Posts tagged climate change

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As Southern California continues to grapple with drought (following the gradual deflation of hope for relief from this year’s non-El Niño event), as a landscape architect, I find myself thinking again about additional measures we can implement locally to preserve and protect resources which are vital to sustaining a healthy and viable environment: protecting important and iconic trees (many now plagued by secondary pest infestations), enacting soil conservation to combat losses due to lack of vegetated covers, and putting a moratorium on tapping already dwindling water tables from pumping.

Furthermore, a continuing drought can possibly be indicative of global warming trends – temperature extremes, deviations from precipitation pattern norms, storms with more energy – which, paradoxically, force us to prepare for droughts’ extreme opposites: street flooding, siltation and erosion of streams, and excessive pollution entering our water bodies.

As a society, I feel that many environmental issues reflect our convenient and pervasive view of the environment as being ‘out there’ – isolated and disjointed elements…problems separate from us, rather than the environment as an integrated, living system of plants, soils, microbes, hydrology, and animals, that include us. A shift in understanding our part and participation in the environment as a functioning system is critical to our success in addressing these complex issues, and includes looking to the environmental systems themselves for answers.

Image BI often think the most successful landscape designs mimic nature. Within the water use reduction forum – while local and state-mandated measures have provided significant gains – I believe the implementation of more green streets as an addition to and component of our urban infrastructure system can greatly assist in conserving water and other important resources while mitigating potential global warming issues, such as increased flooding. A system of linked stormwater ‘best management practices’ that capture, clean and store water, Green Streets minimize environmental impacts locally the larger environment as well.

In addition to being effective, many of these systems are an extension of relatively simple natural systems: rain barrels, rain gardens, vegetated swales, permeable pavers, native and adaptive plant material tolerant of both drought and periodic flooding. Water can be stored for passive or pumped re-use, vegetated swales slow water and aid in soil retention; vegetated right-of-way infiltration areas can infiltrate water and filter impurities; infrastructure to underground infiltration galleries can hold water for slow dispersal to replenish adjoining water tables. Typically sized per municipal standards, many communities and urban centers around the country and world have and are installing green streets (or green infrastructure components) to address issues of flooding, pollution uptake, water conservation, and water infiltration as aging, engineered systems fail or can no long achieve results in line with changing needs.

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Curb-Cut Infiltration Bioswale at Elmer Avenue Green Street in San Fernando Valley

Building Green Streets involves communities. From your neighbors’ rain barrel to the street’s vegetated infiltration swale, there is an exposure and visualization of both resource components and the linkage between them: water, soil, plants, animals. These components – which define and link the neighborhood – provide community building through resource preservation and declare a conscious movement away from car-based thinking to giving streets back to pedestrians: a green, community, synergistic, and living-system effect.

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Saying that low-lying and leveed areas of coastal cities are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise is axiomatic. However, planning for and imagining the consequences of predicted sea level rise is a difficult exercise for humans, as our species is prone to cognitive bias that can prevent us from accurately understanding reality and making change (e.g. “The Current Moment Bias,” or the “Status-quo Bias”).

When I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana pre-Katrina, I never imagined the destruction that hit southern Louisiana even though I was well aware that nearly half the land in New Orleans is situated below sea level. Like most people, I assumed the natural and man-made levees would continue to protect the city from the sea as they had done since the great flood of 1927 .

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Living in southern Louisiana post-Katrina and hearing first hand stories of loss and destruction – walking the city and seeing blocks of homes without walls with sand and debris where dining and living rooms were – was a profoundly sad and galvanizing experience. Many urban designers around the globe expressed a desperate desire to provide a design solution to prevent similar future human and environmental tragedy.

The biggest value urban designers can provide is imagining of alternate ways of building, developing workable solutions and seeking political support/funding for implementation of the best ideas. To address flood vulnerability in a neighborhood slow to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, I proposed a strategy of topography building utilizing sediment from routine navigational canal dredging. The project site is located adjacent to the industrial canal, and the 65,000 cubic yards of material needed to construct the entire lock would take the Army Corps of Engineers dredge ship Wheeler only eighteen days to dredge and deliver. Currently, the dredge material is dumped off the coastal shelf of the Gulf of Mexico, because it is the cheapest way to dispose of excess land.

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What was difficult to imagine pre-Katrina is clear now: the destruction caused by levee breaks and tidal surge was exacerbated by the loss of protective land, the result of channelization, an inadequate levee system, and imprudent development in low lying areas. With this in mind, it is now more clear what can go wrong in our coastal cities as sea levels rise…except that the looming disaster is still an imagined alternate future, rather than a looming reality.

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As we watch the LA  river expel water at freeway speeds, we Californians will proclaim the end to a long drought.  Unfortunately, this is not the truth. “Epic” drought is a literal truth in our case.

The last 5 years was the worst drought in a millennia (I heard the worst Californian drought in 1,200 years!).  It’s going to take a bit more than even a record-breaking single wet season to get us back to where we were.  So, buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, we are up for a rough ride of mud slides, mosquitoes, fires, La Niña, and possibly more drought. But that’s why we all live in sunny SoCal, right?  For the theme parks…

That’s the funny thing about climate change. When you hear the talking heads in cable news, they talk about climate change like it is a John Cusack movie: we’ll wake up one morning and all of sudden Santa is putting presents under our tree in June.  No, it will be more like bad cosmetic surgery – whatever you had going on might have been bad, but whatever you did to try and fix it made it worse, and it will only get worse as you become older.

California has always been the land of drought and storms.  In a Civileats.com article, they quote UCLA historian Norris Hundley:

“It is a mistake…to think of California in terms of averages and regular cycles of precipitation.”

