PG&E Bankruptcy – Who Will Win or Lose?

By Anne Foreman

PG&E filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 29. What does this mean for California ratepayers? How will it affect California’s goal to have 100 percent of electricity come from renewable sources of energy (wind, solar and geothermal) by 2045? The short answer is “nobody knows yet.”

First, some background: PG&E already filed for bankruptcy in 2001 due to the Enron debacle. That settlement allowed PG&E to pass on about $7 billion in costs to California ratepayers via increased rates.

Now, PG&E has filed for bankruptcy again, this time because of the wildfires in 2017 and 2018 caused by its equipment. The company estimates it has $30 billion in wildfire claims. However, on Jan. 25, PG&E was cleared of liability for the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County, which could have amounted to $8 billion in damages. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that private electrical equipment at a home was responsible for that fire, not PG&E.

Wild Fires Are Adding Up

In addition, the cause of the disastrous Camp Fire in Paradise that killed 86 people is still under investigation. It could be months more before officials reach a conclusion on that fire.

Even without liability for the Tubbs Fire and possibly without liability for the Camp Fire, PG&E estimates it is liable for tens of billions of dollars for other wildfires in 2017 and 2018. California officials say PG&E’s equipment caused at least 17 of 21 major fires in the state in 2017.

Is PG&E Approaching a Crossroads?

At the end of last September, the company’s assets exceeded its debt by about $20 billion and yet it claims that bankruptcy is its “only viable option.” PG&E is investor-owned and one has to wonder whose interests the company favors – its investors, or its ratepayers. PG&E doesn’t pay dividends, but its investors have “equity value” so anything that hurts its stock value hurts investors.

High Voltage Transmission Lines

Although investor-owned, PG&E is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. The Commission has proposed some interesting options: One is to break up PG&E into smaller companies; another is to convert PG&E into a public utility.

Some might cry “socialism” at this proposal, but, in my opinion, the safety and wellbeing of the residents is paramount and should be a higher priority than the interests of investors. A crucial need like electricity shouldn’t be hostage to the profit motive. I think converting PG&E into a public utility deserves serious consideration.

New California Governor Gavin Newsom has a vacancy to fill on the commission. He could make his appointee its president. So doing, he potentially determining whether the agency will tilt toward consumers or the utilities in its approach. In any case, PG&E will need the Commission’s approval for any bankruptcy plan that would impose new costs on ratepayers.

Bankruptcy’s Potential Losers

So, who are potential losers in this bankruptcy? Solar companies that supply electricity to PG&E are nervous because the bankruptcy could allow PG&E to renegotiate their contracts, paying them less than the original contracts stipulated. According to a California Solar & Storage Association spokesperson, a number of solar companies are in discussions with Newsom, stating their concerns about losing out in the bankruptcy settlement.

Other potential losers in the bankruptcy are PG&E’s workers, who could face pension losses, and, of course, ratepayers who could see their electricity bills skyrocket. Wildfire claimants may not get what they are owed, either.

Bankruptcy’s Potential Winners

On the winners’ side, PG&E has asked the bankruptcy court to approve roughly $130 million of 2018 bonus payments to employees, who stand to get $5,000 to $90,000 each. This does not include the bonuses for 12 senior PG&E executives. The company has not yet asked the court to approve payments to executives. Yet it noted that senior officers are typically eligible to receive bonuses in bankruptcy.

Also benefitting will be the lawyers, bankers and consultants who will work on the bankruptcy execution. PG&E’s last bankruptcy in 2001 cost more than $400 million in fees. The current case could cost a lot more, because lawyers’ hourly rates have gone up a lot since then.

Looking Forward

And on top of everything, climate change is here.

Rising global temperatures, driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions are drying out California’s forests. In the future, wildfires will be even more intense and long-burning. Droughts, heat waves, rising seas and fiercer storms will put more stress on PG&E’s infrastructure. Undergrounding power lines, cutting back trees from power lines, installing insulated wiring, replacing aging equipment – all these mitigation measures cost money.

How the bankruptcy plays out will be a crucial test for Newsom. He promised to “ensure Californians have access to safe, reliable and affordable service.”  At the same time, he’s pledged continuing “forward progress on our climate change goals.”  Let’s hope he succeeds. So much depends on it.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News Feb. 13, 2019.  Email Anne Foreman at:

Solving the Climate Challenge

Congressional bill H.R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (“Carbon Cashback” initiative), was a main topic of the March 2019 Sustainable Rossmoor general meeting. Marti Roach and Dr. Cynthia Mahoney from the Citizen’s Climate Lobby updated the attendees on the bill.

