Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Audubon Society's Owens Lake and Los Angeles Flood Control Basins Important Bird Areas

A recent LA Times article reported on a reborn Owens Lake and its almost overnight impact on birds.

The 100-square-mile lake near Sequoia National Park was turned into a salt flat after LA DWP diverted its waters into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But since 2001, the utility “has flooded portions of the lake bed to control choking dust pollution.”

The result, Louis Sahagun writes, is “one of environmentalism's unintended successes: tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds roosting on a dust-control project.”

“In fall and spring, [the lake] now attracts about 50,000 birds, including roughly 500 snowy plovers, a shorebird listed as a species of special concern. Breeding on sandbars and in thatches of grass are colonies of yellow-headed blackbirds.”

Owens Lake has turned around so dramatically that Audubon California this year “designated Owens Lake one of the 17 most important bird areas in the state and a globally important wetlands in the making.”

In an earlier LATimes.com Greenspace blog post, Sahagun quotes IBA program director Andrea Jones on the goals of the program:

“Our main goal is to get them into the hands of federal and state wildlife agencies, state parks, land trusts and county planners. We created them to make both the public and agencies officially aware of where the largest numbers of birds are located. This information can help prioritize areas for conservation efforts, and raise awareness when it comes to proposed development projects and other activities."

The sad irony is that much closer to home, an important bird area is already in the hands of public agencies—and they’re putting development well ahead of conservation.

Whittier Narrows Natural Area and Recreation Area form part of the Audubon Society’s Los Angeles Flood Control Basins Important Bird Area. But it’s the Natural Area wildlife sanctuary that agencies and water districts have selected as the location for the San Gabriel River Discovery Center, threatening to tear up wildlife habitat and replace it with a massively increased human footprint.

That so poorly developed and environmentally thoughtless a proposal is even on the table doesn’t come as a surprise when one realizes that, as Sahagun points out, “very little of the sprawling Los Angeles Flood Control Basins area, which remains extremely vulnerable to development for soccer fields and golf courses, is even nominally managed for biodiversity.”

But perhaps we shouldn't lose hope. Perhaps the important bird area program serves best as starting point, a place where concerned citizens can begin conversations with agencies and officials and action toward conserving these important habitats and their wildlife.

Friday, April 17, 2009

LA Times Greenspace blog on Friends campaign to save Natural Area from discovery center project

The Whittier Narrows Natural Area and our efforts to shed light on the threat posed to it by the proposed San Gabriel River Discovery Center were the subject of an April 15 post to the Los Angeles Times’ Greenspace blog.

“Opponents of a proposed $30-million interpretive center at the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary,” wrote journalist Louis Sahagun, “are ramping up their effort to block the project they fear would destroy a rare expanse of critical habitat in eastern Los Angeles County in order to enhance understanding of the San Gabriel River watershed.”

He continues: “The center ‘would destroy critical habitat, rob our diverse communities of open space, and shift focus away from firsthand experiences of nature,’ the [Friends media] backgrounder says. ‘And it would do so using public dollars to take public lands for a project the goals of which could be better served through less destructive and costly means.’”

Sahagun was referring to the media backgrounder we recently produced and distributed and which is available on the "Media room" page of the Friends website.

The Discovery Center Authority also has its say in the blog post. DCA project analyst Valerie Shatynski said the exhibit areas would be designed to help people understand the watershed and its role in the natural world and in daily life.

But that work’s already being accomplished by the Aquarium of the Pacific’s new permanent watershed exhibit, “Our Watersheds: Pathway to the Pacific.”

The DCA needs to answer the question why it wants to spend $30 million to build another major permanent watershed exhibit only 20 miles from the aquarium and which would compete with the aquarium's exhibit and educational programs.

Additionally, after a decade of work, the DCA’s only been able to raise a third of its construction fundraising goal—and all of that coming solely from our taxes and water bills.

And how do they expect to pay the high costs of maintaining, staffing and programming this giant water palace?