The article goes on to describe early California settlers’ descriptions of our weather conditions,  conclusions that the Sonoma Valley was “unsuitable for agriculture” in 1841 and that the Sacramento Valley was a “barren wasteland” (political haters add snide comment here).  Two decades later, Sacramento could only be transversed by canoe, and then was overcome with drought just two years after that.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Locally, depression era Angelenos had “dust bowl” droughts from 1929-1935 only to have the great Los Angeles flood in 1938 that caused great loss of life and spurned the channelization of the river which we are trying to desperately undo today. So, we’ve always had periods of highs and lows.  What climate change is doing is making those highs and lows more extreme, hence the worst drought in a millennia, and the worst El Nino ever recorded back-to-back.

As a water conservation and sustainability guy, I was recently researching the history of drought in California when I realized that drought has always been a part of my life. Big events in my life seem to coincide with big droughts. I thought it might be interesting to do a blog series on my experiences growing up in California during drought and put it in a historical perspective.

The first “big” drought that I remember was from 1976-1977 (ironically, the same time a little movie called Star Wars opened on the big screen… wonder if anybody remembered that movie?). During that childhood drought, homeowners were encouraged to put bricks into their toilets to take up space in the tank and reduce the amount of water per flush. Watching my dad slide a brick into the toilet tank was a surreal experience. My 10 year old brain told me, bricks and toilets don’t go together. That reassuring flush that I could always depend on just wasn’t the same after that heavy, bulky thing was dropped in the tank.  In fact, horrors of all horrors, sometimes the contents didn’t even make it down in the first flush! Gross!

But my dad – a child of the Great Depression and a thrifty-to-a-fault civil engineer – decreed that there would not be any water wasting in his household. California was in a drought and we were not to act like those wasteful, Dodger-loving, car-washing Southern Californians. Showers were to be strictly timed. “Number 2” would be the only reason to flush our brick-modified toilet.  Plants in the yard would only be watered by the San Francisco fog. And the car would only be washed when the caked up dirt caused a drop in it’s resale value. To me, this was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I wanted my toilet to flush correctly. I wanted to take my 30 minute showers. Who ever heard of saving water? You turned on the tap and it always comes out.

Despite my vigorous objections, my dad was resolute in his orders. All that was left for me was to grumble and sulk. The year was 1976 and my dad was right about a couple of things: 1. Southern Californians love the Dodgers (well, at least until the Angels beat our beloved Giants in the 2002 World Series), and 2. the state was in trouble…water trouble.

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: "California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires." Sound familiar?

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: “California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires.” Sound familiar? Photo by: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

The question I always had was: why was that drought so bad (at least until this last one)? For one thing, 1976 was the first drought during what I would call the “modern” era of California. Prior to that drought, California was a boom state in population growth. Our population roughly quadrupled between 1928 and 1976.  California had a population of 15 million souls during the previous drought in 1959-1960. By 1976, the population had grown 143% to 21.5 million (we currently stand at 38.8 million). Quite simply, we had outstripped our infrastructure and had forgotten – or just didn’t anticipate – what drought would do to the state that had six and a half million more people living in it.

1960 to 1976 was worlds apart socially, culturally, and in every way possible for the American people, so our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, and grandmothers can be excused, I suppose. But this drought did hit like – ahem – a ton of bricks. It caused extreme local regional water shortages (an emergency pipeline had to built across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge as Bay Area reservoirs began to run dry) and in some parts of the Central Valley had to shut down all farming activities. It was a scary time for my parents who had seen tremendous social upheaval in San Francisco and in the country: from the Summer of Love, to a long foreign war, to the resignation of a president.

The good news is that after we finally got rain and snow during the 1977-1978 season, municipalities and water districts finally woke up and started to fund capacity and infrastructure improvements to try and take care of the next drought. The bad news was that this opened up a whole new set of problems…

Next Month:  “Love, Life, Per diem, and the Peripheral Canal”

A Los Angeles sunset, captured by Jacob Avanzato (Creative Commons)

A Los Angeles sunset, captured by Jacob Avanzato (Creative Commons)

Click infographic to preview  full size.

Click infographic to preview full size.

I stand at our office window at the end of the day, watching autumn’s golden light descend onto the city. Even in the daytime hours, I can view from my perch the patterns of angled light and shadow against the buildings and sidewalks – nature’s quiet pronouncement of a new season at hand. However, when I step outside the unwelcome heat reminds me summer has her own calendar. The city emanates our area’s lingering heatwave. The Southland’s record breaking temperatures puts many of us into hibernation mode, as we escape to our air-conditioned offices, homes, or shopping centers in hopes the heatwave will finally end.

Any day now,” I tell myself. “Soon.”

It’s no surprise discussions about the heat leads to the hot-button topic of climate change. While a surprisingly significant portion of Americans remain unconvinced about the subject, scientists have reached a consensus about global warming. Scientists turn to historical data on climatic patterns to understand the precipitation and temperature changes we are experiencing today. Nature, as it turns out, has been recording environmental changes for us.

The tree rings of old trees provide dendroclimatologists (the climate scientists who study trees) with up to hundreds of years of data, cycles of dry and wet seasons recorded into a concentric database of wood. Dendroclimatologists study the pattern of wide and narrow rings to measure extreme weather cycles of heat and drought, including their frequency and length. This information, and layers of other historical data, are fed into forecast models for anticipating future possibilities, including drought, and water management.

models-observed-human-natural-largeThe debate on climate change does not end with people’s acceptance or denial. I am fascinated by the question amongst “believers” about whether human activities have contributed to this condition. Studies have examined the natural cycles of the earth’s temperature and scientists cannot explain the warming trends of the last 50 years based upon natural causes alone.

We are told however that it is not too late for action on climate change. But if the debate is being shaped by culture versus science, can we close the cultural divide in time to develop solutions that will make a difference to the planet?