The presentation had an overview of what the bill is and how it works. It described why it is important – we have 12 years to cut global emisions by 50%* – and where it stands in Congress. Actions Rossmoorians can take to support it were given.

H.R. 763 establishes a fee on fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Those fuels produce greenhouse emissions. H.R. 763 drives down carbon pollution. Energy companies, industries and consumers will have a financial incentive to move to cleaner, cheaper options.

The money collected from the carbon fee would be allocated in equal shares monthly to the American people. American people can spend their share as they want. Government will not keep any of the money from the carbon fee.

The bill is modeled after carbon fee and dividend laws having an positive impact in Canada and  western European countries.


Citizen’s Climate Action Lobby is a non-profit, non-partisan grassroots advocacy organization focused on National policies to address climate change.

Read the Rossmoor News article, Sustainable Rossmoor to learn about ‘Carbon Cashback’.  Rossmoor News February 27, 2019,  Sustainable Rossmoor to learn about ‘Carbon Cashback’ on page 16A.

* “IPCC” in the first picture stands for “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.

Sustainable Passenger Air Travel

by Wayne Lanier 

Sustainable air travel is on its way. Electric aircraft have not only been built and flown, but they are expected to inherit the same advantages found in electric automobiles.

Greater efficiency, greater reliability, quieter operation and lower cost in volume production, operation, and maintenance. So, how would all this work and how do we get from this concept to a passenger fleet of such airplanes?

Electric Flight “Comes of Age”

Traditionally, new aircraft designs “come of age” with a successful flight around the world. In July 2016, the Solar Impulse landed in Abu Dhabi after a 26,000-mile flight around the world.  Four solar-powered electric motors turned Solar Impulse’s propellers.

Solar powered plane ‘Solar Impulse 2’, piloted by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, flys over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, after a flight from Hawaii (Photo by Jean Revillard via Getty Images)

For those who were out to see it, the Solar Impulse flew over the Golden Gate Bridge on its way east from Hawaii. I saw it from the end of Pier 39, at a great distance through my binoculars.

Certainly, this experimental phase of sustainable flight has been successful. But don’t pack your bags for a sustainable passenger flight just yet. The average speed of the Solar Impulse was just 45 mph. It is, essentially, a giant propeller-driven glider.

Small, privately-owned aircraft have been successfully converted to electric power for many years. For example, consider the very popular Piper J-3 Cub. Its gasoline engine is 65 horsepower and runs at 2,350 rpm. Piper Aircraft built over 20,000 J-3 Cubs between 1937 and 1947.  Most are still in service (the result of strict FAA requirements for very regular maintenance).

The Piper gasoline engine weighs 170 pounds. GE and other companies make DC (direct current) electric motors in the horsepower and rpm range of the Piper’s engine. The physical design is simpler. The engines weigh less than the Piper gasoline engine, and they are far more reliable. So, as you might expect, with modest engineering, electric motors can replace the original engines of this and similar small aircraft. And, among the experimental aircraft folks, they have been.

The Barrier to Sustainable Flight: A Potent Alternative Fuel Source

There are, however, three big problems standing in the way of sustainable passenger flights: fuel, fuel and fuel.

First, aviation fuel is, essentially, cheap kerosene. It has an enormous energy content per unit of weight; a 20-to-1 advantage over present-day rechargeable batteries. At issue is not “bang for the buck,” but “bang for the fuel volume/weight.”

Second, as the plane burns its fuel it gets lighter, and weight is everything in aircraft efficiency. This decrease in weight shapes all aspects of aviation, from take-off issues to high-altitude flight advantages and to the construction of landing runways. Indeed, if the landing weight of large passenger aircraft becomes the same as the take-off weight, all landing runways would have to be rebuilt to stronger and more expensive construction standards.

Turbojet Engine

Third, the most efficient aircraft engine for high speed flight is the turbojet. The turbojet compresses a fuel-air mixture and burns it at the front-end to spin the turbine. The turbine then drives the resulting compressed carbon dioxide (CO²) out the back of the jet to push the airplane. Designs of an equivalent electric motor driven compressor/jet are still “in the works.”