More questions than answers coming out of the discovery center right now.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

‘Preserving a building the ultimate act of recycling’

While the cartoon above doesn’t deal with green construction, it raises the question of what constitutes a truly green choice.

A big part of the Discovery Center Authority’s marketing campaign for its 18,230-square-foot science museum (nearly three times the size of Eaton Canyon Nature Center and 15 times bigger than the current Whittier Narrows Nature Center) is that the building will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum-certified.

There’s no debating that LEED construction is sexy. But is it always the greenest choice? Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times recently and said not necessarily.

Writing about the very real environmental concerns that are causing people to consider tearing down older homes and rebuilding using newer energy-efficient technology to reduce carbon emissions, Moe says that “with significant improvements and retrofits, these structures [built in 1939 or before] could perform on a par with newer homes.”

He offers many suggestions for bringing an older home up to par, saying it all begins with an energy audit conducted by a local utility. This should help a homeowner identify where energy is being wasted and help him or her "make informed decisions about how to reduce energy use in the most cost-effective way."

His concluding comments have much to say to the question of whether the current Whittier Narrows Nature Center should be saved or replaced:

“Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that [older] building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction.”

What doesn’t get much mention in the discovery center debate is that the current nature center is a direct link to the past of Whittier Narrows. I’m told the main building was constructed by joining a home and another structure that were spared when all the other homes in the narrows were demolished to turn the area into a flood control basin.

Moe writes, “Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.” I’m certain he would agree that it can be an important act of memory as well.

Cartoon used by the Friends with kind permission of the artist.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hansen Dam museum mess a preview of troubled future for San Gabriel River Discovery Center?

The LA Times, Daily News and La Opinion are all reporting the impending Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidation of the Children's Museum of Los Angeles (pictured above), a project a decade and tens of millions of dollars in the making.

The long road to failure for the Children’s Museum—and the similar path being followed by the Metropolitan Water District's Center for Water Education in Hemet, Calif.—should serve as cautionary tales for the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority.

According to the Daily News, the board of directors of the Hansen Dam-located Children’s Museum “has accepted the recommendation of its attorneys to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy—liquidation—conceding the impossibility of raising enough money to repay loans and operate the museum.”

The museum had been banking on $10 million pledged by businessman Bruce F. Friedman to help reach the $58.5 million needed to open, but last month the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit against Friedman for securities fraud and froze his company’s assets.

The Center for Water Education has avoided such sensational, headline-grabbing blows to its finances, but it’s had its own serious setbacks.

In 2007, MWD cancelled the lease on the $26-million project ($16 million coming from the water bills of MWD customers) and even had to kick in nearly $5 million more simply to cover debt on the museum. Today, the water ed center is closed, there's no mention of it on MWD's education Web page, and its fate is up in the air.

The Children’s Museum has a $22-million gap it needs to bridge if it wants to continue in existence—but the move toward bankruptcy shows that’s probably a bridge too far.

And, by the way, $22 million is just a bit more than the Discovery Center Authority needs to raise simply to get its museum built. Finding money for maintenance, salaries and programming is an entirely different obstacle the DCA will need to overcome.

What’s going to happen to the 57,000-square-foot Children’s Museum? That’s up in the air. City Councilman Richard Alarcon said Los Angeles might end up owning the building—appropriate since it was city tax dollars that largely paid for its construction—and it might become an educational center of some sort.

But that’s not what taxpayers paid for, is it? And with the poor economy and the difficult path these projects follow, Southern California might end up with a trifecta of buildings that are nature-oriented only in so far as they form albatrosses around the necks of taxpayers.

NOTE: Read more about the Children's Museum in tardigrade's June 9, 2008 post "It's always something isn't it?" at the Bug's Eyes blog.

Friday, April 3, 2009

MORE! Erosion Control Blankets at Whittier Narrows Wildlife Sancturay

OH! I forgot..... One other issue with Erosion Control Blankets rolled out and now embedded with weeds and all over the Sanctuary, is that the 'green' that you see is a dye. Dyes of this color are for marking places to indicate that something has been 'laid' down which is either a pesticide or a herbicide.

