Category Archives: Earth Matters

A History of Climate Change

Although the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, the science necessary to detect atmospheric change did not exist. Indeed, the element “oxygen” and gas “carbon dioxide” had not been identified. The “scientific method” had been developed, but there were probably no more than a hundred scientists in the world.

Observed First: 1700’s

In the 1750s, Joseph Black observed that limestone, when treated with various acids, produced a gas more dense than air and that smothered flames. He called it “fixed air” and showed that it was also produced by animal respiration and fermentation.

In 1770s France, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife began an analytic study of combustion. They very carefully weighed all the components and products involved in burning. They showed that “inflammable” air, now called hydrogen, combined with a new element they called oxygen, to produce water. Moreover, they showed that oxygen was necessary for combustion and resulted in Black’s “fixed air,” which we now call carbon dioxide.

These discoveries were collected in Lavoisier’s book “Traité élémentaire de Chimie,” which established the science of chemistry and guided the 1800s stunning development of the chemical industry.

In the 1770s, Dutch physiologist Jan Housz discovered photosynthesis, determining that plants took up carbon dioxide in amounts equivalent to their weight increase. Botanists soon realized that plants gave off oxygen in this process. It is by this cycle that atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide are kept in balance.

Greenhouse Effect

In the early 1800s, John Dalton proposed that carbon dioxide was composed of one atom of carbon and two atoms of oxygen. In 1824, Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician and physicist, using this knowledge and discoveries of the thermodynamics of gases, calculated how the heat from the sun is trapped by the atmosphere. He determined that without any atmosphere, the earth would be 60-degrees colder. Although Fourier’s observations gave rise to the phrase “greenhouse effect,” there was no appreciation that the earth’s atmospheric and ocean temperatures might be changing away from the balance. The first realization that the temperature of the earth might change came about through the efforts of geologists who found evidence of glaciation in the past, giving rise to the term “Ice Ages.” This idea was as controversial as today’s idea of global warming. People in the Alps were aware that glaciers were retreating; they knew this from reports by their ancestors.

No clear explanation came until Louis Agassiz took up the case. After some years of field study, he described Ice Ages in 1840. Even then, the matter was not resolved until 1875, when James Croll published an extensive analysis that not only proved previous ice ages when glaciers covered much of Europe, but provided an explanation of their cause. Huge changes in the earth’s temperature in the past implied the possibility of present-day changes taking place.

In the 1890s, American astronomer Samuel Langley attempted to measure the temperature of the moon’s surface by measuring the infrared light leaving the moon and arriving on earth. The Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius used Langley’s data to estimate the atmospheric cooling or heating upon changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He was interested in exploring mechanisms that might result in another ice age. He calculated that another ice age would result if the carbon dioxide fell to one-half its value. Equally, he calculated a warming of 5-degrees if it doubled. Estimates that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was increasing led him to predict a slight global warming that might take thousands of years.

Is Carbon Dioxide A Factor?

The matter remained in doubt during the first half of the 20th century. Methods of measurement were improved, but the absence of long-term studies made it difficult to distinguish between random fluctuation and a warming trend. Most scientists remained unconvinced. Charles Keeling, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, was the first person to make frequent regular measurements of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Beginning in 1958, he made continuous measurements at several locations, extending on to 2015. His measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, show a clear increase.

Over each year the carbon dioxide level fluctuates above the average line in May and below the average line in late September. The average line, however, smoothly rose from 315-PPM (parts per million) to 400-PPM carbon dioxide today. The increase slightly accelerated with time and will reach a doubling before mid-century if the increase continues. Modern computers permitted much more accurate and extensive versions of Arrhenius’s calculations.

Computer Models Corroborate

By the 1970s three-dimensional computer climate models were predicting that a doubling of carbon dioxide would result in a 2-degrees C rise in global temperature (3.6-degrees F). This doubling now seems certain from the Keeling curve. By this century, climate study has become well-accepted science. Permanent research programs are being carried out at both poles. Data gathered from satellite observations gives continuous measurements of ice and snow loss at both poles and of increasing fluctuations of ocean temperatures.

The result is that almost every issue of the scientific journals comes out with one or more detailed research report supporting climate change and adding to our understanding of its effects. This includes this year’s Nov. 13 special issue of the journal Science, which is devoted to how climate change is transforming the oceans.

This article first appeared in the December 2, 2015 issue of the Rossmoor News authored by Wayne Lanier, Ph D.

Time for a Carbon Tax

Recently, President Obama axed the Keystone Pipeline, which is a clear win for the environment. In other news, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier has initiated an investigation into whether Exxon lied about climate change back in the 1980s when Exxon scientists predicted that the earth would warm up if fossil fuel use continued the way it was going, while their public relations personnel were denying it. The times, they are a changing.

