extirpated, in bird lingo) due to loss of their preferred habitat.
Some birds within the same species migrate differently from each other. Our Anna’s Hummingbird can be seen zooming around San Francisco year-round, but some Anna’s fly off to winter in the desert and then return to San Francisco in the summer. Other Anna’s breed high in the Sierras and drop down to the desert in winter.
And then there is post-breeding dispersal. It is not really a migration but rather the kids moving out of the house to find a new place to live, court, and produce grand-birds. They won’t return home, to live in that spare room. Many raptors raised in Northern California end up dining on rodents in the Salinas Valley for their first winter and fan out from there to find new territory.
And some birds are either independent minded or just get lost, usually in their first year. They are the vagrants. These are the birds you read about in the newspaper, with photos of large groups (flocks?) of people with giant, long-lens cameras gathering for a glimpse of the bird of a lifetime. Vagrants may act as pioneers, looking for a new home to extend the range of their species.
If you like looking at birds, San Francisco is the place to be. The Bay Area is located along the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route extending from the Arctic tundra to South America. According to Bartley, almost one-half of all species of birds in the United States have been seen in San Francisco.
Many birds raise their young here in the spring and summer, and so autumn is when we have the most birds. Sadly, the first winter for young birds is when they are most likely to expire. Some species have only a 30% survival rate! They are lost over the winter mainly due to starvation, predation, and disease.
You can help the birds who are just passing through on their arduous journeys as well as those who stay for the winter (or the summer). Bartley advises that you can “paint your garden” with birds by growing those plants that attract the birds that you want to see. Keep your housecat indoors (better for the cat, too), provide fresh water, keep your bird feeder clean to prevent the spread of disease, and don’t use rodenticides, herbicides, or pesticides. Songbirds, in particular, rely on insects. As Bartley says, “They don’t call them flycatchers because they eat fruit.”
Support legislation on “bird-safe” windows and the Lights Out for Birds campaigns. Many birds navigate by the stars, and artificial light can be a big problem for them. We’ll cover the “how they do it” of migration in a future article.
And the crows - how do they fly? Well, according to the Cornell bird website, some migrate, some are resident, and sometimes both behaviors take place in one population of crows.
Want to learn more?
Both migrating raptors and the raptor dispersal can be seen from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Marin, which hosts birdwatching during the migration seasons. http://www.parksconservancy.org/programs/ggro/`
You can reach Eddie Bartley at: email@example.com
• • • APRIL 2018 Issue • • •
Untangling an Albatross chick from plastic waste Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Not even recycling can fix this problem
To gain insight into the complexities of environmental health, I sat down with John Rizzo, a member of both the SF Group and Chapter Executive Committees of the Sierra Club. Rizzo is also a technical adviser to World Clean-up Day. We talked about his work around decreasing pollution in our oceans and waterways. Rizzo had just returned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Sixth International Marine Debris conference in San Diego.
At the end of our discussion, my head was spinning from the scope of the problem of plastics in our oceans. Impacts range from the now-famous Pacific Gyre, a floating mass of garbage that is twice the size of Texas, to small bottle caps that sea birds feed to their chicks (who then die), and all the way down to microplastics, tiny particles which are infecting everything in the world and whose impact has yet to be fully studied and understood.
Perhaps the best place to start is somewhere in the middle.
As an example, let’s study the life of a plasticized coffee cup from a coffee shop in Chicago. If that cup were thrown into the Chicago River, it could float down to the Mississippi and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Current could carry it across the Atlantic Ocean as far as the coast of Ireland. That is, if it didn’t break down into tiny microplastics. In that case it might end up on the ocean floor and be scooped up by denizens of the deep. Or algae could attach to it, and the plastic would be eaten along with the algae. (Maybe we should skip the seafood for dinner and go for the veggie special.)
What is certain is that our earth is being overwhelmed with debris, and, in the case of plastic, it is not going to disappear on its own. Plastics can not only poison and injure marine life but they can also disrupt human hormones, litter our beaches, and clog our streams and landfills.
Recycling is not going to take care of this massive problem. Even with concerted efforts at recycling, only about 9% of plastics are recycled worldwide, and that is only in the countries that have developed the infrastructure to do it. Poor communities just don’t have the resources to develop recycling programs. At the NOAA conference, one speaker showed pictures of beaches in poor communities littered with plastic garbage, while the wealthier areas enjoyed pristine coastlines.
