Russian River, Meet Pacific Ocean

There is nothing more humbling to me than a massive body of water. Some of my favorite moments have been staring out into the ocean, or perhaps a huge river. The Mediterranean Sea when I was in Turkey. The Amazon River in Peru. The Pacific Ocean in my new home state of California. Well, on one of our recent outings, Jake and I drove up to have dinner along the coast, and we ended up at the Russian River Delta, where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean near Jenner, CA.

And looking at the delta where the river meets the ocean…

Near the shoreline, the ocean has some beautiful rock formations jutting out from the water.

What a beautiful place, and we live here! If only we could figure out a way to have this view out our back deck….now that would really be something.

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I don’t know much about fracking, but I know what it looks like!

We hear so much about hydro fracking, commonly known as “fracking”.  It is the process of fracturing layers of rock using pressurized water to release natural gas and petroleum products from deep in the ground.  It requires an available supply of water and it seems to be significantly adding to our available reserves of natural gas.  BP (yes, that BP) describes fracking this way. [1]

Even though I don’t know anything about the science of fracking, I have seen it up close and personal.  First come the trucks.  They are all shapes and sizes.  They are almost universally big, loud, and heavy.  They damage the roads and churn dust over farmland and trees.  This truck is used to drill the wells, but other trucks deliver pipe and all the other equipment involved in the drilling process.

Water is piped in from the nearest substantial lake or river.  In a drought like this, the tremendous rate at which this water is consumed impacts the availability and cleanliness of water available for humans, livestock and crops. Environmental concerns include water contamination, oil and gas spills, disposal of waste water and other waste products. J. Daniel Arthur [2] estimates the average well consumes 3 to 5 million gallons of water over its lifetime.  It may be too soon to truly assess the potential environmental impact on our air, the water and the land.

Huge storage tanks are placed on the land, surrounded by chain-link fences. They are an eyesore at best.  Perhaps because silos are so common in agricultural areas, this seems to be the least problematic aspect of these fields.

The sounds associated with the drilling process are muted by the baffles that surround the operations.  These baffles are eventually removed. In the meantime, they create a visual barrier to the activities going on inside.

The machinery used in the fracking process is totally beyond my beginning science background.  This equipment reminded me of a grownup science project.  Presumably  it is removed when the well is depleted.  

Hidden from view after they are installed, these large pipes carry natural gas to market.  Buried in the earth, they will be out of sight, but they won’t be out of mind.  Nothing can be built over the land where they are buried.

Whatever the economic benefit to the landowners, the impact of fracturing shale for the purposes of extracting natural gas and other petroleum products, makes us long for the days when energy came from simpler devices.

[1] explxplow.com; bp.com

[2] An overview of modern shale gas development in the United States, 2008.

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As always, the opinions expressed in this blog do not represent the opinions of our friends, our families or our employers.

Relaxing by the Eel River

A few weekends ago, Jake and I drove up to spend the night pseudo-camping at our friends’ house up in Garberville. It’s up in Humboldt County, about 3 hrs north of Petaluma. Janice and Jerry invited us up for a quick getaway, and little did I know I would be staying right on the Eel River!

For the last several months, I’ve been doing research with my friend David at Friends of the Eel River. One of the major concerns with the Eel River water supply is that much of the water is diverted to the Russian River via PG&E’s Pottery Valley Project. While I’m still learning the ins and outs of the water world in California, it is very exciting for me when I get to see the subject of my research.

According to Janice, the river level was much higher in previous summers. This summer, there is a lot more visible gravel along the river bank than in previous years.

It was a wonderful getaway, though probably too short. We look forward to going back again soon.

To rain or not to rain, that is the question

It is dry, oh so dry.  The impact of this drought is the subject of a future post.  But the question of the moment is whether there will be rain today.  The weather forecast gives us hope that there will be relief from the 105 degree temperatures for at least a few days.  We are also given the promise of rain, precious rain.

Late yesterday afternoon I felt a single drop of rain.  On my drive home I saw a splash or two.  By 8 p.m. I was excited to see a real cloud.  The gray of a rain cloud was fighting against the fluffy white cloud which normally would have seemed lovely and delicate.  Now the dark of the rain cloud holds  our attention.

