By Charley Pow, GreenTown Water Committee
In mid-November, Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute gave a talk on “The Present and Future of Water”. Gleick covered four areas in his talk: 1) the present state of water in California, 2) climate change, 3) water and conflict, and 4) solutions
State of Water in California
We are in year three of a drought. In November, California voters passed a $7.5B bond measure on water that with interest will cost $14B. The Pacific Institute’s assessment is that hefty sum is merely a down payment as more will be required to solve the problem.
The data surrounding our water tells a compelling story:
• Eighty percent of California’s water is used for agriculture
• The remaining 20% is used by urban and suburban users
• Residential users consume 64% of that 20%, with half the residential use outside the home.
• Californians use more water than is supplied by rain, so each year we pump 1-1.5 million acre-feet of groundwater more than is replaced. Groundwater supplies are finite, so this massive overdraft is not sustainable.
• This November, California passed its first laws to measure and manage groundwater, but implementation will takes years.
• Drought affects? This year, 10% of the agriculture land is fallow. While California normally generates 15% of its electricity from dams because of the drought, only 7-8% will come from hydroelectric this year. To replace the missing hydroelectric power, we’ll burn more natural gas, adding more CO2 to the atmosphere.
Climate change: the big nut to crack
Carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere had not exceeded 300 parts per million for 400,000 years, until 200 years ago with the industrial revolution coincidentally, when we began burning burned fossil fuels to generate energy, dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now at 400 ppm, and rising.
The earth’s temperature rises and falls as atmospheric carbon dioxide rises and falls. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “One of the most remarkable aspects of the paleoclimate record is the strong correspondence between temperature and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere observed during the glacial cycles of the past several hundred thousand years.” From the Woods Hole graph below, notice how temperature (red) rises and falls as the atmospheric carbon dioxide (blue) rises and falls.
Earth’s temperature rises and falls with atmospheric carbon dioxide (ORNL).
- Rising temperature: The US temperature has been rising since 1895, consistent with the atmospheric carbon dioxide level (Source: ncdc.noaa.gov, 2014).
- Shrinking snowpack: The snowpack and the moisture content of the snowpack is shrinking in the western US as the temperature rises.
- Diverted moisture. In the western US, our rain comes with storms, and storms come when a plume of moisture (or atmospheric river) is pointed at California. One cause of California’s drought is a high pressure ridge that has diverted the atmospheric river away from California. The current buildup of greenhouse gases makes thiss high pressure ridge more likely (see Stanford study.)
- Increase in natural disasters: Gleick displayed a graph showing that natural disasters are getting more frequent. Hurricanes get their energy from warm ocean water. As the earth’s oceans have warmed, hurricanes are more frequent and stronger. As glaciers melt, ocean rise increases the flood damage from storms. Hurricane Sandy caused $50B in damage, flooding Ellis Island and subway ventilation shafts. Stronger hurricanes and ocean rise due to higher temperatures are causing more frequent and more destructive natural disasters.
The Rising Tide of Water Conflicts
Since the 1980s, water conflict has been on the rise. Water supplies have not increased, while population has. One example is Syria. The Euphrates River starts in Turkey, flows through Syria, and then to Iraq. The amount of Euphrates water flowing into Syria has been dropping, while Syria’s population has grown from 3 million in 1950 to 22 million people today. Syria has had a deep drought since 2009, ruining farming and causing widespread migration from rural areas to cities. Areas receiving the most immigrants have experienced higher conflict in Syria’s civil war.
Gleick discussed California, and in particular, Proposition 1. Of the $7.5B water, $2.7B is set aside for water storage. Gleick notes, with hope, that this substantial funding could be used to create groundwater management systems, accelerate groundwater storage and clean up contaminated aquifers. Traditional solutions, such as building new reservoirs are, according to Gleick, “tapped out”. He showed storage capacity over time. California has 40 million acre-feet of water storage. Most dams were built between 1920 and 1980, with only minor additions since then. The best sites have been built so the marginal benefit of new reservoirs is small. Public oversight of the commission responsible for spending $2.7B is critical. “Only one percent of bond funds will be spent on conservation and efficiency”, and these are the only items that will “provide immediate relief from the drought”. In other words, water wars of the western US aren’t over.