Compostable bags and utensils are also, apparently, not the answer - at least not yet. Rizzo learned that there are no standards for biodegradable bags or utensils as there are for, say, organic vegetables. Some materials break down easily, others do not. Some bio-degradable bags were even found to have microplastics in them! The conscientious NOAA conference provided metal forks, cloth napkins and china cups. Come to think of it, for all of us tired of eating off of plastic, this is a pleasant solution to a serious problem.
Plastics are all around us - a complex problem with many moving parts that must be addressed on multiple fronts, including governmental regulation. As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?
To help staunch the flow of plastics into our environment, the following legislation has been introduced in Sacramento.
Assembly Bill 2779 (Stone) will require companies to produce a bottle cap that stays attached to the bottle after opening. Senate Bills 835 and 836 (Glazer) ban smoking on state beaches and in state parks. (You guessed it -- cigarette filters contain plastic.) And Assembly Bill 1884 (Calderon) requires restaurants to provide single-use plastic straws only upon request.
What you can do:
• Use as little plastic as possible.
• Support AB 2779 (Stone), SB 835 and 836 (Blazer) and
AB 1884 (Calderon).
• Join up with others on World Clean-up Day
(September 15th, 2018).
• More to come on that in a few months!
Did I say to use as little plastic as possible?
Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.
••• June 2018 Issue •••
Fate of the earth in the hands of women’s education
Over the last 200 years, the earth’s population has increased from one billion to over seven billion people and is projected to grow to 11.1 billion by the year 2100. This growth will have enormous impacts on the natural environment, on the extinction of many species, and even on the future of our own species. Despite these impacts, over-population remains a sensitive topic to introduce into discussions about the environment.
To learn more about the best ways to approach this topic, I spoke with Karen Gaia Pitts, an environmental activist who has studied population issues for years and is currently a member of the Sierra Club Sustainable Population through Equity and Health Committee. Pitts referred me to environmental writer Paul Hawken’s new compendium, Drawdown, in which a coalition of scientists, economists, and other experts quantitatively evaluate the most effective ways to reverse global warming. Of the 100 solutions listed, girls’ education and family planning rank in the top 10 ways to lower emissions.
Supporting girl’s education in the era of the #metoo movement is a no-brainer, but adding in family planning can lead to a mine field of fear of government control over our personal lives and concern over religious beliefs.
For example, past policies that have dictated the number of children per family have been contentious; extreme programs such as forced sterilization are not something that most people want to replicate. These types of programs are based on the assumption that on their own, women will choose to have as many children as possible.
It turns out that this is not the case. In Drawdown, Hawken states that 225 million women in lower-income countries “want the ability to choose whether and when to become pregnant but lack the necessary access to contraception -- resulting in some 74 million unintended pregnancies each year.”
Despite this, in many countries the rate of population increase has leveled off or decreased. What has led to this change in family sizes?
Many factors come into play but, according to Pitts, making family planning information widely available in their native language to women and girls, combined with providing convenient access to safe, routine, and low cost or free health care, have been shown to be effective in giving women power over their lives and therefore over their choice as to the size of their families.
What about religious objections? Studies have shown that the majority of women who are members of traditionally conservative religious groups have tried or will regularly use contraceptives -- if the contraceptives are available. It is important to emphasize that family planning programs involve much more than providing abortions.
In fact, family planning education combined with low-cost health options results in fewer abortions and better health care outcomes for both women and their babies.
The other major factor impacting population growth is education for girls. This is something we can all support as good for the girls themselves. But there are further benefits. Studies show that girls’ education results in fewer child marriages, choosing to start families later, choosing to have fewer children, a drop in maternal mortality, and healthier babies. Economically, education for girls results in higher wages and greater upward mobility for women and a greater contribution to economic growth.
One of the most stunning statistics Pitts shared is that, according to the Brookings Institution, a woman with 12 years of schooling will have four to five fewer children than a woman with little or no schooling.
But is universal girls’ education attainable? How much would it cost to educate all of the girls in lower and lower-middle-income countries through secondary education? The United Nations estimates about $39 billion annually above what is already being spent. Of course, that is a lot of money, but with hundreds of billions currently being spent by the United States government on military development, one is reminded of the 60’s bumper sticker -- “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” It is just a matter of setting the right priorities.
Pitts emphasized that population numbers also count for wealthy countries -- the higher the standard of living, the greater the environmental impact of each person. Estimates vary, but one 2015 Oxfam study stated that at a global level, the carbon emissions of the richest 10 percent are 11 times greater than those of the poorest 50 percent of the world.