So, how much CO² does a turbojet spit out into the atmosphere? Using a standard calculation of passenger-space share in this carbon exhaust, every economy passenger taking a round-trip flight from San Francisco to New York and back is responsible for 2.32 metric tons of atmospheric CO². When you fly first class, the cost triples to almost seven (7) tons of CO² (since you take up more space and space equals weight). By comparison, the average total yearly household carbon footprint in California is about 21.5 metric tons of CO².

Sustainable Air Travel Is On the Horizon

Is there any hope at all for regular, practical, sustainable passenger flight? Well, Forbes Magazine recently published the following article: “Hybrid-Electric Passenger Jet Gets 100-Plane Launch Order from JetSuite.” See the article:

Production orders are not made on the basis of vague hope. The concept behind this order is a sort of “air hybrid,” with a hybrid electric/gas turbine powertrain, which they expect to upgrade to full electric as the technology improves.

Apparently, they will pack the batteries in the wings and use a hybrid power unit generating 1,300 horsepower (1,000-kilowatts), driving two ducted fan engines, along with something called a “range extender” gas-only turbine mounted in the rear of the aircraft. This aircraft will carry 12 passengers and the delivery date is 2022. The cruise speed specified is 340 mph and the range is 1,000-miles. The estimated seat-cost per mile will be about 8-cents.

JetSuite claims they have been working with FAA for the last three years on small commercial passenger electric aircraft standards for certification.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, January 30, 2019. Email Wayne Lanier at


May Film: THE TRUE COST (of Fast Fashion)

When: Wednesday, May 8 at 7 pm  Location: Peacock Hall

THE TRUE COST makes an excellent case for examining the Fast Fashion market more closely and adding up what’s really gained and lost. Fast Fashion is a mode of business that requires millions of new products to reach the market each week at incredibly low prices. It has pushed into overdrive an industry that was already guilty of pollution, waste, and worker abuse. It’s not a glamorous scene, but it ends by shining a light on a promising new trend.

Fashion discarded

Scrupulous, Comprehensive Research

Scrupulously researched, this film is one of the most comprehensive documentaries ever made about fashion’s dark side, taking the viewer from the expansive cotton fields of Texas to the showrooms of Paris and London, to the factories in Bangladesh and Southeast Asia where workers are beaten into submission and sometimes killed because they organize for better pay and safe working conditions.

Counter Trends Triggered by FF Excesses

The film also shows examples of modern farmers, designers, and manufacturers who dare to defy global trends and do business on an ethical basis, forgoing cutthroat competition in favor of a more collaborative approach. The film is partially responsible for the burgeoning ethical fashion movement around the world.

An optional discussion follows the film.

92 minutes in duration, with SDH captions.


STEMming the Tide

By James Ware

It’s hard to be an optimist these days.

The United States is mired in cultural division, dissension and downright anger. The Trump Administration has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.  Administration appointees seem intent on attacking our environment just about every day.  The Administration is trying to allow oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is gutting anti-pollution regulations put in place to prevent the dumping of toxic waste into our rivers and lakes and the emission of toxic gasses into the air we breathe.

Yet, I remain hopeful. I believe we will see meaningful changes in Washington in 2019.  I also believe deeply in the creativity and commitment of our younger citizens. These youthful activists are increasingly applying their energy to environmental causes. They are also demanding racial justice, gender equality and gun safety.

The STEM Initiative

Perhaps the biggest contributor to this new level of environmental awareness is the educational initiative known as STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The STEM focus began with President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech.  He called for upgrading science and mathematics education programs as “…our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

STEM skills promote practical solutions

Why is STEM so important? For me, it is the fact that STEM initiatives are not just about teaching more science and math courses. STEM’s goal is to integrate the scientific method and critical thinking into every curriculum area.  This includes history, biology, social studies and even the arts.

In fact, there is now a more recent movement to include the arts explicitly into STEM curriculum planning.  Some now call the initiative the STEAM program, because it adds “fuzzy” topics like creativity and design thinking to the skills students are encouraged to develop.

The STEM/STEAM approach is really about making science and math interesting and fun.  It does this by applying critical and innovative thinking to real-world problems. STEM students don’t just learn the periodic tables or conduct dull laboratory experiments. Their teachers encourage them to tackle significant challenges outside their classrooms and to develop creative solutions that actually can make a difference in the quality of human life.