There were a few more drops and nothing more.  What does today hold?  Precious rain or dry heat?  That is the question.

Edward Glaeser’s “Triumph of the City”

Meg has a J.D. in Urban, Land Use and Environmental Law. She focuses on political organizing, environmental policy, and sustainable living.

During the second half of law school, I decided to venture outside of our building and take a few classes in the Public Administration program. I met some wonderful people, great professors, and was able to explore new ideas and approaches to looking at public issues. In one of my classes with Adjunct Professor Jim Scott, I read a book called Triumph of the City, where I explored the structure of a city and what it provides for society. At the same time, I was doing some research about micro-lending with one of my manager’s at MARC, so the idea of investing in human capital really jumped out at me.

Here is an excerpt from my 2011 paper on community development ideas (which overall focused on what tools could be used in Kansas City). This section of the paper revolves around Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, and what ideas I derived from reading the book. Enjoy!

I. The Structure of a City and its Indication for Society – A Look at Triumph of the City

In his book Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser argues that the city is the optimal structure for human interaction because it promotes human relations, innovation, and the necessary investment in human capital to make society thrive. He argues that cities are healthier and more environmentally friendly than living in suburban or rural communities. Even for cities that have suffered economic hardship, Glaeser holds strong to the idea that the people of a struggling city have a better chance of success than those living outside of cities, because cities foster creative thinking, communication, and investment in human capital. Ultimately, human capital is an essential factor for maintaining a successful community.

Glaeser’s primary argument in this book is that the most important investment you can make for a city is in education and innovation, which ties in with his idea that investment in human capital allows the people within the community to be more productive, make more money, and even be happier than those living elsewhere.[1] Using New York as an example of the archetypal city, he shows how the cluster of human capital helped the city remain successful through several different turnovers of the primary industry. From transportation and shipping in the 1800s, to the garment industry in the 1900s, and then the breakthrough of financial entrepreneurs in the 1970s, New York has remained a successful city through constant innovative thinking and implementation of new ideas. We also see the same example of metropolitan success through the education and ideas in Bangalore, the technology of Silicon Valley, the thinkers of Athens, and the collection of scholars in Baghdad.[2]

Cities foster face-to-face interaction, which helps create an efficient means of relaying ideas and other communications by allowing people to explain things to each other in person, rather than over countless e-interactions that inevitably result in misunderstanding and miscommunication. With multiplicity of cultures mixed together within the bounds of a city, this face-to-face communication is also important to respecting each other’s customs and traditions.

One city that did not succeed the way most cities do is Detroit, but Glaeser urges that Detroit’s decline resulted from a single-industry focus and the lack of investment in human capital.[3] With a struggling auto industry, the city was doomed to decline because its leaders failed to attract new minds and innovative ideas the way New York had done in the 1970s. As a city filled with less-skilled workers focused within a single industry, Detroit had no one to pick up the slack of the declining auto industry which consumed the city. There was a detrimental lack of re-education in the community, which meant the city ultimately lacked the resources to entice new industries.

There are several reliable predictors of urban growth that Glaeser emphasizes, including education and the presence of a poor population. Education is important because the productivity of a city is dependent on the level of edUcation of the population living within the city.[4] Glaeser also points to a city’s poor population as an indicator of the city’s success. Great cities attract poor people, and therefore have a more prevalent poor population than those cities which lack public services and amenities that poor people want and need, and are unable to obtain in rural slums.[5]

One distraction I find in his text is Glaeser’s insistence that the level of education and presence of a poor population are two important indicators of a city’s success, yet he also seems to think they provide the greatest obstacles. He describes the U.S. education system as providing too little learning to too many children. He also describes the overwhelming cost of maintaining public services for cities when the poor populations are largely unable to contribute to such cost. For both of the reasons described above, the wealthier populations move out into the suburbs, where private or charter schools employ better teachers, and money put toward public infrastructure benefits those supporting the cost. It seems to me, the very indicators that Glaeser lists as the most reliable predictors of a city’s success are also the very conditions that then push the money outside of the city, which only furthers a city’s decline.[6]