Questions of the dye itself have been raised. What is its toxicity? People who work at the Nature Center do not know whether it is toxic or not or, won't talk about it... But, what IS seen, by docents and guests, are animals running over the material. Questions about the safety of the animals, because of the Blankets, have been raised but bodies of animals tangled in the plastic netting have not yet been found.

As I have mentioned, the Blankets have been sprayed with a dye - UGLY! - And now, we have proof that animals are ingesting the material.


Dye colored coyote feces. Notice, you cannot 'see' the fecal matter, the brown stuff, that is. Could the bagged feces, be digested? All that you see is the netting encasing the partially digested material. Consider if you swallowed a plastic bag, how well would you be over time? How much nutrition would you receive from the food you eat? And, could this stuff kill you? By plugging the up plumbing?

Why would the agency, which is supposed to know about, and care for the open space, the plants, the animals with our tax money, put this stuff down on the ground in a wildlife sanctuary? Was it really ignorance? Malice?

Think about it...

What's THAT STUFF!!???

This is Grace Allen at the Whittier Narrows. She has worked there for quite a number of years as a docent. The day I took this picture, she said she did not want to take the children out on the walks anymore. Her eyes were filled with tears. The Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department said there were too many weeds (mustard, specifically) and so they were going to eradicate them.

There are ways to eradicate 'weeds' that are successful but, most are not so successful. And, some methods are just plain stupid. This is a story about stupidity.


Invasive weeds are just that... invasive. Once they take hold, it's nearly impossible to remove or extricate from the environment. The first introduction does not mean a non-native CAN establish themselves into a new habitat, because it usually takes several introductions and the right conditions for a 'weed' (plant and animal) to become part of the terrain. Insects, snakes, rats, fish, cats, goats, pigs, cows, dogs, birds can be 'weeds' in sensitive places all over the world, and thanks to humans.

Just last week in Australia, they went after a toad - which they introduced ON PURPOSE (!) to save their sugar industry from ruin in 1935. (Cane Toads, an Unnatural History, by Stephanie Lewis, Dolphin/Doubleday, 1989) The sugar cane, (Saccharum officinarum) really a weed introduced as a 'crop', that can be an important cash crop (like it was for Cuba) was devastated by a beetle.... a beetle that was a native to Australia on the weeping fig trees. But, because of the high sugar content of the sugar cane, S. officinarum was FAR MORE enticing. The native beetles became the pest. And, in 1930 the population of the native beetles peaked and then the farmers went to the government for help; the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations in Brisbane. The farmers tried fumigation and other toxic stuff... Nothing worked!

Well, a famous entomologist of the time, wrote a paper about the special wonderful qualities of the Bufo marinus, or what is now called, the cane toad, to eating lots of beetles. Well, as the story goes, the Australians 'planted' lots and lost and lots of toads BUT found that they did not eat the beetles! like they were told they would!!!... In fact, they found the toads to be ineffectual at eating the beetles..... It was something about beetles flying and toads didn't.... But, the toad ate everything else. And those animals that ate the toads died of the toxins excreted by the toads.... Poor Australia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_toad)... and then there were the rabbits... (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbits_in_Australia)


Well, what the above story deomonstrates is that we - humans .....and even humans with degrees, publications and POSITIONS in agencies like... LOS ANGELES COUNTY, PARKS AND RECREATION can be really really stupid.


Here we have the area around the walk way where Grace and other docents take the little children through the Nature Center. There are weeds... but then, again, weeds happen when you have humans around. But, under Grace's hand, there are very few and the natives are quite happy and fecund.

Here is the area behind Grace (that made her cry) form June 2, 2008, covered with this stuff, called, Erosion Control Blankets.

Further up the trail... on June 2, 2008.