Two STEM Successes

Consider these two examples of how young students are applying their STEM skills to solve real problems:


Melanie Quan is currently a sophomore at Los Lomas High School in Walnut Creek. Last year, as a freshman, she was the national winner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award” for her project that developed a simple way to remove microplastic particles from water using an electrostatic filter (for a detailed discussion of plastic pollution, see Brad Waite’s “Earth Matters” column:

Ms. Quan described her project at a Sustainable Rossmoor members’ meeting last August. We were all impressed not only with the quality of her solution to the significant pollution coming from microplastics, but also with her maturity and her presentation skills. If she is at all typical of her peers, the planet will be in good hands when her generation takes charge of our future.


And for a second example, take a look at this TED talk from March 2017 by Ashton Cofer, then an 8th-grader at Gahanna East Middle School in Ohio:

It upset Cofer and several classmates to see so much Styrofoam waste littering beaches and garbage dumps.  They knew Styrofoam essentially does not decompose. However, when they learned Styrofoam, or polystyrene, is over 90 percent carbon, they got an idea. They figured out that heating and treating styrofoam with simple chemicals would turn the trash into an activated charcoal filter that could be used to purify water.

Now that is a double win if ever there was one!

Ashton and his team won the Scientific American Innovators Award, sponsored by Google. Not only that, they have received several patents for their design.  They’ve been awarded grants in excess of $25,000 to continue their research and turn those patents into viable products. And they were only 14 years old.

The Future Is in All Our Hands
STEM transfers lab skills to address real world issues and problems

“Kids are born scientists,” says Scientific American Editor-in-Chief Mariette DiChristina, “They ask great questions, and we should foster their efforts to learn the answers firsthand.”

I find these stories both inspiring and humbling. We are fortunate that young people today not only care about the environment but are actively tackling such globally important problems. These kinds of stories make me an optimist, in spite of the recent reports that we are running out of time to prevent a global climate disaster.

However, the kids can’t stave off disaster by themselves. Solving our global climate crisis is going to take a whole lot more than brilliant teenagers applying their STEM education. We have much to do, and many miles to travel before we can sleep in peace. STEM is helping, but every one of us has to contribute our own creativity and design thinking to everything we do, every day, if we are to survive another 20 years.

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, Jan. 16, 2019.  Email Jim Ware at:

How Can We Be Sure Our Food Is Safe?

By Joy Danzig

Is the food we buy safe to eat?  Is food containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) really safe for consumption?  Are organically grown foods worth the additional cost?  Why aren’t food producers required to disclose GMO related information on food labels?

There is an on-going debate around the subject of GMOs.  GMO proponents emphasize the advantages of GMOs, e.g. increased crop yields, resistance to herbicides and pesticides.  Skeptics question whether such “benefits” are worth the trade-offs.  A significant factor in the debate centers around crops genetically modified to be impervious to glyphosate pesticides, such as Roundup.

The Background

Characterization of a genetic modification

An organism is genetically modified when genetic material from another organism is injected into its DNA. Both organisms are typically unrelated to each other.  Genetic engineers must force the DNA from one organism into another, because of natural barriers typically prevent transfer of DNA.  This is done by using viruses or bacteria to “infect” animal or plant cells with new DNA, or by firing the foreign DNA into a target cell with a special gun.

The rationale for growing GM crops is herbicides, such as Roundup, control weeds on a large scale. and the crops had to resist the herbicide to flourish.  Monsanto developed “Roundup Ready” seeds to sell to farmers.  Unlike traditionally cultivated seeds, farmers must purchase GMO modified seeds annually.

Monsanto’s Monopoly

By 2007, Monsanto established a virtual monopoly.  Its American Seeds, Inc. sold the most crop seeds in the United States.  The biochemical industry claimed GM crops, easily grown on a large scale, would provide enough food for ever-growing worldwide demand.  Critics say global food production is sufficient, but distribution is inadequate.  As with other commodities, corrupted agents disrupted the distribution of food.

As weeds mutate, growing stronger, resisting Roundup, they require more powerful, more toxic herbicides. A similar pattern occurs in insects, requiring more powerful, toxic pesticides.