There is no silver bullet. Broadly, increasing supply and reducing demand are the two means of addressing our current and future water challenges. As for supply, we already use all the rainwater we have, and we overdraft groundwater at an unsustainable level. To increase supply, we could treat wastewater, use storm water, and desalinate water (very expensive). To reduce demand, measures such as carrying shower water outside to water plants or not washing cars are temporary. Replacing lawns with drought-tolerant plants and flushing toilets with non-potable water are recurring solutions that will save water every year.
Water is an underpriced utility — we pay less for water than other utilities. As a result, people have little economic incentive to conserve water. Our water bill doesn’t pay for large infrastructure, such as building new dams or replacing aging pipes and aqueducts. At some point, the pipes bringing Hetch Hetchy water from the Sierras to San Francisco and the Peninsula will have to be replaced. We’ll need to find funds to do so.
California’s water institutions and management aren’t set up so that we use water efficiently. California allocates water based on historic water rights, and not the efficient use of water. One result: California is exporting alfalfa, an extremely water-intensive crop, to China in increasing numbers. Exports have increased eight-fold since 2009. But we could save water and boost the productivity of California’s agriculture, by shifting from low-value crops like alfalfa and rice to higher value crops like al
On Nov. 17, the Los Altos High School Green Team Conference attracted students from throughout the Bay Area.
With the motto, “By high-schoolers, for high-schoolers”, the group Students for Green High Schools Conference created energy around a goal of “greening” up their school campuses.
Los Altos High School Green Team members initiated, organized and ran the conference. Seventy high school students from ten Bay Area schools gathered at Google to discuss best practices and challenges to achieve their “green” goal.
“The idea was to create a collaborative environment where students could share their success stories, ask questions, and find solutions to some of the key problems they face implementing green programs at their schools,” says LAHS Green Team Co-President Sruthi Jayakumar. “We wanted to use this platform as a way to allow students from across the Bay Area to raise their schools to a higher level of environmental sustainability and give them the tools they needed to make a difference.”
Following a welcome by the Green Team leadership and an icebreaker, student teams from four of the ten schools represented, shared their school’s green initiatives, highlighting what’s working and what’s not.
• Los Altos High School – green team members hold monthly ABC (Anything But the Car) days to encourage getting to school by bike, public transit or on foot;
• Mountain View High School – students effectively advocated for water bottle refilling stations on campus to reduce plastic water bottle usage;
• Castilleja School’s – green team members motivated other students to care about proper waste sorting by creating a “Mace-o-Meter”, which indicates how happy or sad Mace — their much-loved custodian — is on any given day, based on how effective students were in sorting their waste into the correct bins.
• St. Francis – students create a green tip of the day which is shared with the student body in daily school announcements.
Following presentations, participants broke out into two sets of themed focus groups, ranging from recycling and composting to community outreach and fundraising, before returning to their school groups and creating an action plan for next steps.And the conference delivered.
“We were very happy with how the conference turned out,” notes Jayakumar. “Many of the students told us that the things they learned were very relevant and helped them create better action plans for the future.”
For more information, visit their website.
Question: I am looking to lower my water usage and was curious what the average water bill is in Los Altos Hills?
Answer: Here’s some historical data from Los Altos Hills that can help put average bills in perspective.
The average water bills for various communities, including the service area of Purissima Hills Water District, can be found on this chart from the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA).
Cost and Gallons Per Day
The average monthly water bill for single family households for 2012-13 (most recent data available) was $171.46. Rate structures are tiered so the first units of usage are charged at a lower rate than the successive units with the specifics depending on whether you’re in PHWD or Cal Water service territory.
The 2012 PHWD rate study notes, on average, residential households consumed 332 CCFs of water in 2010-11, (1 CCF = 748 gallons). That’s 28 CCFs per month, in a 30 day month, about 698 gallons per household per day. These numbers are sometimes reported on a per capita basis.
This number is a bit different than the 35.1 CCFs that BAWSCA reports as average monthly consumption for single-family homes in PHWD service area in 2012-13, which is closer to 875 gallons per household per day.
70% of Usage in Our Area? Irrigation
In general, around 70% of domestic water usage in Los Altos Hills is for irrigating lawns and landscaping, so the best approach for reducing water use is to convert to drought-tolerant and/or native landscaping. You do need to water the plants to get them established, however, once established they are good to go.
Many places can help with native/drought-tolerant landscaping. Added incentive? The Santa Clara Valley Water District has doubled its rebates through Dec. 2014 offering $2 per square foot for landscape conversions, known in some circles as “cash for grass.” You need to have a pre-inspection before starting any work. If a landscape conversion is not possible at this point, then you can start by watering less. Irrigation can be set to 1 day or none per week. With the “Brown is the New Green” mentality taking hold, coupled with an ordinance prohibiting watering more than 2 days per week during the drought, it just makes sense.
Other simple ways to save? By installing a laundry-to-landscape greywater system, where your laundry waste water (if you use appropriate detergents) can be used to irrigate certain plants. GreenTown offers workshops on these, send us an email to receive notice for our next event.
A Free Water Wise House Call Can Get You Started
Another option, to get you started on various water conservation measures is to schedule a Water Wise House Call, which the Water District does for free. It is an indoor/outdoor audit of energy usage that helps you figure out if you have any leaks, what your irrigation scheduling should be, if you need aerators on your valves, a new shower head or more efficient toilets, etc.
Overall, it shows you how to be smarter during the drought. And that’s a win for everyone.
What can you do to protect your family from toxic chemicals in your home? In short, fight with your dollars.
On Nov. 12, Kunjan Shah, local architect and expert on healthy building systems, raised the specter of toxins lurking in our homes for a GreenTown talk at the Los Altos Library. Among her recommendations, are to look for specific labels and certifications that protect the health of you and your family.
Scary but true
Chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment. Pregnant women tested by researchers at UCSF were found to have, on average, 43 toxic chemicals in their blood, many of which were banned in the 1970s. These chemicals are visible in our children as well where autism rates in the population have increased dramatically – from 1 in 2500 in 1985 to 1 in 88 in 2012. Chronic conditions, such as asthma, behavior/learning disorders, and obesity, are also on the rise from 28% in 1988 to 52% in 2006.
“One out of every six children suffers from neuro-developmental abnormality…Some environmental chemicals are known to are known to cause brain damage and many more are suspected of it.” – Philippe Grandjean, Braindrain.dk
You Need To Step Up Because The Government Isn’t Protecting Us
Wonder how these toxics “slip into” our lives? Food, drugs and cosmetics, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are the only products that companies need to demonstrate are safe. All other products and the chemicals in them – think furniture, building products, food storage containers, and toys – are virtually unregulated.
Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), the burden of proving an “unreasonable risk” to health and safety lies not with the manufacturer, but with EPA. So in 1976, when TSCA went into effect, 62,000 chemicals were “grandfathered in,”( i.e., considered acceptable without any testing). Since then, 20,000+ “new” chemicals have been introduced. Each is innocent until proven guilty. Manufacturers have provided EPA with only scant data on these chemicals. More than two-thirds have no data at all. Of the original 62,000, 200 have been tested and only five have been regulated: PCBs, halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes, dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium. Of the new chemicals, only four chemicals – used in metal working fluids – have restricted use. In short, TSCA has no teeth.
The worst offenders
Among the most common hazards are flame retardants, volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde. So where are these lurking in your home?
- Flame retardants
Flame retardants are found in just about anything with foam, e.g., home insulation, couches, carpet padding, and baby products. The various flame retardant chemicals change our cell structure and function, affecting learning, reproduction (reducing sperm counts and delaying conception), and suppress the immune system, contributing to cancer. Some of the most prevalent bioaccumulate in the environment, such that marine mammals have 100 times the concentration compared to smaller aquatic animals. Source: Green Policy Institute, 2014.
Your next couch could be better
In the U.S., flame retardant additives in furniture foam, insulation and baby products, became the norm after California issued its flammability standard – Technical Bulletin 117 – in 1975. Ironically, flame retardants added to furniture foam do not prevent ignition, which typically starts on the fabric. Further, they do not reduce fire severity or provide increased escape time.
The Green Science Policy Institute and others have been working to counter the 1975 standard. Key among its successes is a replacement standard, TB117-2013, which adds a smolder test for fabric. This standard addresses how and where fires start. Cigarettes on couch fabric is the leading cause of furniture fires. Flame retardant chemicals in the filling are not required to meet TB117-2013. However, caveat emptor, the new standard does ban the use of flame retardants in foam, so when purchasing a couch or chair, buyers should check with the retailer to ensure that the furniture BOTH: (1) complies with TB117-2013; and (2) does not include harmful flame retardants.
Wondering about alternatives? This is an awesome article on replacing your couch foam!!
Formaldehyde is a readily available and inexpensive chemical. It is found in many products, ranging from building products; glues and adhesives; permanent-press and wrinkle-free fabrics; paper product coatings; certain insulation materials, and other household products. Pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde adhesives or resins, such as particleboard, plywood and fiberboard, are a significant source of formaldehyde in homes. Formaldehyde inhalation can irritate the nose and throat, cause a burning sensation in the eyes and result in difficulty breathing. It can also trigger asthma symptoms in people with asthma and is a known human carcinogen.
Regulation and new products offer hope
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has set stringent emissions standards on formaldehyde in “composite wood products,” including plywood, particleboard and medium density fiberboard. Before purchasing pressed-wood products, including building materials, cabinetry, and furniture, buyers should ask if the product is “California 93120 Compliant for Formaldehyde.” They can also ask for engineered wood products that are manufactured with resins that contain no added formaldehyde (NAF) or urea formaldehyde (NAUF). If manufactured products containing formaldehyde have been used in a building project, all hope is not lost. These can cbe sealed with a product like AFM Safecoat to limit off-gassing.
- VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds
VOCs are carbon-based compounds, such as acetone and methane, that evaporate at room temperature. In the home, they are commonly found in paint, adhesives, caulks, sealants and coatings. While they have been linked to asthma and cancer, EPA regulates VOCs only for their contribution to smog formation. So some exempt, non-smog causing VOCs are found in “low” or “zero” VOC products, despite health hazards.
How can you limit exposure?
Look for products that are certified by MPI-X Green, Greenguard or Greenseal or for products that pass California Section 01350 or the California Department of Health Standard.
Resources for safer products
Pharos Project (Professional, Membership based)
Building Green (Professional, Membership based)
For more information or to get your questions answered about building product choices and carpet and furniture selection for a healthy home, contact Kunjan Shah at email@example.com.
We think the list is impressive and cover our 4 main areas of focus of Water, Watts, Waste and WoW:
• “Pedal Power” exhibit at the Los Altos History Museum
• Creek Cleanups
• Bike valet parking
• GreenTalks community discussions
• Cyclecide Bike Carnival
• The styrofoam ban
• reCycle Bike Drives
• Energy Day at the Farmers’ Market
• The Glass Pumpkin Patch
• The Farm to Table dinner.
Where did the year go? I am impressed with the dedication and commitment people have in making Los Altos and Los Altos Hills a better place for today and future generations. Of course, we could not have done all these things without support from our community, both donors and volunteers. Thank you for being part of GreenTown Los Altos.
During 2014, there are a few things to highlight and people to recognize.
If you enjoyed the history museum exhibit “Pedal Power, From Wacky to Workhorse”, then give a special thanks to Gary Hedden and his team of GreenTown Los Altos volunteers who organized, planned and executed the delightful display of 25 local bikes from around the Bay Area. The museum reports that the exhibit attendance was impressive when compared with past exhibits. No wonder the number of bicyclists increased at valet parking during our community events , along with WoW (Walk or Wheel) students who averaged 43% in elementary, 67% in middle schools, and both high schools reported record number of students biking to school. Biking and walking is becoming the preferred method of travel around town for many families.