Like many other folks, I was at first skeptical about whether or not global warming was happening because of human activity or whether it was naturally occurring, as has happened many times before in the history of the earth. I am now convinced that 98 percent of the climate scientists probably aren’t wrong and that people are to blame for what looks like very serious problems for future generations, including our grandchildren.

When I hear of the 30- foot sea-level rise expected to happen due to melting glaciers and ice from Greenland and Antarctica, I lament my share of the responsibility for the burden we are putting on future generations.

While it may be too late to reverse the results of our consumption of fossil fuels, we can probably slow climate change and somewhat mitigate the long-range effects if we leave most of the remaining oil, coal and natural gas in the ground. This will give future generations some much needed time to adjust to the new world, and somewhat lessen the detrimental effects.

At some point, the fossil fuels are due to run out anyway. Fortunately, we have the knowledge and technology to switch to renewable options now if we can muster the political will. The sun, the wind, the tides, the waves and the core heat of the earth all can be tapped to provide the energy needs of tomorrow’s peoples.

Like many other folks, I was at first skeptical about whether or not global warming was happening because of human activity or whether it was naturally occurring, as has happened many times before in the history of the earth.

Climate Lobby Campaign

Sustainable Rossmoor (formerly Solar Powered Rossmoor) has endorsed the Citizens Climate Lobby campaign.This plan places a tax on all fuels that produce carbon dioxide pollution. The tax money collected will all be rebated as a dividend to every United States household on a per capita basis. Donald Trump will get a monthly dividend exactly the same as my two-year-old granddaughter. Gasoline, for example, has been far too cheap in this country. If you have been in Europe, you will have noticed that their highly taxed petrol has resulted in smaller cars and more highly used public transportation. That’s the main reason our carbon footprint is about twice as big as theirs.

The tax, small at first, but gradually increasing, gives the country time to transition. The rebate will average about $2,000 per family initially and be enough to off-set the price increases. An independent study shows about 2 million jobs will be created by this infusion of cash into the economy. Both Republicans and Democrats support this approach and it’s gaining support in Washington – because of its simplicity, fairness and the support of growing numbers of citizens.

If this campaign succeeds, everyone will have an incentive to ride a bike, take a bus, live close to work, turn down the thermostat or buy an electric car. Wasting energy will be costly. Those who conserve will be rewarded. Alaska citizens profit exactly the same way from the oil extraction tax that is rebated to them.

To endorse this campaign or find out more about it, go to Citizens Climate Lobby’s website. Our children and grandchildren are rightfully concerned about climate change. We need to be also. The victory on Keystone is just the beginning. This win will help inspire resistance to a thousand other projects harmful to our future. Remember when Smokey the Bear used to say: “Only you can prevent forest fires”? I say: Only WE can slow down global warming and assure a livable world for those who follow us.

This article first appeared in the November 18, 2015 issue of the Rossmoor News. Authored by Bob Hanson.

Does El Nino Mean Longer Showers?


Batten down the hatches! The El Niño is acomin! We are certainly hearing a lot about El Niño coming, hoping it will bring the wet year we so desperately need. But what exactly is an El Niño and will it really end our devastating drought?

El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. The cycle begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastward along the equator toward the coast of South America. Normally, this warm water pools near Indonesia and the Philippines. During an El Niño, the Pacific’s warmest surface waters sit offshore of northwestern South America.

Forecasters declare an official El Niño when they see both ocean temperatures and rainfall from storms veer to the east. Experts also look for prevailing trade winds to weaken and even reverse directions during the El Niño climate phenomenon.

El Niños occur every three to five years but may come as frequently as every two years or as rarely as every seven years. Each event usually lasts nine to 12 months. They often begin to form in spring, reach peak strength between December and January, and then decay by May of the following year.

El Niño was originally named El Niño de Navidad by Peruvian fishermen in 1600s. This name was used for the tendency of the phenomenon to arrive around Christmas. Climate records of El Niño go back millions of years, with evidence of the cycle found in ice cores, deep sea muds, coral, caves and tree rings.

The Good News

There is increasing evidence that we may well experience an El Niño year. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center, in its monthly long-term weather outlook, cited increased odds of greater-than-normal precipitation for nearly all of California this winter – including, crucially, the Sierra Nevada and most of Northern California, source of most of the state’s water supply. Snowmelt from the Sierra supplies the largest percentage of EBMUD water.