Biotech companies, however, have not acknowledged the effects these modified foods have on human and animal consumption.  A GM Monsanto corn was found to have high concentrations of a neurotoxin.  Monsanto withdrew an application for its approval in Europe in 2009, after regulators raised safety questions.  No such withdrawal happened in the United States. Crops most often modified are soy, corn, canola (largely Canadian), sugar beets and alfalfa.  GMO soy, corn and alfalfa, used as animal feed, have resulted in GMO-contaminated meat and milk.  GM soy and corn derivatives contain additives in foods commonly consumed.

Concern Is Growing

The film “Modified” depicts an avid gardener’s concern that Canada and the United States do not require GMO labels on foods with GMO additives.  Worldwide, 64 countries require GMO labeling.  Her daughter contacted Health Canada repeatedly.  Sadly, the agency didn’t respond.  Sustainable Rossmoor featured the film in Rossmoor on Nov. 27, 2018.  In case you missed it, here’s a link:

Annie Taylor, a biology major at Middlebury College in Vermont, investigated Monsanto’s apparent evasion of regulatory oversight.  She attributes some of Monsanto’s success to the “revolving door” of employment between Monsanto and agencies regulating its products.  The regulatory agencies include: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Notably, the Federal Government invalidated Vermont’s GMO labeling law, effective July 1, 2016.  The Federal Government required all states abide by its guidelines, which are confusing and inconsistent.  They also substitute the term “bioengineered” (BE) for “genetically modified” (GM).  Taylor’s paper, “The Evolution of Monsanto” by can be found on Middlebury’s Political Ecology of GMOs blog site:

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), based in the United States, recently published information concerning Roundup (primarily glyphosate).  EWG reported finding glyphosate in virtually all non-organic oat-containing foods.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined glyphosate is a likely cause of cancer. Information about the effects of genetically modified foods on human and animal health is growing, and documentation linking GM crops and chronic diseases is growing. For EWG’s website:

Medical Concerns

Recently, physicians linked a growing number of diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease and other digestive disorders, to GM foods.  Children are especially vulnerable.  Researchers also report dangerous food allergies, asthma, eczema, neurodevelopmental diseases, such as autistic spectrum disorder, and obesity.

Developing internal organs in children are more susceptible to damage

In a 2018 GMO Science article, “We Can Turn Children’s Health Around,” Dr. Michelle Perro, an integrative (holistic) pediatrician practicing for over 37 years, wrote, “A staggering 1 in 2 American children now has a potentially lifelong disease. For the first time in modern history, children will be less healthy than their parents and will most likely live shorter lives.”  To access the GMO Science website:

In 2017, Dr. Perro and medical anthropologist Vincanne Adams co-authored, “What is Making Our Children Sick? How Industrial Food is Causing an Epidemic of Chronic Illness and What Parents (and Doctors) Can Do About It.”  For more information about Dr. Perro:

In an interview, available online, with Jeffrey Smith, author, filmmaker and founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology (, Perro details her treatments and their results in patients and their families.  Perro also explains how toxins in GM foods pass into the circulatory system, due to intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”).   From the circulatory system, toxins may pass through the blood-brain barrier, leading to mental and emotional syndromes.  Her first-line treatment is for families to maintain an organic diet, which often produces immediate relief.  Smith’s extensive research corroborates much of Dr. Perro’s findings.

With awareness regarding GM foods, often containing glyphosate, reading labels, choosing organic, we can achieve food safety for ourselves, family and friends.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, January 2, 2019.  Email Joy Danzig at

Use of Plastics Is Making Us and Planet Sick

By Brad Waite

The use of plastics has created increasingly harmful effects across the globe.

A previous Earth Matters post (see “Plastics: A Two-Edged Sword“), pointed out plastic takes, on average, about 400 years to degrade.  As plastic degrades, it continually emits greenhouse gases, especially methane, the primary cause of climate change.  Such damage to our environment is cause enough for us, as a society, to radically reduce, if not out-right eliminate, our use of plastic.  It is especially critical to eliminate single-use plastics such as water bottles, take-out food containers, product containers and wrapping, disposable flatware, straws, etc.

Single-use and other plastics adversely affect the health of humans and other living creatures.

Microplastics Are Everywhere

As plastic degrades over time, through its exposure to sunlight, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually those pieces become so small they become microplastic particles.  Eventually these micro plastics become too small for humans to see with the naked eye. Those pieces end up almost everywhere, including in our water, our air and our soil.