The big story in California, and on everyone’s mind, this year is the drought. Thanks to Kit Gordon and her water team, we had a number of community talks on water wise gardens, grey water systems, rain water catching, and drought tolerant plants at the Los Altos Library community room. Besides the incredible speakers, GreenTown Los Altos volunteers picked up over 200 lbs of unwanted material from Permanente Creek. I heard a few volunteers remark how much debris was in the creek in September during coastal cleanup day given they participated in May’s creek cleanup. Now that single use plastic bags are banned in California, and styrofoam in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, we are hoping cigarette butts and plastic straw covers on juice drinks join the banned list as we continue to find these two things more than anything else in the creek.
Of course, a major part of our successful events are the volunteers, people like you and your neighbors, who sign up at our events or donate to support them. Besides our program leaders, there are three people in particular that create a wonderful experience for volunteers. I am referring to Maddy McBirney, Margene Filson, and Jana Schlansker. Each one of them has a special role to identify and organize volunteers for our events. Also, a special thank you to Maddy and John McBirney for supporting GreenTown in so many ways. It was Maddy’s vision to organize the first, of what will be annual, Glass Pumpkin Patch in September in addition to the Cyclecide bike carnival. The pumpkin patch is a great way to showcase glass art in our community. Please visit next year to see the remarkable glass sculptures.
As you can tell, GreenTown Los Altos is a special group of folks. We are in the planning stages for our 2015 events calendar. There is even talk of us being part of the holiday of lights parade next year. I look forward to meeting you at one of our many 2015 events.
Executive Director, GreenTown Los Altos
Recently, the Packard Foundation held an Open House to celebrate its 50th Anniversary. With several hundred of their “fans” enjoying the good snacks and enlightening tours, a big highlight was the awards ceremony.
With many groups receiving recognition, as well as cash grants, seeing the reactions of those recipients was particularly enjoyable given it was a surprise for all, according to GreenTown’s Gary Hedden.
One of the acknowledged groups that stood out was Rising International. Carmel K. Jud, founder and executive director of the small non-profit that helps women in impoverished parts of the world market their home-made crafts at home parties was one of those honored. Think Tupperware.
Clearly she has already received accolades. Check out her TedTalk to see how inspiring she is, as she takes action on a critically important issue.
At an Oct. 23 Helix talk at the Exploratorium’s Los Altos outpost, John Barton, Director of Stanford’s Architectural Design Program laid out the challenges for the future in a talk entitled, “The Housing Crisis That Could Ruin Our Economy.”
His key issue centered around what he called the housing disconnect:
– Housing is too expensive and hurts many people.
– For every tech job created, there are six low wage community jobs needed to keep the economy humming.
So how’s that dynamic working out? Badly. The list of issues includes long commutes, wasted time, less productive workers, less time with the kids, and more.
That means if things get bad enough, tech companies might just pack up and relocate. So what to do?
Barton presented literally dozens of possible solutions: from tax policy, regional resource sharing, zoning changes, and even direct assistance to help this potentially dire situation.
It was a good audience in attendance, including council members and this year’s candidates in attendance.
With long commutes cited as one of the real challenges from the environmental perspective what are the possible next steps? The problem isn’t going away folks, so let’s take action and get moving in the right direction!
Written by Gary Hedden and Charley Pow.
On October 24, Stanford University hosted roundtable discussion on climate change. With Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” moderating, panelists included mostly Stanford faculty, a Tesla co-founder and Pres. Obama’s former advisor on climate change.
The panel said that there is evidence of climate change, but this hasn’t been proven scientifically. But the changes we’re seeing are catastrophic. Therefore, as stewards of the world, we should take action without scientific proof, as we did with ozone depletion.
Groundwater is being depleted in California and the rest of the world, and rising temperatures will make this worse by reducing the snowpack and increasing evaporation.
The panel would like to see a carbon tax to mitigate carbon dioxide being dumped into the air.