Add that to the surprising fact that 50 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and it is obvious it is in everyone’s interest to advocate for comprehensive health care for women in the United States as well.
When given information and a choice, women will control their own family planning. And, in turn, our planet and all the life on it have a better chance not only of surviving but also of thriving.
•••July 2018 Issue •••
It’s a small world after all - at least when it comes to trash
Join over 1000 coastal and inland clean-up groups on California Coastal Clean-up Day — Saturday, September 15th.
In the April Castro Courier, we talked with John Rizzo about the problem of plastics in our oceans and briefly mentioned World Clean-Up Day. I promised to tell you more about it -- and therein lies a great story. . .
We shift our scene to the small but indomitable country of Estonia, a Baltic country that has been over-run repeatedly as greater powers tried to absorb it into their empires. But Estonia has emerged independent and is once again its own country. And the Estonians, on their own, have started a world-wide environmental movement, called World Clean-Up Day.
It all started back in 2007 when Rainer Nõlvak, a tech entrepreneur, returned home to Estonia after spending time abroad. He visited the island of Hiiumaa, a green sanctuary for him in the past. Except that it was no longer the wilderness he had known. It had been used as a giant trash heap -- complete with bedframes, tires, carpets and old chairs.
Estonia, like many other countries, had succumbed to something called “trash blindness,” where people get used to seeing garbage strewn about and accept it as normal.
Nõlvak was upset. He wanted to clean up the island, but he also realized that cleaning it up permanently involved not only picking up the garbage now but also raising awareness that dumping trash on the land was not a great idea - ever. To both clean the country and to raise awareness, his inspiration was to clean the entire country all at once -- in one day!
Nõlvak gathered together other like-minded local tech, business entrepreneurs and nature enthusiasts to plan a national cleanup campaign. They recruited specialists to develop a GPS mapping software app. Hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the country, recording and submitting data about major trash sites.
You may ask, how many sites could there be in this small country of approximately 16,000 square miles (129th largest in the world, according to Wikipedia)? Over 10,000 major sites were identified! The team then recruited local garbage companies to pick up the trash once it was collected and move it to recycling and trash collection areas.
One month before the planned date for this ambitious project, Nõlvak and friends were concerned that not enough people had signed up. They estimated that it would take tens of thousands of people to do the entire country in one day, but only 10,000 people had signed up. They then mounted a major media campaign and, as a result, on May 3rd, 2008, over 50,000 people turned out! That was 4% of Estonia’s population. The volunteers collected over 10,000 tons of trash in 5 hours.
From that beginning, a movement started. It spread through Eastern Europe to Western Europe and then the rest of the world. It now involves millions of people from over 185 countries. Enthusiastically titled World Clean-up Day, it is held yearly on a weekend in September and overlaps with the various international coastal and other clean-up days on that weekend.
Rizzo became involved when members of the group were visiting San Francisco. He was introduced to them by Adriel Hampton, an organizer at Nation Builder. (In addition to volunteering for the Sierra Club, Rizzo writes books about software and has links to many in the tech community.)
The World Clean-up Day team needed help to develop a citizen science database that could be used to record trash all over the world, not only to help identify trouble spots and get them cleaned up, but also with the awareness that to solve a problem first we need to define it carefully.
Rizzo helped them to set up the non-profit structure they needed to get assistance from companies such as IBM and others.
World Clean-Up Day’s goal is to create a database that can be used not only by the citizen scientists who participate in World Clean-up Day but also to combine that information with the data that organizations such as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the Ocean Conservancy, the Marine Debris Tracker, and American Rivers are now collecting. This will enable them to achieve a world-wide picture of the extent of the trash problem, so that it can be addressed effectively and, hopefully, solved.
As the proverb says, from small beginnings come great things.
What you can do:
To learn more about World Clean-up Day, their organization, mapping tools, world-wide trash database, and clean-up guidelines, go to www.letsdoitworld.org/worldwasteplatform/
World Clean-up Day does not have a group in California right now, but don’t worry - our coastline and creeks are covered! Join over 1,000 coastal and inland clean-up groups on California Coastal Clean-up Day, September 15th, 2018. https://www.coastal.ca.gov/publiced/ccd/ccd.html
Imagine if 4% of San Francisco’s 900,000 people came out - that would be 36,000 people!
Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.
