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23 March 2008

Drip Dry - What is a Desert?

Walking around Pasadena, most people probably don't think of the city as part of a desert - a place of vast sands, mouth-drying winds and devastating heat. But perhaps we would all be better off if they did.

With the so-called "perfect drought" of last summer and the autumn firestorms that followed, fears of global warming have hit Southern California hard, including Pasadena, which isn't yet a desert, but is well on its way to becoming one.

According to Tapio Schneider, an assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech, just what a desert actually is isn't easily defined.

"Desert has many different and quite vague meanings. The meaning you are probably thinking about is a very arid region [little rainfall, evaporation exceeds precipitation] with a barren landscape and sparse vegetation," Schneider explained recently via email. "Climatologically, deserts can be defined and sub-classified in several ways, but usually the term desert is applied if annual rainfall is less than about 10 inches," Schneider explained. "We receive about twice that amount on average, so according to that definition, Pasadena is not a desert. But in other classifications, the term ‘desert climate' refers to any climate in which evaporation exceeds precipitation, and this is the case in Pasadena."

If you look at a map drawn Sept 25 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Drought Monitor, you'll see that most of California was under a moderate to extreme drought, with almost all Southern California under extreme drought conditions. Yet, there were no statewide mandatory water conservation measures taken.

Nationwide, California wasn't the hardest hit area last year. A large portion of the Southeast United States suffered from extreme to exceptional drought conditions during that time.

Certainly things have improved this year and the current drought map shows Southern California as being abnormally dry to under severe drought conditions. Northern California also appears to be sitting pretty. But does this mean water usage is now only a Southern California issue?

Schneider explained in a phone interview that while many regions across the US are now suffering from drought and "we [scientists] see pretty clear changes," some people will argue that "the drought we are seeing here is a sign of climate change." But, he cautioned, it is too early to come to that conclusion.

After all, he continued, "A few years ago was one of the most humid years on record. And three years later, it was the driest year on record." He does still feel that "on average, it will get drier here," yet we must also consider that during a period of time there will be "variability" in weather patterns.

However, he was sure that "it is very likely it will get drier in the coming decades," but "whether that is due to human activity that is too early to tell. We'll know in a decade or two."

While scientists can wait that long to figure out whether last year's perfect drought was a sign of things to come or just a normal variation in the weather, he also acknowledged that, as a community, we can't wait much longer.

"We have to do two things: Find ways of producing energy with lower emission of greenhouse gases," he said. "At the same time, climate change will happen, part of it is inevitable, yet we do have a choice in it. We can adapt and conserve water as a resource by using energy technologies on an individual level and by being more aware in order to put pressure on our institutions to change on larger scale."

As the current drought monitor maps show, despite the rain, Southern California is still under drought conditions.

And "Water policies need to adapt now," Schneider said, "Climate will change in the next 50 years" and the reality is we will have to "use less water to adapt."

--Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly

Water Wars - Films for Thought

If you are a green-conscious filmmaker but don't have the big bucks of Leonardo DiCaprio or the political clout of Al Gore to get your project green-lighted, why not enter the Intelligent Use of Water short film competition?

Last year's jury award winner, Sergio Cannella, was from Italy, but the competition's sponsor and the awards ceremony are both located in Southern California?

Following a special Oct. 11 screening at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia, winners will be announced immediately and cash prizes of $6,000 for the Jury Award and $3,000 for the Audience Choice Award will be given by the event's sponsor, Rain Bird of Azusa.

Rain Bird, the leading manufacturer and provider of irrigation products and services for lawns, gardens, agriculture, golf courses and commercial developments, is giving amateur and experienced filmmakers a chance to showcase their talents and use the power of film to highlight the need for responsible water use with this contest, now in its second year.