Health Effects on Humans
Discarded plastic bottles degrading in water

For example, I read an article recently reporting the results of studies of plastic in tap water. It reported 84 percent (84%) of tap water, worldwide, tested positive for containing plastic. In the United States, 93 percent (93%) of the samples tested positively, primarily because the United States uses far more plastic than almost anyone else in the world. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the vast majority of Americans tested positive for plastic in their feces. This is a significant health issue because the chemicals those plastics are made from leech into our bodies, causing a wide range of health issues such as hormone disruption, asthma, cancer, obesity and insulin resistance, among others.

Plastics in the Food Chain

But humans aren’t the only ones whose health is impacted. These microplastic pieces are mistaken as food by a variety of wildlife, especially fish. This not only impacts the health of the fish, but also our own health when we eat the fish. I suspect these days almost everything we eat has some amount of plastic in it, either from plastic used in the production process, to the plastic container and wrapping it comes in, to the plastic plates frequently used to serve it on. And world-wide, we humans do a poor job of recycling our plastic, which is why vast amounts end up in our rivers and oceans. The most recent issue of Central Contra Costa Sanitary District’s newsletter, Pipeline, contains this statement: “If plastic production isn’t curbed, plastic pollution will outweigh fish pound for pound by 2050.”

Take Action – There’s No Time Like the Present

I ended my prior column on this topic by saying, “I realize how we all became addicted to using plastics. Most of them make our lives a bit better in some way, from plastic bags at the grocery store, plastic beverage bottles, even the plastics used to make our synthetic clothing. They’ve become so ubiquitous in our lives that we don’t stop to realize the price that we as humans are paying to use them. I suggest we each start by taking an inventory of all the plastics in our lives. Then decide which we can limit our use of or stop using altogether. We must start now.”

Legislative Action – International and Local

Recently the European Parliament voted to ban the 10 most common single use plastic items, including beverage bottles, plates, cutlery, straws and drink stirrers, as well as to require a significant reduction in other items.

Fortunately, concerted actions have also started locally.  The Walnut Creek City Council began deliberating a ban on plastic straws.  Several Rossmoor residents addressed the City Council at its meeting, encouraging the City to broaden its scope to include most single-use plastic. Please consider writing or calling the City to add your support to the efforts on this ban.

Personal Action

What else can you do?  Here are some of the actions I’m taking that you could consider.  I’ve drastically reduced the times I use the store-supplied plastic produce bags unless they are bio-degradable.  I choose to bring my own washable mesh bags.  I now include the amount and type of packaging in my purchase decisions whenever I buy anything.

When I do end up with a plastic container, I reuse it as many times as I can.  Then recycle it when I no longer can use it.  I’ve stopped using plastic plates, cutlery and glasses.  When I do need disposable items such as those, I buy ones that are compostable, not plastic.  I spend a little extra money when I buy clothing and get items made completely of natural fibers.  What else can you think of that you can and will do to help us all?

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, December 12, 2018. Email Brad Waite at

Groundwater Adds to Flooding Risks in Bay Area

by Judith Schumacher-Jennings

As sea levels rise, the water beneath our feet will be rising too.  Rising oceans will punish shorelines hit by increasingly powerful storms.  Salt water will inundate rivers further upstream. The rising seas will also push groundwater closer to the surface, exacerbating flooding throughout coastal regions, like the Bay Area.

With all the dire warnings about rising sea levels, it’s probably easy to envision how rising seas will overtop existing shorelines.  Watching television coverage of Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018, it’s also easy to understand how more powerful storms increase storm surges and create devastation farther and farther inland.

Those are the obvious impacts of rising oceans.

Scientists are also observing increased urban riverine flooding due to extreme precipitation events, such as an atmospheric river or in years of El Nino. Forecasting models show both phenomena will occur more frequently in the future.

New Research on Groundwater

Compounding these issues, scientists now report the amount of water underground will contribute to flooding.  New research shows the groundwater table must be considered to create a more accurate understanding of the potential for flooding.

Ellen Plane and Abby Mohan presented the new research at the 2018 Bay Delta Science Conference in Sacramento. The Nov. 8, 2018 edition of Maven’s Notebook, a website devoted to California water issues, had extensive coverage of the presentations. Ellen Plane is from the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley and Abby Mohan is a marine geographer and Geographic Information System (GIS) analyst at Silvestrum Climate Associates. Link to Maven’s Notebook:

Groundwater Levels Are Up and Down

Shallow groundwater depth varies with large rainfall events, periods of drought and tidal influences near shorelines. In addition, groundwater levels vary seasonally with the water table at its highest during the rainy season and falling during the drier months.