Increasing evidence for an El Niño year includes warmer ocean temperatures not only in the tropics but also in other parts of the Pacific. Unseasonably warm ocean temperatures have been measured along the coast. The higher ocean temperatures have the potential to increase the intensity of more frequent storms produced by El Niño.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at Stanford University, noted that the atmospheric ridge of high pressure off the coast, which he has dubbed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” is gone, thus removing a potential hurdle to wet weather. In previous years the ridge pushed storms north of California.

The Not So Good News

So there is general agreement by climate experts that we will experience El Niño conditions this winter. However, they also caution that even a few wet months won’t eliminate the water deficit created by the state’s four-year drought. More than twice the average rainfall would be needed to make up the shortfall, an amount that has not fallen in more than 150 years of recordkeeping. Even the state’s wettest years have seen just less than twice the average.

Additionally, El Niños tend to bring not only wetter weather but also warmer temperatures, meaning a quicker-melting Sierra snowpack isn’t expected to grow as much as it might otherwise.

The Bottom Line

Even if a robust El Niño year brings us substantial rainfall and snow melt it will not be enough to offset the water deficit created by our four-year drought. Additionally, California will continue to experience drought years in the future.

We’ve done very well in our conservation efforts. We’ve met EBMUD’s goal of cutting back 20 percent on our water use. It is imperative that we continue our efforts to conserve water and always try to think of new ways to conserve water.

We need to investigate ways to recycle the water we have such as the installation grey water systems and treatment of sanitary sewer water. So when the rains come and we wonder if they will ever stop, please don’t be tempted to take longer showers or let the water run when you brush your teeth.


This article first appeared in the Rossmoor News on November 4, 2015, by author Barbara Coenen.

Those Nasty Leaf Blowers

Hate the leaf blowers? You’re not alone. Many California towns and cities have banned these noisy, polluting machines.

Carmel was the first, in 1975. Now, more than 100 California cities and 400 other cities, towns and municipalities nationwide have banned or restricted leaf blowers. The California EPA, the American Lung Association and the World Health Organization are among the many groups that condemn the use of leaf blowers because the extreme noise and air pollution caused by these machines are hazardous to human health.

Hundreds of cities have returned to the traditional rake and broom, with bags and trash containers, easily banishing this horrible machine from its neighborhoods. Few inventions in human history are as obnoxious as the leaf blower.

How it Started

It all started with a machine for blowing pesticides onto fruit trees in Japan. By simply removing the pesticide canister, this machine became a tool for chasing garden debris. It wasn’t long before American manufacturers spotted an opportunity. The new American blowers were first hailed as an environmental boon when Los Angeles municipal workers began using them in place of the traditional thumb stream from a hose to clean sidewalks and driveways.

The new blowers consisted of a simple two-stroke engine that burned a mixture of gas and oil. Their incomplete combustion and lack of any noise muffler made these machines dirty and loud. Carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and carcinogenic hydrocarbons spewed from the machines’ nozzles into the air.

A later, cleaner alternative was a four-stroke engine which failed to sell because it was more expensive and less powerful. But people loved the cheap, powerful blower and soon everyone had to have one.

Homeowners, landscapers and their armies of workers fanned out all over the country, spewing strong pollutants and kicking up noxious mixtures of dirt from the ground.

With a muzzle velocity of 150 miles per hour (a wind speed matched only by a hurricane or a tornado), one leaf blower generates as much pollution in one hour as a car driven for 100 miles, according to the Los Angeles chapter of the American Lung Association.

What’s Left After the Leaves Are Blown Away

An airborne mixture of fine particles from unburned fuel, fungi, molds and pollens, pulverized bugs and animal feces hangs in the air for up to four days. The California Air Resources Board reported that fine particles in the air result in 9,000 premature deaths a year in California. At-risk groups include the elderly with cardio-pulmonary problems, people who exercise outdoors, and infants.

Even many landscape professionals agree that stripping a garden of its natural layer of mulch is bad for the plants, diminishing their natural beauty and increasing the need for water, a scarce resource in California. The blowers blast the ground clear of leaf litter, a material that’s beneficial for the soil. In 1990, the city of Claremont stopped using blowers in the maintenance of city property without a net increase in labor hours.

Leaf blower noise is uniquely irritating. For landscape workers, the hazards can be life threatening. The sound from one leaf blower measures 70 to 75 decibels at 50 feet and can reach 90 to 100 decibels at the operator’s ear, according to the World Health Organization. A person inside can be exposed to 100 decibels of noise even with closed windows. Excessive noise is associated with increased blood pressure, headaches, ringing ears, loss of sleep and a lower tolerance for frustration.

Leaf blowers emit compounds that react with sunlight to create ground-level ozone, a key component of smog that can cause respiratory problems. New evidence shows that a relationship between short-term exposure to ozone and mortality in older adults has been mounting, especially among people who are active outdoors.

New findings demonstrate that the road dust that the blowers kick up into the air can remain for days. It’s a toxic mix of endotoxins, mold, and organic carbon compounds. Leaf blowing is not private conduct, because when someone kicks up dust, he extends risk beyond his property line. In some communities, neighbors have to hear multiple blowers at one location.

What Can We Do?

What can homeowners do to protect their own and their community’s health? They can learn what other communities have accomplished and pressure their local governments to take action. They can learn how and where their local government manages its yard waste. They can investigate simple alternatives like hand-powered lawn sweepers that have an attached catch basin. These take even less energy than the rake-and-broom method, but are equally effective. They are quiet and pollution free. Most can be used on both concrete and grass. Leaves can be moved almost as quickly with a rake, lifting less dust into the air.

What can local governments do? They can defend and protect a citizen’s right to quiet enjoyment of their property, especially in the summer and early fall. They can defend a person’s right to protect his or her ears and mental health. And broadly defined, they can do their essential job of defining and enforcing property rights. They can and should ensure that disposal of all kinds of yard waste be sustainably managed, not burned or left to rot and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

A good example is the city of Seattle. Homeowners collect yard waste in dedicated bins owned by the city. Trucks take it to sites where it is properly managed. The city then sells the resulting mulch to anyone who wants it at a low price. People can do this. They can banish leaf blowers and return their neighborhoods to normal.

Further Reading and Resources

For the best source of information on this subject, Google References on the Adverse Health Effects of Leaf Blowers 23 April 2014. For California Cities with bans,  For a comprehensive list of cities with bans:  For Information on Leaf Blowers

This article first appeared in the Rossmoor News on October 21, 2015, author, Susan Clark.

California’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (M-WELO)

What is M-WELO?

In 1990, during the second driest period in California’s recorded climate history up to that time, California’s legislature passed the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act requiring the Department of Water Resources to adopt a Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (M-WELO).

In 1993, the Department of Water Resources adopted the M-WELO, updating it in 2009, and, again this past July ( July of 2015) in response to the California governor’s drought executive order. Cities are required to implement and enforce the M-WELO, or an equally efficient Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (WELO). Walnut Creek implemented its WELO in 2012 ( depts/cd/planning/landscaping.asp).

Our own Golden Rain Foundation board of directors effectively used this WELO to coordinate GRF and Mutual landscaping in GRF policies ENV-3.1 and ENV-3.2 (seek to reduce landscape water demand) and GRF/Mutual policies HMU-2.1 through HMU-2.6. Now Walnut Creek must update its WELO by Dec. 31, 2015 to comply with the updated M-WELO, or the M-WELO shall take precedence, according to Julie Saare-Edmonds of the Department of Water Resources.

Updated M-WELO

The updated M-WELO aims to enhance environmental and aesthetic values provided by landscape, but curbs landscape water demand. It minimizes the amount of area planted with lawn, requires more area for low water using plants (including California natives), maximizes irrigation efficiency by requiring highly efficient drip technology where appropriate and prohibits wasteful runoff.

The bulk of the M-WELO applies to new construction and landscape renovation projects tied to permits. New construction in Walnut Creek with landscape areas of 500 square feet or greater must comply with the M-WELO. The M-WELO does not require any alteration of the configuration of existing landscape.

The M-WELO also requires cities to prevent water waste in all existing landscapes: “No property owner or tenant shall permit runoff from an irrigated landscape area due to excessive irrigation run times, low head drainage, overspray, or other similar conditions where water flows onto an adjacent property, walkways, roadways, parking lots, structures, or other non-permeable surface….” No one is exempt, according to Andy Smith of the Walnut Creek Planning and Zoning Department. Smith also acknowledges that, although waste prevention is mandatory, funding limitations make it unenforceable in practical terms. Therefore, compliance with the M-WELO’s rules for existing landscape largely depends upon the motivation of managing agencies. Where willingness and capability are present we can expect water efficient landscape initiatives.

How M-WELO Impacts Rossmoor

We see some of this very positively in Rossmoor through MOD’s turf removal activities and the installation of smart irrigation control technology. We also see this initiative in the Mutual 8 drought tolerant landscape project that introduced drip irrigation, the most efficient irrigation technology commercially available. These and additional actions are examples of very positive ways for any community to achieve the goal of water efficient landscape.

The M-WELO mandates rethinking of landscape and irrigation system design and conformance with new water efficient criteria by prohibiting the placement of sprinklers within two feet of hardscape. If planted, the two-foot setback must use drip irrigation; otherwise it can be covered with mulch, gravel, stone, etc. The M-WELO also requires areas less than10 feet wide to be “irrigated with subsurface (drip) or other means that produces no runoff.” These solutions will eliminate runoff and overspray waste.

Hydrozoning: Zone Planting

Another design solution involves hydrozoning. This means that plants with similar water need and microclimate placement get zoned together according to irrigation requirement, and separately from others with different water need and microclimate placement. Hydrozoning makes it possible to irrigate plant groupings much more efficiently.

For example, median space between parallel roadways frequently includes high water-using lawn with very low water -using tree species. The M-WELO prohibits planting high and low water users in the same hydrozone, an ineffective grouping for water conservation. In addition, the M-WELO prohibits placing high water-using plants, including lawns, in medians. Replacing the median lawn with native shrubs and groundcovers that have water needs more closely matched to that of the trees is just one of several preferable solutions.

It’s all very well and good to do the right thing, but what about costs? The city of Santa Monica and Metropolitan Water District answer this question with their “side by side” demonstration project that employs M-WELO guidelines. Their nine-year study (2004-2013) documented resource consumption of two next-door gardens, a native garden and a traditional garden. The native garden used 83 percent less water, produced 56 percent less green waste and required 68 percent less maintenance than the traditional garden.

This example illustrates the long-term cost saving potential through a greater use of the M-WELO guidelines. The results also created a more water efficient and sustainable future for Community landscapes. (Internet search:

This post first appeared in the Rossmoor News, October 7, 2015, author Tom Stewart.

Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere

A salt-marsh microbial mat produces bubbles of oxygen. Photo courtesy of Wayne Lanier

Each of those shiny round things in the accompanying photograph is a bubble of pure oxygen, produced by microbes living in the microbial mat. The mat was on the bottom of a San Francisco Bay salt marsh pond about three-inches deep. Individual microbes are too small to see without magnification, but form a complex community of Cyanobacteria, Archaeabacteria and Diatoms. To see a video of Cyanobacteria, search the Internet for “Cyanobacteria Doing the Dance of 3.5-billion Years.”

Calculating Volume of Oxygen

Count the bubbles and measure their diameter to get a reliable average and you can calculate the volume of oxygen shown here. The scale indicator enables estimation of the minimum amount of oxygen produced per unit area, about 2.7-liters of pure oxygen per square meter. I write “minimum” because each bubble doesn’t hang around all day. When it grows large enough for buoyancy to overcome the surface tension holding it in place, it floats to the surface and releases its oxygen into the atmosphere.

I did not wait around all day taking pictures, but I did take a jar of another salt marsh microbial mat home and left it on my deck. That sample was taken from a giant floating microbial mat in a large pond in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The pond was shown on the city of San Jose Environmental Services map, so I could calculate its mat area at 260,000 square meters and biomass of 170 metric tons. It floated because it had a slightly larger amount of Archaea, which produced a gel that trapped bubbles long enough to float the mat.

When I looked at the jar early in the morning after collecting the sample, the mat was down on the bottom of the jar. I came back later and found the mat sample floating. So I covered the jar with my hat for a while. When I removed my hat, the mat was back down on the bottom. By this method of blocking sunlight with my hat for varying lengths of time, I was able to calculate a “dwell time” for the bubbles of around 15-minutes. Put another way: While the sun shines, 2.7-liters of pure oxygen are produced about every 15 minutes per square-meter of microbial mat.

Using “average hours of sunshine” for the Bay Area, a conservative estimate is that more than 14,400-liters of oxygen are produced per square meter of salt marsh ponds every year, or about 58-million liters/acre/year. This is a year’s worth of oxygen for 290-humans.

Like all photosynthetic organisms, Cyanobacteria and Archaea and Diatoms take up six molecules of carbon dioxide for every six molecules of oxygen they release. At standard temperature and pressure the carbon dioxide weighs about 264g per liter and the «dioxide» component of carbon dioxide weighs about 12g, so the weight of carbon sucked out of the atmosphere is 252-grams. Removing 58 million liters of carbon dioxide per acre per year amounts to removing about 4.2-million metric tons of carbon.

Salt Marsh Organisms Reduce Carbon Dioxide

The Cyanobacteria and Archaea in this photograph have been on earth for about 3.5 billion years. Geological data indicates that the early earth’s atmosphere was mostly nitrogen, with between 10 percent and 30 percent carbon dioxide and virtually no oxygen at all. Since then, and with the help of Diatoms that evolved around 2 billion years later, these creatures produced and maintained the 20.95 percent oxygen in the atmosphere that we breathe today while reducing the carbon dioxide to about 0.036 percent.

Moreover, as these organisms died and sank into the mud, they were increasingly buried deeper and deeper and converted into fossils; what we now call the “fossil fuels” coal, oil and natural gas.

So, when you burn fossil fuels, you are releasing into the atmosphere carbon buried millions of years ago. Since 1700, the American Chemical Society estimates the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has roughly doubled and the increase over the last few decades is very much steeper. Every gallon of gas burned when you drive your car sends 19 pounds of fossil carbon back into the atmosphere.

In European Cap and Trade, officially the EU Emissions Trade Scheme (ETS), carbon emissions pollution must be offset by purchase of an equal amount of carbon from someone who is either removing carbon from the atmosphere or carrying out a normally carbon-producing process in a carbon-free manner (like solar panels). Or, possibly, they own and care for some salt marsh land. Today’s ETS price of carbon converted to dollars per acre under Cap and Trade means an acre of salt marsh can earn about $267,000 per year for every year the marsh is conserved.

Cargill, Inc. now proposes to sell 18,800 acres of salt marsh land in the Bay Area. Business folks are likely to buy it and, since we have no U.S. Cap and Trade, that marsh will probably be filled at enormous cost and turned into shopping malls and housing.

This article first appeared in the September 23, 2015 issue of the Rossmoor News. Author: Wayne Lanier.

Why Use Native Plants?

Native plants are now in vogue in California, but not necessarily for all the reasons they should be. Our state’s severe, four-year drought is largely responsible for all the attention natives are now receiving. That is because, once established, natives generally need far less water than many of the plants historically used by landscaping companies and many landscape designers. So using natives not only can save lots of water, but also lots of money.

Native plants are indigenous to our state. They evolved here over time, adapting to the local climate, and still occur naturally in our remaining wild areas. Most of the common landscaping plants in this region are from other parts of the world. They evolved in different ecosystems with different soil organisms, different beetles, butterflies, birds, lizards and other wildlife. Many plants in this region, but certainly not all, require moderate to high amounts of water to thrive. A few examples of such plants here include azaleas, rhododendrons, redwoods, Japanese maples, red maples, purple leaf plum and, of course, grass.

Why does any of this matter? First, it helps to remember that our climate in central Contra Costa County is naturally semi-arid, similar to that of the Mediterranean, with long hot dry summers. The only precipitation comes during the winter, and lately we’ve been getting minimal winter rain. Native plants are adapted to this weather regimen, which is why they tend to need less water.

But there are a number of other reasons to favor native plants over non-natives, and most people are not aware of them. The first one was alluded to above. Native plants support the local ecology, which continues to be destroyed due to human activities. Consider how much of our natural areas have been lost to development, or damaged by oil spills, extracting and burning fossil fuels, using nitrogen fertilizers, and invasive species.

Restoration Gardening

While creating new landscapes using native plants can never replace lost natural habitats, they can help provide an important “bridge” to nearby remaining wild areas. And because this part of central Contra Costa County lies adjacent to these areas, how we choose to re-landscape areas where grass is being removed is likely to make a difference. However, no one is advocating removing any established non-native plants here or in people’s private gardens. But the more native plants that we add to our landscaped areas, the more we will be helping all wildlife survive despite their diminishing and fragmented habitat. This is particularly true if we create plant groupings that contain sufficient numbers of individual species so they can be found more easily by insects and birds.

This landscaping practice is sometimes referred to as restoration gardening. It is one that everyone who cares about our environment can support. The best scientific analysis I have found on why and how native plants sustain wildlife and promote healthy ecosystems is found in a book written by Douglas W. Tallamy titled, “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants.” Two books written by Judith Larner Lowry describe why and how to create sustainable landscapes and are also recommended reading. They include “Gardening With a Wild Heart: Restoring California’s Native Landscapes at Home” and “The Landscaping Ideas of Jays: A Natural History of the Backyard Restoration Garden.”

In addition to saving water and money, and supporting the local ecology, California native plants offer some additional benefits in landscaped areas. Their use can make a site look more relaxing because it reminds us of natural areas, but only if the garden is designed with an informal rather than a manicured “look.” California natives require comparatively little pruning and little to no fertilizer. They require even less water when fallen or removed debris (leaves, small twigs, etc.) is left in place or spread out as natural mulch, rather than being collected and removed. Native plants also usually require no pesticides because they have developed their own defenses against many pests and diseases. Avoiding pesticide use prevents killing beneficial insects and keeps toxins out of our waterways. All of these practices could reduce the time hired landscaping personnel and homeowners spend maintaining gardens.

Finally, readers may be interested in the position of California legislators on the drought and the use of California native plants. In July 2015 they approved a revised “California Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance.” It aims to increase water use efficiency, in part by limiting the percentage of landscapes that can be planted with high-water-use plants. The ordinance specifically mentions the “protection and preservation of native species and natural vegetation;” the “selection of water-conserving plants, trees, and turf species, especially local native plants;” and the “selection of plants based on local climate suitability.”

Increasing the use of native plants in our landscapes is something we can easily do if we plan carefully. It will help us save water, and can have the added benefit of improving the health of our local ecosystem. I encourage everyone to become involved in this effort.

This article first appeared in the Rossmoor News on September 02, 2015. Author: Bob Hass. Editor’s Note: the California Native Plant offers an excellent list of native plants specific to Walnut Creek.

Why You Should Go Solar Now

The Right Thing To Do

My wife and I installed solar panels on our condo in Rossmoor back in 2003. Our main objective wasn’t to save money. We simply thought it was the right thing to do. Our system cost us about 12 cents a watt after rebates and tax incentives. I am told that today I could replace the system at somewhere around four cents a watt.

Energy experts say that by 2016 power from solar will be cheaper than power generated by coal or natural gas in all but three states. It’s not hard to imagine that California isn’t one of those three states. Solar has never been cheaper. The average California homeowner going solar saves $1,560 a year on his electric bill.

But here’s the catch: Like most government programs, the tax rebate is temporary. PG&E is also mandated by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to use a percentage of renewable energy in its mix. I understand that PG&E is getting close to that cap now, and sometime soon it will start discouraging solar.

Residential solar has been increasing at about 30 percent a year. It isn’t exactly a new idea. There are about 200 different companies that have installed panels on one or more Walnut Creek homes. It’s a highly competitive business. That competitive atmosphere is good for you. If you don’t have any cash on hand to pay for the installations, there are companies out there that will install them for no money down and guarantee a savings on your electric bill. How can you lose on that? However, if you can pay cash, you are probably better off to go that route, so that when you sell your unit the lease won’t complicate the sale.

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which is approved by the city of Walnut Creek. A PACE loan pays for the installation and your payments are made through your yearly property tax. The additional tax payments will be lower than your savings on the electricity bill. This, of course, won’t be an option if you live in a co-op.

December 2016 is a date to remember. That is when the 30 percent federal tax credit expires and your net cost will take a bump. If you do the installation now you will be much better off.

If the south- and west-facing roofs on your building are shaded by large trees, solar probably isn’t for you. If your building is scheduled to have its roof replaced in a year or two, it would probably be smart to wait. You will be responsible for paying for the panels to be removed and then re-installed. Otherwise, it is to your financial well-being to make your move now.

Some of our Rossmoor Mutuals are welcoming solar and moving ahead with plans to solve the potential problem of two or more homeowners in a building vying for the same sunny roof space. This will need to be ironed out. In the meantime, my advice is to call two or three solar companies for bids and let your Mutual know you are ready to move. It will save you money on your electric bills, give you a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that you are doing something to reduce carbon emissions and increase the value of your home.

This article first appeared in the Rossmoor News on August 19, 2015. Author: Bob Hanson 

Why Artificial Grass Is Bad for the Earth

Artificial turf is bad for people, for animals and for the earth.

Rossmoor was smart in limiting the use of artificial turf to our dog park. The plan was well researched; it has complete shade, was properly installed and is cleaned regularly with appropriate compounds. And users get their paws washed after a visit. Unfortunately, many Californians now regret their uninformed decisions to replace real lawn with fake — assuming it would save water as well as maintenance time and money.

Members of the Rossmoor Water Conservation Committee were encouraged to testify when EBMUD voted last month on whether to offer a rebate for users who replaced real grass with fake grass. So we did some research and learned a lot from experts there.

Why is Artificial Grass Harmful?

Artificial turf retains heat. Temperatures reach nearly 200 degrees F both above and below it [“Synthetic Surface Heat Studies” Brigham Young University, 2002]. Typically, pets and barefoot children cannot tolerate walking on it on warm, let alone hot days. It creates a “heat island” effect, which holds in heat during the day and releases it at night – not what we need during a drought.

Underneath, it kills healthy soil bacteria, worms and root systems. It must be watered regularly to keep it cool — water that can be better used to maintain any of several types of drought-resistant sod (if a playing surface is needed) or lush drought-resistant planting. It also requires water to wash it, and is far from maintenance-free. Herbicides (like Roundup) and fungicides are included in the washing — both are bad for the water table below. Real lawn or plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. Artificial turf doesn’t, and sadly it diminishes the incentive to learn healthy drought-sensitive planting, mulching and irrigating.

Another serious drawback is its expense; current prices range from $8 to $15 per square foot. It can easily cost $5,000 to cover a small yard and over $100,000 for an athletic field. The cost includes preparing the ground and using specific layers of padding underneath to help drainage. The older forms of artificial turf were made of various synthetic ingredients, including crumbled old tires. These are considered more toxic for reasons I’ll include below, but they are still on the market, and are typically sold more cheaply – attracting cost-conscious buyers.

It’s Toxic Too

The toxins in artificial turf threaten our health via contact, consumption (via water), and inhalation. All these routes expose humans and other living things to acetone, arsenic, benzene, chromium, halogenated flame retardants, lead, mercury, dioxin, carbon black, styrene and Butadiene. These chemicals have been proven to cause cancer and other diseases. As the turf degrades over time, larger quantities of chemicals are released.

When worn-out synthetic turf is replaced, the old pieces will likely end up in landfills, and that can lead to toxic water runoff. Plants and organisms that absorb contaminated water often increase its concentration – a special concern if eaten by humans or other animals. The EPA strictly regulates the disposal of rubber tires; however, there is no regulation of the disposal of artificial turf containing crumbled tires. The newer, more expensive forms of turf have replaced the bits of tires with materials that are untested.

The turf is a reservoir for not only fungus and bacteria, but also contaminated organic matter. It lacks the normal biocycles in nature that reduce the hazards of this exposure. Serious skin abrasions and infections (including MRSA — antibiotic resistant “super bugs”) are among the reasons the women’s soccer league recently took legal action to avoid playing on it.[NIH 2011, CDC 2013].

As the turf becomes warmer, the amount of its “off-gassing” increases; this is code for toxic fumes. There are measurable short term ill effects from this; long-term side effects have not been studied — often a concern to neighbors. The industry knows about the risk of high heat – that’s why their turf is impregnated with flame retardants. The effects of drinking, eating (via plants raised with toxic water) and regularly inhaling this flame retardant have not been studied.

The seven EMBUD directors found it easy to “just say NO” (their words) to the proposed rebate for artificial turf. However, the use of artificial turf is increasing. Many cities and counties are considering lifting previous bans on its use. Governor Jerry Brown, who was previously opposed, has recently said that he’d “now consider it due to the drought.” We need to contact these elected officials. A list of their emails and phone numbers is available on request.

This article originally appeared in the Rossmoor News, August 02, 2015. Authored by Carol Weed, M.D.

A New Column for ‘A Wonderful World’

Congratulations!  You are reading the first entry of the Rossmoor News’ latest column.

Last week, Maureen O’Rourke, the managing editor of the Rossmoor News, met with about a dozen leaders of SolarPowered Rossmoor and cemented plans for an every-other-week column featuring environmental news and views. I have the honor of being “first at bat.”

One of my favorite songs is Louie Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”  I do believe that we are blessed to be able to live on this Earth…the green and blue gem of the universe. Those of us who will be writing this biweekly column are all determined to do our part to ensure that the good life we have enjoyed will be available for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

After a short get-together with O’Rourke, the SolarPowered members met to come up with a name for this new endeavor. The group considered dozens of variations using words such as sustainability, green, challenges, issues, conservation, environment, etc. We were searching for a phrase that would grab the attention of both conservatives and progressives.  We want everyone at Rossmoor to hear what we have to say.

Earth Matters

The closest to consensus we were able to get was “Our Living Earth.”  But later, Susie Clark emailed me and asked, what about “Earth Matters”?  That name seemed to hit a good chord with the rest of us, so that’s what we will call this column. Check the News in two weeks to see if we have found something that everyone likes better.

I will be the coordinator of the writers, but there will be several other authors contributing.  Just as the club has become involved in issues other than solar energy, this column will deal with a wide range of topics that SolarPowered Rossmoor thinks should be of interest to Rossmoor residents: climate change, water issues, energy conservation, endangered species, recycling, food choices, fossil fuel, new ideas in renewable energy and much more.

The environmental movement is relatively new.  It all started here in Northern California with John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club back about 100 years ago. Lots has happened since then. For one, the population of the world has tripled (a quarter of a million more people inhabit the world each day). This population explosion leads to increased pollution, depletion of resources and conflicts.  Business as usual won’t work anymore.  Every one of us has an influence on the world we live in…let’s make sure it is mostly positive.  Hopefully, this column will help readers walk the earth with a softer footprint.

This article was originally published in the Rossmoor News on July 22, 2015 by author Bob Hanson.