This next image was taken August 11, 2008... notice the little sprouting weeds under the blankets?

On September 15, 2008 behind the parking lot.... evil things started to push up from the soil!!!!

OH!!! NO!!!! (Just like in the movies don't you think?)

Then in October 20, 2008 we realized STINGING NETTLES were pushing up through the netting and the EVIL MUSTARD was coming up around the sides!!!! AHHHHHHH!!!!

By March 14, 2009 ALL OF HADES BROKE OUT!!!!

Now, after lots of little children walking past this really ugly stuff and trying NOT to to touch the nettles (which raise a blistery bumpy rash especially on tender skin of children!!!) (YEAH!! RIGHT!! Go ahead and try to stop them from touching the horrible plant!), 'regular' people started asking,.. "what IS that STUFF? AND WHY WAS the COUNTY PARKS AND RECREATION DOING THIS????

So, to answer EVERYONE"S QUESTIONS ... do you know what they did? I bet you can guess.... They made sign. No, they made several. So typical.

... And they placed them where all the little children and their teachers would walk...

I bet these signs were expensive....
Stupid. FUNNY! But, stupid.

WHEN THE ARMY (Corps of Engineers, that is) COMES TO VISIT

A snowy egret on the bank of the San Gabriel River

On March 14th, Shannon Pankratz, Gerardo Salas, and Phuong Trinh from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Regulatory Division, Los Angeles Office, came to talk about the role that Corps-Regulatory plays in our environment and local communities. Gerardo and Shannon typically work within areas of San Bernardino County, while Phuong works within Los Angeles County.

Rarely, do 'regular' citizens think about who regulates or protects the rivers, streams, ports, ocean beaches to 12 miles out, or wetlands and ephemeral and vernal pools. Only when disaster strikes does the Corps of Engineers become visible in emergency response efforts, in addition to building dams, creating water ways that handle flood surges, and regulating
development impacts. They uphold the federal laws set forth by Congress, but in the end they work for the people of the United States.

So, this past Saturday, Shannon and Gerardo and Phuong talked of what THEY do in Regulatory Division, because the Corps overall has many roles. Then we walked a bit through the Sanctuary and talked of jurisdiction, flooding, and endangered animals. It was a good day, not too overcast but cool enough and warm in the sun. We had representatives of the Audubon Society, and people from the community joined us for the walk.

Thank you!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Food (and water) for thought

How many permanent watershed exhibits does an area need?

The San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority (DCA) envisions a 25-mile service radius for the science museum it’s proposing to build on the Whittier Narrows Natural Area. That means most of the communities from the San Gabriel Mountains southwest to the Pacific Ocean—including all the communities in the vicinity of Whittier Narrows—would be served by two museums with large-scale exhibits focused on the exact same topic.

If you received the most recent issue of the Auto Club’s Westways magazine, you may have seen the brief piece on the Aquarium of the Pacific’s new exhibit and classroom, “Our Watersheds: Pathway to the Pacific.”

Robin Jones reports that in the exhibit, “water cascades from the canopy overhead onto a model of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel watersheds. Plants native to the watersheds fill the garden beds around the exhibit.” Jones continues, saying that “Our Watersheds” offers tips for home water conservation and discusses solutions to the water-supply problem.

The aquarium and the exhibit, which opened in November of last year, are tremendous regional and community resources. And if you extend a 25-mile service radius from the aquarium (as the DCA would for the discovery center), you see that Pico Rivera, South El Monte, Whittier and all the other communities around Whittier Narrows are already within the service range of a large, permanent watershed-focused museum exhibit. (See the accompanying graphic.)

The aquarium’s president and CEO says the primary goal of the exhibit “is to motivate visitors to improve the quality of life for people and the environment by making sustainable choices for the future of our local watersheds.”

The Discovery Center Authority might want to consider the possibility that a redundant and massive science museum that requires the destruction of critical plant and wildlife habitat and robs the community of open space doesn't quite qualify as a sustainable choice.