Highlights of the talk are below and can be seen on a video here:
Lesley Stahl and six panelists had a lot to say about climate change at a recent Stanford Roundtable.
Addressing the deniers, Chris Field, Stanford Professor, pointed out that in the last 50 years the heat in the earth itself is increasing at a faster rate, and faster than the atmospheric heat increase.
* George Shultz, former Secretary of State, said it’s not that complicated, just look at sea ice. We have a new ocean, the Arctic.
— Lesley, but deniers ask, are you positive it’s due to climate change.
* Bina Venkataraman, Director of Global Policy Initiatives, MIT and Harvard, said we frequently make decisions when there is uncertainly. Think about doctors talking with patients about the probabilities of success with different treatment options.
* Tom Steyer, philanthropist and investor, said it’s about the size of the risk. You never want to bet the whole enterprise. Climate change has huge risk, so you don’t need 100% certainty before you take action.
* Chris Field, pointed to the problem as being inertia. Climate change is slow, and moving from fossil fuels will be slow, but we need and can start now.
* Shultz, added that we need to support energy research and development and we need a price on carbon. Polluters need to pay for their pollution. That brought a round of supportive applause from the audience.
J.B. Straubel, of Tesla Motors, noted we need better energy storage, and we’re getting there. No big breakthroughs, but lots of little ones.
* Bina, insisted that collaborative team efforts at the local level are important and effective (music to my ears).
* Steyer, pointed out that most people are aware of the climate change issue but it’s not a priority. It needs to connect at a personal level.
– Lesley, posited, is it a religious issue?
* Alvaro Umana, Costa Rica’s Minister of Energy and Environment, opined that we are stewards of God’s creation.
* Steyer, the most vulnerable humans suffer the most from extreme weather.
– Lesley, insisted that water is important.
* Chris Field, in California, the snowpack is critical and we can’t keep it with a warm planet.
* Steyer, it is an essential resource, but many feel they have the right to “as much as they want.” Most goes for agriculture, so pricing is complicated.
— Lesley, Saudi Arabia is driving down gas prices.
* Shultz, we need to “wise up” about that and not cut energy research and development.
– Lesley, is there a connection to Ebola?
* Chris Field, climate change is a threat multiplier. People move to crowded urban areas as conditions in rural areas deteriorate, leading to medical risks.
* Alvaro Umana, no likely connection with Ebola, but yes with other diseases like Malaria.
- Lesley, energy consumption is going down, so are we on the right path?
* Shultz, thanks to better energy efficiency.
* Chris Field, in 2013, it started back up. Most of the earlier decline was due to the switch from coal to natural gas.
– Lesley, are you optimistic?
* Alvaro Umana, yes because we are biologically inclined to optimism. Still, I see the eyes of unborn children asking how could you be so irresponsible.
* JB, increasingly optimistic. The technology is getting better, and there is enough renewable (solar, wind) out there to make it possible.
* Chris Field, my concern is the lack of urgency.
* Vina, this is our moment.
* Shultz, it’s daunting. Government is weaker, but we have enough experience from past efforts that optimism is justified.
* Steyer, optimistic. We have the ability to innovate.
October 5th’s Farm to Table Dinner & Auction was a blast! A community function with local support and a local twist.
Delectable local food. Community table dining. A chance to meet friends or sit with those you know. An evening capped off with a riveting auction with outstanding offerings.
Thank you to all who attended. We think the pictures tell the story.
Another Fun Historic Bike Tour of Los Altos
Almost 20 cyclists enjoyed another Historic Bike Tour of Los Altos on the last weekend of September.
Hosted by GreenTown Los Altos and the Los Altos History Museum, it was a great way to get mentally and physically healthy with a short bike ride that took a close look at some historic properties and learn a little history.
The approximately 8-mile ride ended at the History Museum for lunch and a tour of the bicycle exhibition, “Pedal Power: From Wacky to Workhorse”. The show, now closed, was very popular and well attended. Noting that this was the 3rd historic bike tour, several people asked, “Will there be a tour next year?” Gary Hedden, event organizer, only replied, “We’ll see.”