Oroville Dam Spillway Photo Courtesy: Sierra Club SF Bay
To dam or not to dam?
As summer approaches and the winter rains become a distant memory, we are reminded once again that much of California is a desert. Newspapers editorialize about how to plan for future droughts. Sooner or later someone declares that California must build more dams. And yet those same newspapers featured terrifying photos of a large dam spillway failing and outlined the enormous costs involved not only if the dam fails but also if it just needs repairs.
To learn the dam facts (sorry), I contacted Sierra Club California Water Committee Co-chair Charlotte Allen. Allen became interested in water issues after reading “Cadillac Desert” in 1986. She found water policy to be fascinating - analyzing big systems, figuring out how they work, and applying environmental principles to improve the systems. Allen met her biggest challenge when she waded into researching California’s water system - the largest engineered water system in the world.
Allen is dubious about building more dams to prepare for drought. Dams are not environmentally beneficial; in fact, they often destroy stream ecology. Reservoirs lose a lot of water to evaporation, which will increase as world temperatures rise. Dams can fail if there is too much rain or if there are structural problems. If a dam fails, the potential for destruction downstream is enormous.
Allen concluded that, rather than dams, the answer lies in solutions such as water conservation, recycling waste water, increasing agricultural conservation, and banking today’s rain for future drought years.
Yes, water can be banked! Just as you put your hard-earned dollars into a savings account for a rainy day, water can be stored underground and withdrawn on a ‘dry’ day.
How is water banked? “Spread and sink,” says Allen. Let the water flow slowly over permeable soil and the water will soak into the underground aquifers. It will be waiting for you when you need it.
One example of “spread and sink” is the Yolo Bypass. You may have driven to Sacramento on Interstate 80, passing over a long causeway that looks out over usually dry fields. The Yolo Bypass was created in the early 1930’s as a flood plain to protect Sacramento and the surrounding areas when water rushes out of the Sierras and down to the Bay. An unplanned benefit of the bypass is that the water spreads out over the open land and slowly soaks into the soil, replenishing the aquifer below. The Yolo Bypass also provides habitat for hundreds of species throughout the year. Birds literally flock to it. It has become a major habitat area both for resting and nesting along the Pacific Flyway.
But how much water can we really store with water banking? Amazingly, a lot! Right now, above-ground water storage in California is only 50 million acre feet. (An acre foot is one acre of water, one foot deep, or 326,000 gallons.) California needs storage exceeding an additional 50 million acre feet. In other words, we need what we have now -- more than doubled! There is nowhere in the state to build enough dams to meet this need. But estimates of available groundwater storage range from 850 million acre feet to as much as 1.3 billion acre feet!
To achieve this storage, in addition to bypasses, water can be encouraged to percolate into aquifers by restoring mountain meadows, creating levee set-backs, and getting rid of the concrete in river channels.
These ‘spread and sink’ methods can replenish the groundwater basins better than dams, provide more habitat than dams, save more water than new dams, cost less to build than new dams, and are cheaper and easier to maintain than dams. And last, but certainly not least, they avoid the danger of having a dam collapse and flood out your town.
There is an additional benefit with encouraging groundwater storage. Much of California’s existing ground water is suffering from over-pumping. Over-exploitation of groundwater can result in devastating impacts such as salt-water intrusion into the groundwater and even compaction and eventual collapse of the aquifer in which it is stored. Both conditions are irreversible.
Farmers in the Central Valley, who depend completely on groundwater, are experimenting with groundwater recharge. For example, almond farmers are flooding their fields in the winter; the trees don’t seem to mind, and the depletion of the groundwater can be slowed down and, hopefully, eventually reversed.
Both the State and the various groups who need California’s water recognize the problems and are working to come up with new solutions -- without dams. But there is still a lot to do!
What you can do:
To learn about the range of water issues - including groundwater banking - and what you can do to make sure that all Californians can count on a safe and reliable water future, contact Allen at the Sierra Club California CNRCC (soon to be renamed CalConsCom) website:
Yolo Bypass - California Department of Fish and Wildlife website
Oroville Dam Spillway - Sierra Club California website
Dishing the Dirt at Thanksgiving
When you sit down at the table on Thanksgiving, along with giving thanks for family and health, be sure to give thanks for the rich agricultural soil that produced your dinner. I learned this from Anne Stauffer, co-organizer of the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta Soils Committee and the recently formed Sustainable Agriculture Committee within Sierra Club California.
Stauffer grew up in Bakersfield, went to school with farmers’ kids, and majored in biology in college. But it wasn’t until she read Kristin Ohlson’s book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” that Stauffer became dedicated to soil health and the new field of regenerative agriculture.
Healthy soil has many benefits -- it stores carbon and other necessary elements, absorbs and holds onto water, provides sustenance to the myriad of microorganisms needed for plant health, and overall provides a happy growing medium for plants.
Soil becomes healthy through the power of photosynthesis. Plants use the sun’s power to absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. The absorbed carbon combines with water and other elements and passes into the plant’s root system as a sugar; this sugar is used by soil microbes as food. In return, microbes provide necessary nutrients to the plants. When the microbes die, they release carbon into the soil for other microorganisms to use. This ongoing process gradually builds up soil organic matter.
Carbon is so important that soil organic matter typically contains at least 50% carbon. Walking through a redwood forest, you can feel a spongy soil under your feet. That is the result of a long-term build-up of organic matter full of millions to billions of microbes
Unfortunately, conventional agriculture has been responsible for the degradation of much of the agricultural soil. For example, synthetic fertilizers decrease soil microbial activity. Plants treated with synthetic fertilizers don’t need to interact with soil life-forms as much and, instead, increasingly depend on the fertilizer. As these soil life-forms die off or move elsewhere, soil health declines.
Conventional agriculture also uses repeated tilling, which breaks up the structure that holds soil particles together, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The carbon combines with oxygen and becomes carbon dioxide (CO2).
Soil exposed to air by tilling soon dries out, and the nutrients blow away. If the microbes that nurture soil productivity die, what is left is infertile, dry dust – the kind that covered the Southern Plains during the 1930’s Dust Bowl. Other contributions to poor soil health include growing the same crop over and over, and using pesticides and herbicides.
But agriculture can also be harnessed to restore the land while solving another serious problem - global warming.
Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released an alarming report that stated it would take a vast, unprecedented global effort to limit the devastating effects of climate change. Part of that effort would be to limit the burning of fossil fuels; another part would be to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it. One place to store that carbon is by using soil as a carbon sink or a reservoir for carbon, a process called carbon sequestration.
Globally, over one third of arable land is used for agriculture. Think of the impact, if we can employ regenerative agriculture worldwide to increase soil carbon in agricultural soil!
Stauffer outlined some of the proposals for regenerating soil and sequestering carbon.
1. Use non-till farming - Non-till farming preserves the soil structure that helps to lock carbon into the soil.
2. Grow cover crops - Non-food crops grown during the off-season can put down roots that sequester carbon, slow down erosion, and promote better soil health.
3. Leave the cover crops in place - Leave the green matter on the surface and the roots in the soil, to decay and enrich the earth.
4. Grow crops with deep roots - The deeper the roots, the deeper the carbon is placed and the longer it stays in the ground.
5. Plant diverse crops - Crop rotations using different plants may contribute higher soil carbon and soil microbial biomass than less diverse systems.
6. Spread compost on top of the soil - Even a thin layer will enrich the soil beneath it.
7. Use less synthetic fertilizer - This encourages stronger root development.
8. Plant perennial crops - If the same plant produces a crop year after year, an
extensive root system can develop.
9. Plant hedgerows - Dense rows of trees and shrubs provide protection from wind erosion as well as a rich habitat for wildlife.
10. Rotate farm animals on the land - instead of muddy, lifeless feed lots, rotate cattle or sheep through a series of pastures. The native forage grasses have a better chance to survive and can even thrive, as the critters massage and fertilize the soil by doing what they do naturally after they digest their dinner.
Our state has started to try some of these new approaches to farming. California has established a Healthy Soils Program as part of its Climate Smart Agriculture program. Since California has over 43 million acres of agricultural land, this could result in an enormous amount of carbon being sequestered in California’s soil.
For Stauffer, the changes needed for agriculture are not that complicated. Her biggest challenge is figuring out how to get people to change. Except for farmers, most of us don’t think about soil -- we just walk on it. And yet, as Stauffer says, “soil is the reason we are all here.”
In a future article, we will talk about how you can apply the principles of regenerative agriculture to your own garden. Meanwhile, enjoy your Thanksgiving feast and give thanks to the web of life that produced it.
Join Stauffer in her efforts at:
Learn more about regenerative agriculture at:
Learn more about California’s agriculture programs at:
Watch fun videos here:
••• October 2018 Issue •••