A saturated water table heightens flooding risks

As sea levels rise, the saltier bay water along the coastline will push the fresher groundwater layer up creating a rise in the groundwater table. The groundwater will likely rise to the surface and pond, creating emergent flooding. This will particularly occur during wet years. Saturated ground will create emergent ponds in areas that extend well beyond the areas where sea level rise is likely to flood.

In New Orleans and in the Delta with similar soil to the Bay Area, pumping has had little success in mitigating flooding because it causes subsidence (land to sink), which could be even more pronounced in areas of fill.

Emergent Groundwater Flooding

Groundwater will displace impervious surfaces, pushing the surface up, cracking and breaking it apart as the water finds its way out. If the groundwater table were well below a concrete parking lot there would be no issue. But if the groundwater table lies immediately underneath the concrete, water would find a way to get into the cracks and cause infrastructure instability and flooding.

Additionally, rising groundwater will cause inflow and infiltration into wastewater pipes, causing backups. Underground systems need redesign to be more waterproof and more resilient, not only to sea level rise, but to rising groundwater.

Effective Planning Must Consider Groundwater

New building regulations to address the potential of rising groundwater could result in a requirement for additional FEMA flood insurance, adding to the cost of housing. As sea levels rise and intrude farther inland, the interface between the salt water and fresh water will rise and push the fresh water lens upward, especially in a shallow unconfined coastal aquifer areas. This rise will potentially cause emergence and inundation in unexpected areas, not directly connected to salt water.

The East Oakland area is not directly connected to the bay. Yet the area could experience ponding from groundwater emergence alone. In the East Palo Alto area there is a lot of high-value development, such as the Google campus. Adaptation planning is already taking place, but its focus must not be limited to preventing direct inundation.  Such a singular focus would not address the ponding from groundwater behind the levee. It could become a cost-prohibitive and ineffective project if the additional threat from groundwater is not taken into account.

The Bay Area Is Very Vulnerable
San Francisco Bay Infill Development         Photo by Paul Moderacki

A lot of development around the Bay Area is built on artificial unconsolidated fill. Marin County, especially around San Rafael, has high groundwater and direct inundation threats from sea level rise. As a result there would be a higher liquefaction risk during a seismic event.

There is a housing crisis around the Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley. When locating new developments, planning must consider emergent groundwater. The combination of direct inundation and groundwater emergence on coastal development will mean increased flooding.

There is a lot of contamination in the soil around the Bay Area. As sea levels rise, those contaminants are going to become mobilized and cause public health threats around the Bay.

Therefore we need to start shifting how we think about sea level rise planning to include this additional threat of rising groundwater. Adaptation and resilience measures must consider all three flooding components.

Watch a nine minute time lapse of the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane season:

Courtesy of the Rossmoor News, November 28, 2018. Email Judith Schumacher-Jennings at


March film: EDGE OF THE WILD

WHEN: Wed, March 13, 7:00-8:30   WHERE: Peacock Hall

Over eight years in the making, this inspiring local environmental drama follows a fight by citizens to uphold the Endangered Species Act. The objective is to reverse a national policy that would allow a local landowner to destroy the endangered Mission Blue butterflies’ habitat on San Bruno Mountain. This is an area of remarkably intact wilderness that is just one mile south of San Francisco, and it’s completely surrounded by urbanization.

We travel the mountain’s native canyons and hillsides and meet Michele Salmon. She is a lifelong resident of the small town of Brisbane, located on the mountain. In the 1960s, Michelle‘s family played a major role in thwarting a real estate developers’ plans to scrape off the top of the mountain for a new city. The film follows her as she continues her parent’s legacy.

Endangered Butterfly — San Bruno Mtn.

Eventually, in return for a permit, the landowners agree to pursue specific management protections for endangered and threatened species. This amendment to the Endangered Species Act is especially crafted for Mount San Bruno Mountain and is called a habitat conservation plan (HCP). Since then, HCP‘s have been used in over a thousand areas in almost every state, affecting wilderness preservation across the country. In time, the County of San Mateo purchased 80% of the mountain.

The film is 60 minutes. Captions are used.


Details about the three species of butterflies on the mountain that are protected by the Endangered Species Act: