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Scientists grappling with persistent and alarming collapse of North Coast’s bull kelp forests

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Five years after marine scientists first sounded the alarm about a sudden collapse of the bull kelp forest off the Northern California coast, the state of the ocean offers little prospect of recovery any time soon.

Where lush stands of leafy kelp once swayed amid the waves, providing cover to young finfish and forage for abalones and other creatures on the ocean floor, a stark new world has materialized — one dominated by millions of voracious purple sea urchins that have stripped the ocean floor down to rock in some places. Were a tender frond of new kelp to sprout, it wouldn’t stand a chance of surviving long.

The barrens left behind are a stark and alarming contrast to what is typically one of the most thriving marine environments — seasonal kelp forests that support a rich ecosystem with life stretching from the sea floor to the surface, and up the food chain, supporting recreational and commercial fisheries and home to some of the North Coast’s most iconic wildlife, including abalone and sea otters.

The kelp forests also are a key barometer for the wider health of the world’s oceans, and without some recovery, their future as biodiverse stores for marine life and people hangs in the balance.

Laura Rogers-Bennett, a veteran biologist who works out of the UC Davis-Bodega Marine Lab, likened the kelp forest to a great floating woodlands stretching hundreds of miles along the coast.

“To lose 95% of your forest in a year and a half, that’s a catastrophe, an ecological disaster, and it’s had so much socioeconomic impacts, as well,” she said.

Read more at: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/scientists-grappling-with-persistent-and-alarming-collapse-of-north-coasts/

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California unveils sweeping wildfire prevention plan amid record fire losses and drought

John Myers, LOS ANGELES TIMES

California Wildfire and Resilience Action Plan

After the worst fire season in California history and as drought conditions raise fears of what’s to come, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders unveiled a $536-million proposal Thursday to boost efforts at firefighting and a variety of prevention measures, including vegetation management and the construction of fire-resistant structures across the state.

The proposal, which the Legislature could send to the governor’s desk as soon as Monday, marks an early agreement by the governor and lawmakers to spend more than half of the $1 billion in wildfire funding Newsom called for in his state budget proposal in January. The gravity of the issue became clear last week after state officials reported the water content in the Sierra Nevada snowpack stood at 59% of the average for early spring.

“The science is clear: Warming winter temperatures and warming summer temperatures across the American West are creating more challenging and dangerous wildfire conditions,” said Wade Crowfoot, the governor’s secretary of natural resources.

According to an outline provided by legislative staff, more than $350 million will be spent on fire prevention and suppression efforts, including prescribed fires and other projects designed to reduce the vegetation growth that has fueled California’s most devastating fires. The package also includes $25 million for fortifying older homes that weren’t built using fire-resistance methods required during construction over the last decade.

Read more at https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-04-08/california-wildfire-prevention-536-million-newsom-lawmakers

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Los Angeles Superior Court ruling signals officials must consider California wildfire risks

Press Release, CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

In a major victory against a destructive development larger than Griffith Park, a judge has issued a ruling blocking Tejon Ranchcorp’s Centennial. The project would have put 57,000 residents on remote, fire-prone wildlands 65 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff found that the development’s environmental review failed to account for the increased wildfire risk the 12,000-acre project would pose to surrounding wildlands. The ruling sends a clear signal that elected officials across the state must consider the serious risks of building on wildfire-prone land.

Between 1964 and 2015, 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres occurred within five miles of the site, including four within the proposed project’s boundaries. Nearly all contemporary wildfires in California are caused by human sources such as power lines and electrical equipment, and development increases that threat.

“The court’s rejection of the Tejon development highlights the danger of building in high fire-risk areas,” said J.P. Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The science is clear that developments like Centennial will literally be built to burn, and our elected officials can’t continue to downplay these risks through inaccurate environmental reviews. This is a wake-up call for policymakers across California.”

The ruling found that the environmental review’s conclusion that “wildfire risk impacts outside of the project site will be reduced to less than significant is not supported by any analysis.” The court’s decision on Tuesday follows a recent Center report showing how construction in high fire-risk wildlands puts more people in harm’s way and contributes to dramatic increases in fire suppression costs. The California Attorney General recently challenged several developments in fire-prone areas, including one in Guenoc Valley, where a proposed project’s footprint includes portions of the recent LNU Complex Fire.

Read more at https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/judge-blocks-massive-tejon-ranchcorp-development-in-la-county-2021-04-08/

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Underwater meadows of California seagrass found to reverse symptom of climate change

Tara Duggan, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Eelgrass, a plant that grows in “underwater meadows” along the California coast and emerges like a floating carpet at low tide, is already known to be an important habitat for fish, birds and baby Dungeness crabs. It turns out it can also reduce seawater’s acidity back to preindustrial levels, creating refuges for animals who can’t tolerate that byproduct of climate change.

That’s the conclusion of a six-year study published recently by the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. It showed eelgrass meadows in seven California locations decreased ocean acidity by up to 30%. Because acidification, the result of the ocean absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has increased by 30% due to climate change, the plant has the ability to reverse the effects in its habitat.

The report, published in the journal Global Change Biology, is the most extensive study to show seagrass’ long-term ability to ameliorate ocean acidification. Its authors say it shows the importance of protecting seagrass meadows, which have shrunk in number and size globally because of pollution and development, so they may support wildlife as well as the production of farmed oysters, mussels and abalone.

“Because these systems are on the decline in many areas around the world, I would like this research to support many seagrass restoration efforts,” said lead author Aurora M. Ricart of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine, who was doing postdoctoral research at the Bodega Marine Lab during the study.

Read more at https://www.sfchronicle.com/local/environment/article/Underwater-meadows-of-California-seagrass-found-16065560.php

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Sonoma County startup Solectrac builds electric tractors for vineyard managers, hobbyists

Susan Wood, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

Steve Heckeroth is a natural for running a novel electric tractor business — which is believed to have environmentally created a line in the “soil” to get generations of farmers to know the dirt on noisy, unhealthy diesel engines.

The 72-year-old businessman, who moved his Solectrac operation from Mendocino County to Santa Rosa near the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport a few weeks ago, has dedicated his life to finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels.

Through the years, he has dug deep into his imagination and will to reduce humankind’s carbon footprint by coming up with farm equipment that’s designed to heal the Earth and help the land’s stewards — known in industry circles as the ultimate environmentalists — operate more efficiently and with their own health in mind.

Read more at: https://www.northbaybusinessjournal.com/article/industrynews/sonoma-county-startup-solectrac-builds-electric-tractors-for-vineyard-manag/?ref=moststory

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The ‘green energy’ that might be ruining the planet

Michael Grunwald, POLITICO

Here’s a multibillion-dollar question that could help determine the fate of the global climate: If a tree falls in a forest—and then it’s driven to a mill, where it’s chopped and chipped and compressed into wood pellets, which are then driven to a port and shipped across the ocean to be burned for electricity in European power plants—does it warm the planet?

Most scientists and environmentalists say yes: By definition, clear-cutting trees and combusting their carbon emits greenhouse gases that heat up the earth. But policymakers in the U.S. Congress and governments around the world have declared that no, burning wood for power isn’t a climate threat—it’s actually a green climate solution. In Europe, “biomass power,” as it’s technically called, is now counted and subsidized as zero-emissions renewable energy. As a result, European utilities now import tons of wood from U.S. forests every year—and Europe’s supposedly eco-friendly economy now generates more energy from burning wood than from wind and solar combined.

Biomass power is a fast-growing $50 billion global industry, and it’s not clear whether the climate-conscious administration of President Joe Biden will try to accelerate it, discourage it or ignore it. It’s usually obvious which energy sources will reduce carbon emissions, even when the politics and economics are tricky; everyone agrees that solar and wind are cleaner than coal. But when it comes to power from ground-up trees, there’s still a raging substantive debate about whether it’s a forest-friendly, carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, or an environmental disaster. Even within the Biden administration, senior officials have taken different sides of that debate.

Biden’s answer will be extremely important, because as odd as it sounds during a clean-tech revolution driven by modern innovations like advanced batteries and smart grids, there’s been a resurgence in the old-fashioned technique of burning wood to produce energy. The idea that setting trees on fire could be carbon-neutral sounds even odder to experts who know that biomass emits more carbon than coal at the smokestack, plus the carbon released by logging, processing logs into vitamin-sized pellets and transporting them overseas. And solar panels can produce 100 times as much power per acre as biomass.

Read more at https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/03/26/biomass-carbon-climate-politics-477620?ct=t(RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN)

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Priorities for Sonoma County’s vegetation management funds

Ted Lamm, Ethan Elkind, and Katie Segal, BERKELEY LAW

How would you spend $25 million to reduce wildfire risks? Sonoma County asked CLEE for guidance to answer this precise question. In 2017, the Sonoma Complex Fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres in the county, destroyed over 5,000 structures, and took two dozen lives. After reaching a legal settlement with Pacific Gas & Electric (whose equipment sparked the fires), Sonoma County allocated $25 million of the settlement funds to vegetation management–thinning and treatment of forests and vegetation–in order to reduce future fire risk and protect ecosystems and agriculture.

The County retained CLEE to gather expert input and prepare recommendations for how to allocate these funds most efficiently and effectively. Considering the long-term and recurring nature of vegetation management, the diversity of County landscapes and ecosystems, and the scale of the need relative to the amount of funds, a range of strategies will be required to leverage the funds into long-term investments and ensure sustainable practices. CLEE convened a group of statewide experts and a group of County stakeholders to identify spending priorities.

Our report outlines these priorities and offers specific strategies for the funds to achieve them, including:

      • Governance and coordination capacity to centralize county efforts, streamline permitting, gather data, and lead outreach initiatives, such as a new multi-agency working group with long-term dedicated staff.
      • Outreach and education capacity to spearhead communication with landowners, businesses, and residents on actions private individuals can take to reduce fire risk, including dollars specifically allocated for bilingual and equity-focused outreach.
      • Immediate vegetation management projects to increase resilience in high-risk zones in advance of the 2021 and 2022 fire seasons, with priority for shovel-ready projects, local organizations with track records of success, multi-benefit work, and other criteria.
      • Data, mapping, and planning efforts that expand on the County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan and other key data-collection initiatives to inform smart decision-making throughout the county.
      • Long-term financial sustainability instruments to generate recurring funds for vegetation management, such as a countywide financing district, new parcel or sales tax, or resilience bond.
      • Workforce development initiatives, like local college training programs to support high-quality local jobs and grow expertise and capacity in Sonoma.

      Read the report and full list of priorities here.

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The coming tide: North Bay cities grapple with sea level rise

Cole Hersey, THE NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

The air was still in early January when my father and I took his kayak onto the waters of San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood. Thin layers of oil floated on the water. Occasionally a plastic bottle or tennis ball bobbed by.

The sky was overcast, a drab blue-gray that nearly matched the color of the three-story apartment complex protruding out into the waters. Though it was cloudy, it was unseasonably warm and humid. It didn’t feel like a normal January day in San Rafael.

As we paddled between ducks, watching people walk around Pickleweed Park along the edge of the water, I imagined what this place might look like in 30 years. It was easy to see how a small rise in the sea could impact this community. All it would take is one big storm.

In the 1870s, tidelands in Marin County were auctioned off to developers. Over the course of more than a century, many of those plots were filled in to create space for new city infrastructure and other developments.

This scenario was not uncommon in the Bay Area. According to Baykeeper, a nonprofit focused on protecting the San Francisco Bay from pollution, 90 percent of all Bay Area wetlands have been “lost or seriously degraded” after being dyked and used for developments. However, due to rising oceans, the dykeing of wetlands now seriously threatens many wild and urban spaces across the region.

San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood is one such place; a small, yet populous, neighborhood located east of downtown where most households are low-income, and 85 percent of residents are Latinx. Built as a navigable waterway in the early 1900s, it is now mostly used for kayakers and other recreational boaters.

It is here where conservationists, community advocates and civil servants are working together to find solutions to the growing issue of sea level rise. And while this is a global issue, there is “little to no federal guidance” for addressing climate issues, the Brookings Institute recently noted. This lack of centralized guidance has left cities and states to lead the way when it comes to adapting to climate change.

Read more at https://bohemian.com/the-coming-tide-north-bay-cities-grapple-with-sea-level-rise/

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Healdsburg debuts biggest floating solar farm in nation

Andrew Graham, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Over the last four months, two ponds at Healdsburg’s wastewater treatment plant were transformed by workers assembling rows of solar panels and pushing them out one by one to float gently on the water’s surface.

The project covered roughly half the combined 15 acres of ponds with 11,600 panels. It is likely the largest floating solar farm in the United States, the builders said, and will provide 8% of the city’s annual electrical needs.

The farm puts Healdsburg’s municipal power utility, itself a unique electricity model in the county, at the cutting edge of solar energy development. Floating solar farms are quickly gaining popularity in the U.S., backers say, particularly in places like Sonoma County where the price of land is dear.

“You couldn’t go out and buy a bunch of vineyard land for a solar project and make it economical,” Healdsburg utilities director Terry Crowley said. Floating solar farms are cost effective as the price of solar panels continues to drop, and are easy to build, Crowley said. Workers began assembling this one in mid-October and mostly finished by mid-January.

“It’s just new to California,” he said.

Windsor two years ago deployed a smaller floating solar installation to power its wastewater treatment plant. The new Healdsburg project is set to provide enough power to cover the annual supply of roughly 1,120 households.

The two-sided panels capture the sun’s energy as it strikes them from above, and also from below when sunlight reflects off the water. Metal cables anchor the floating farm to the ponds’ banks, while floating walkways give technicians and wastewater treatment plant workers the ability to check the panels.

Read more at: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/healdsburg-debuts-biggest-floating-solar-farm-in-nation-if-not-for-long/

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This California city banned the construction of any new gas stations

Kristin Toussaint, FAST COMPANY

Petaluma has decided it has enough gas stations to last until we transition to electric vehicles.

In the California city of Petaluma, which covers less than 15 square miles, there are currently 16 gas stations. But there will never be another one, even if one of the existing stations goes out of business. The ones that are left also can’t ever expand the number of fuel pumps, either, though they can add electric charging stations and hydrocarbon pumps. City officials recently approved a permanent ban on new gas stations in a move that climate activists say is national first, and a crucial step towards curbing our reliance on fossil fuels.

“It’s a really important sign of things to come where, because we haven’t seen sufficient action at a state or federal level, cities have an opportunity to do the right thing and make sure we are planning a transition from a carbon economy to a clean energy economy,” says Matt Krogh, an oil and gas campaign manager with the environmental nonprofit Stand.earth. “There’s no need to build new fossil fuel infrastructure of any sort. We have all the tools we need for a clean energy economy, and these wasted investments are things that are going to become polluting liabilities, and communities get left holding the bag.”

Across the country the number of gas stations has been steadily declining, as big businesses like Costo, Sam’s Club, and Safeway have been adding gas stations to their existing stores. This can run smaller gas stations out of business—but also creates large environmental repercussions. “If they go out of business, there’s no one to pay for the cleanup or to offer new services like transitioning to electric charging or hydrogen,” Krogh says.

Gas stations have underground storage tanks which can crack and leak, polluting the soil and groundwater. That land has to be completely remediated before the ocation can be used for anything else, a process which often costs millions of dollars. In the U.S., there are currently 450,000 “brownfield” sites—previously developed land that currently isn’t in use and may be contaminated—and the EPA estimates half of those sites are contaminated by petroleum from underground tanks at abandoned gas stations.
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