Shalini Kantayya, director of the 2007 Audience Choice Award winner, "A Drop of Life," will serve as master of ceremonies. "I got the idea while in India making a documentary," Brooklyn-based Kantayya commented via email. "The more I researched and read about water, the more I became convinced of Vice President of the World Bank Ismail Serageldin's statement on the future of war: ‘If the wars of the 20th century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.' I found the statistics alarming; between one-half and two-thirds of the world's population will not have access to drinking water by the year 2027.

"The water meter in ‘A Drop of Life' was originally created to illustrate a frightening future where water is the planet's most scarce natural resource. But then I learned that this frightening future, a world in which water is reserved for only those who can afford it, exists today. The science-fiction water meters I had imagined already exist in 10 countries including South Africa, Brazil and impoverished areas of the United States. This ‘coincidence' has affirmed my belief that this story has the power to move, inspire, and mobilize people to act on this vital issue," Kantayya said.

A filmmaker for her 7th Empire Media who has done commercial work for Sting, Mariah Carey, and Phil Collins, as well as interviewed and filmed people such as the Dalai Lama and Gloria Steinem, Kantayya also considers herself an activist and educator.

"My interest in conservation is about survival of every species on the planet," she explained. "Everyone should be aware that water is a precious limited resource and we must conserve, avoid bottled water, and convince our leaders to keep our water clean, safe and as our shared human right."

Kantayya's film, as well as Cannella's "Carpa Diem" - the tale of a fish and water, can be viewed on the Rain Bird IUOW Web site, www.IUOWFILM.com.

Entries may include narrative, documentary, animated, experimental and/or student-made short films that run one to 10 minutes in actual or excerpted run time and the subject matter should explore methods and ideas to responsibly manage and utilize earth's most precious resource.

The competition's 2008 judges are Robert Glennon, a professor at the University of Arizona's Rogers College of Law, Gary McVey of the American Cinema Foundation, and Amanda Pope, a professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

All entries must be submitted electronically as an .mov, .wmv or .mpg file no later than 11:59 p.m. (PDT) Sept. 1.
For more information about the competition and entry requirements, visit www.IUOWFILM.com.

Wave of the Future: Go Grey to Go Green

"Why in the world are we throwing away drinking water, using it to flush toilets and putting it into landscape?" John Koeller, technical advisor for the California Urban Water Conservation Council, asked recently.

Those functions "don't require chlorinated, filtered drinking water. What's closer to us than gray water? You can reduce your water use and water bill."

According to Koeller, Australia and Germany more commonly use gray water systems.

So what exactly is gray water?

It's water that was once drinkable (potable or whitewater), but was used for washing dishes, clothes or even for bathing. It is NOT water you let go down the drain while waiting for the shower or bath water to heat up, which is still clean "whitewater" and could easily be used for anything.

Nor is it water from the toilet bowl. Toilet water is considered "blackwater," with biological contaminants such as human and animal feces and urine. It also isn't rainwater.

Water in a semi-arid climate like Pasadena should be considered a precious resource and recycling water isn't a new way of conservation. Rather, it is really an old idea with a few new high-tech possibilities.

New buildings going up at Caltech, one of Pasadena's largest water consumers, will have pipes laid especially for gray water usage, according to Jim Cowell, associate vice president of facilities and planning.

"Water conservation is just one part of a larger initiative at Caltech to become a more sustainable campus. ... In these new buildings we are building, we are providing gray water piping," Cowell said.

These would provide gray water to the urinals and toilets, but Caltech is waiting for Pasadena as a city to provide gray water.

"The city does not have a gray-water supply, so we're ready if the city comes down with a gray-water main. We'll be ready to hook up our new buildings," Cowell said. "There would also be an opportunity to hook up our landscaping."

By waiting for the city, which has no immediate plans in the works, Caltech is avoiding what Koeller has called "a patchwork system of health codes" governing the usage of gray water, which boils down to "battling health codes."

The plumbing is not the biggest issue. Systems can be "approved in one jurisdiction and denied in other jurisdictions," or different inspectors might have "different interpretations of the same codes," and this is "a serious problem in this area" as opposed to Colorado and New Mexico, Koeller said.

Laura Allen, one of the members of the Greywater Guerrillas (www.greywaterguerrillas.com), a collaborative group of educators, designers, builders and artists encouraging the building of a sustainable water culture and infrastructure, agreed with Koeller.

"California needs to change the code and model the new code after Arizona's gray water code," Allen wrote in an email. "In Arizona, people are given basic health and safety guidelines, and if they follow them they fall under a general permit and don't need to do anything else to be ‘legal.' California needs a code like this, and to provide education and possibly incentives for homeowners to install gray-water systems."

Robert Mechielsen, founder of Studio RMA, which is designing the Pasadena EcoHouse, the first structural concrete-insulated panel LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum home in the US, said the idea of using gray water is very valuable, especially in California, "yet there is a problem about run-over water. Who decides if that run-over water can be discharged in the street or the sewer? Rainwater and gray water can be discharged in the sewer so an engineered system would need a separate tank for your rain water which can be technically discharged into the street," and this multiple tank system would drive up the cost of the reclaimed water.

For the Pasadena EcoHouse, Mechielsen decided solar power would be a better use of money.

According to Allen, "Overall the vast majority of gray water systems are unpermitted because of the illogical gray water code California currently has. It's interesting to note that during drought times, the government had ignored its own code and told people to use their gray water!"

From a legal standpoint, Koeller explained there are currently two types of gray-water systems: engineered systems - bigger systems built to order and specially permitted - and packaged systems. The packaged systems are affordable for the average homeowner and rental property owner.

According to Mark G. Sanders, chairman of WaterSaver Technologies (www.watersavertech.com), a Kentucky-based company, for about $295 and the cost of a 90-minute installation by a licensed plumber, you can have an AQUS gray-water system installed.

The AQUS system is one of two packaged gray-water systems that has been chosen by the Metropolitan Water District as part of its Innovation Conservation Program. The system cleans up the gray water you used in your bathroom sink - taking out the large particulates with a coarse screen and killing the bacteria to make it "Fido-friendly" in case your dog uses the toilet bowl for a drink.

According to Sanders, WaterSaver Technologies will install AQUS in 17 buildings (single-family homes, apartments, hotels and maybe an office or two) and for three months the water and energy consumption will be monitored.

In a recent phone interview, Sanders estimated that the AQUS system uses about 50 cents worth of energy per year, but the study will give Californians an accurate picture of the total cost.

Sanders will be speaking at the upcoming Plumbing Manufacturer's Institute spring meeting on "Emerging Technologies in Indoor Greywater Reuse," which is a part of the Greywater and Rainwater Reuse Session on April 2 in Newport Beach.

Allen, co-author of the "Guerrilla Greywater Girls Guide to Water," said that "besides saving water and money, gray water systems also require people to look critically at what they're putting down the drain. It's a great time to rid the house of toxic cleaners, chemicals, etc. Biodegradable products are best. Also check to see they're low/free of sodium and boron, which can harm your plants. Oasis products are made especially for gray water. [Laundry detergent and all-purpose cleaner] For body products there is a great Web site [www.cosmeticdatabase.com] where you can enter your products and see how toxic (or not) the ingredients are."

Individuals who are passionate about water now currently practice gray-water usage, and yet it needs to go further than that. "The real question is: How far in a society are we?" Mechielsen asked. To have gray-water systems in place and for water conservation to work, we can't rely on just those people "who are very eco-conscious."

After all, the installation of engineered or packaged systems in one home "doesn't necessarily mean the next person who wants to buy this house isn't going to wash his paints in the sink," he said.

The bottom line, says Mechielsen, is you "really have to look at a group of people or a city or a green movement that have to come to a consensus: How as a group of people are we dealing with water that could be recycled in a safe, environmental and sane manner?"

Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly

Dry Green: Go Native

Want to go green and still have green in your yard while conserving water?

Consider California native plants, which are more than just succulents and cactus. Many are flowering and many were used for food or medicinal purposes by Native Americans. Theresa Richau, the Herbs of the World garden curator at the LA Arboretum & Botanic Garden, feels people come to the Arboretum "to be healed" and gardens have that special power.

As a member of the Tongva tribe (who lived in the LA Basin), she feels that we should think of the "landscape of the universe" and that conserving water in a semi-arid area is part of the deal.

Currently, Richau is refurbishing and redeveloping a native California section of the herb garden with the help of her tribal elder, Mark F. Acuña, an ethnobotanist who has written his own personal guides to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont as well as for the Bernard Biological Field Station at Claremont College and the Pitzer College campus.

Richau, Acuña and Marcela Singleton, the Grace Kallam Perennial Garden and Meadowbrook curator, are involved in the relatively new section of the Roots & Shoots Children's Discovery Node, the wildlife garden.

"A donor had an idea of creating a wildlife garden, and while studying wildlife-attracting plants, I found they are all native plants," Singleton explained. "They don't require soil amendments because they are designed to be here." Singleton also insisted that no irrigation system be installed, so plants are watered by the rains or by hand. Without irrigation, this garden is in bloom with orange, blue, purple and yellow flowers.

Acuña pointed at the silver-leaved Artemesia tridentate. The Tongva, who called it "wikwat," gathered the seeds and ground them into a mush. The leaves and branches were used in sweathouses. A medicinal tea for stomach-aches was made from the leaves, which were also used to make a green dye for tattooing. For the Tongva, this is a most sacred plant because it came from their original homeland, areas like Nevada before the climate changed. Like most silver foliage, this plant is great for a moonlight garden, reflecting light.

The seeds of the juncus, or wire grass (Tongva name soar, pronounced with two syllables) were used to make little edible cakes, the roots and leaves to make a diuretic tea, and the reeds for making baskets. The village women were responsible for maintenance - cutting, pruning and harvesting to keep the plant healthy.

According to Acuña, the local tribes had families who were responsible for different plants and even specific oak groves. The idea that the Native Americans "had no concept of ownership of the land was started by the Europeans," he explained.

In times of drought when the plants are stressed, families were responsible for oak groves and other useful plants, giving them extra water. This was true for Native Americans throughout California, he said.

The Tongva also used the state flower, the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), for food - though it requires special preparation or it can be toxic, Acuña warned. The pollen from a field of poppies was collected by women and used as a cosmetic.

Similarly, the Tongva used the toxic blue-eye grass (Sisyrinchum bellum), a member of the iris family, called mantaka. The Tongva used it primarily for medicinal reasons, but it must be handled with care.

In the herb garden, volunteer Rafael Carrera Oliva, who is of Mayan descent, noted that his people used ruda, commonly known as goat's rue, to calm the stomach. Yerba mate is commonly used in Latin America as a tea.

The LA Arboretum plans to put up educational signs in the wildlife garden in the near future, but if you're lucky, you can also ask volunteers or the curators for information. Acuña will be giving lectures but his next one in May is already full. Both Richau and Acuña will be leading the refurbishment of Tongva dwellings on April 20, 25 and 27 at the Arboretum. Volunteers are welcome to help while learning more about Tongva culture and history.

Acuña is also working with the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and other Tongva elders to produce an ethnobotanic book, but until then, you'll have to catch him at one of the gardens to pick his brain.

Singleton recommended the Theodore Payne Web site to help identify plants in the meantime and for purchasing wildflowers and California natives.

The Theodore Payne Foundation, located in Sun Valley, has its fifth annual native garden tour on April 12 and 13. This self-guided tour of 39 Los Angeles-area homes costs $20 per person for both days and is described online at www.TheodorePayne.org.

The tour includes homes in Altadena, La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena, South Pasadena, Monrovia and Glendale among other locations that have at least 50 percent native plants. On Saturday, April 12, at 6:30 p.m., there's also a free talk by Alrie Middlebrook, "Designing California Native Plant Gardens," at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood.

--originally published in the Pasadena Weekly