A city is not necessarily the best structure for everyone at every time. While high-density living is a good structure for encouraging new ideas and innovation, there is also something to be said for the importance of fostering stronger, almost family-like relationships within a smaller community. Strong urban neighborhoods can sometimes create their own familial relationships, but that assumes the members of those communities reach out to each other in person. Some of the same problems people face with the ability of modern technology – mostly, the ability to go through an entire day without actually having to deal with anyone face to face – are the same struggles that people face in the big city. People can be anonymous, they can avoid confrontation, and they can be ignored simply because of the sheer mass of people surrounding them. In a large city, a person can become just a number, whereas in smaller communities, everyone has a name.

Overall, Glaeser’s focus on investment in human capital and strengthening urban cities is very important for halting urban decline, however, there are other factors to consider when determining what the best structure is for society. The city certainly promotes productivity, provides a centralized location for innovation and communication, and has many environmental benefits. Additionally, there are a number of reasons why a city may not be ideal, including a decreased sense of safety, rising costs to support declining public infrastructure, and the potential lack of the sense of community.[7]

However, regardless of the structure, the need for education and entrepreneurship is essential for the continued growth and productivity of any local community. Whether in a city or a rural village, investment in human capital will help society as a whole become better education, more productive, and help individuals receiving the benefit of those investments feel more responsible and accountable to their local community.

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[1] Glaeser, Edward, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011,  6-7

[2] Glaeser, 18-22

[3] 53

[4] 253

[5] 70-71

[6] 258; He acknowledges that cities cannot and should not have to bear the burden or cost of urban poverty alone. Urban poverty and rising costs of maintaining urban public infrastructure certainly contributes to urban flight, but those remaining in the urban core should not then have to pick up the slack just because others decided they did not want to pay for or deal with urban challenges anymore. To me, this is why we need economic development tools to encourage activity and investment in the urban parts of the city. As Glaeser later mentions on p. 268 of his book, those who want to live in the suburbs should be able to do so, but not without understanding the true costs of expanding into the suburbs, and helping to pay for those costs.

[7] While I do believe an urban city is an important structure to maintain in our society, my biggest concern with the way cities work today is that they are also the biggest contributors to the suburban movement. I think suburbs as a structure are generally very taxing on society as a whole. They are great places for families to have a safe place for their children, but cause excessive strain by families living in huge houses, driving huge cars, and generally undervaluing the limited resources available. For cities to truly shine, I think suburbs need to be better controlled, and that is a problem I do not know how to solve.

They’re here, they’re there, they’re everywhere–Canadian Geese

Have you noticed that Canadian geese are everywhere?  No?  They are if you live in the Midwest.  They are in our parks, our ponds, our golf courses, our lakes and rivers.  Ten years ago Kansas City had Canadian geese flying overhead with the change of the seasons.  Slowly we noticed that a few stayed through the winter.  Now they raise their young within a few feet of city traffic. Their waste is on our streets, our sidewalks and in the grass. Plaza traffic literally comes to a halt whenever a mom and her babies cross the street.

With the number of geese so nearby, I thought it would be fun (and easy) to photograph them for the blog.  I took photographs in Loose Park and near Kauffman Garden.  Most of the shots were just boring.  Then I found a beautiful spot on Brush Creek that catches the morning sun at a great angle.  Having seen geese swimming in the area I decided to take my camera to get photographs of the geese just at the beginning of day.

It isn’t that easy. Five mornings I have made the trip, looking for birds that are in the water right at the right place and time to create opportunities to photograph them when the colors of the water are most vibrant.

The geese sleep on open land, maybe 20 or 30 feet from the water.  Depending on factors known only to geese, they begin to move toward the creek between 8:15 and 9:00 a.m.  Most move toward the water in groups, a few move individually.

After arriving at the water’s edge they begin to primp and preen.  Finally, they enter the water, almost en mass, and only slowly spread out as they begin to swim upstream, downstream and under the bridge.

For a few wonderful moments the sun’s rays cause patterns of light to reflect back from the water, causing the beauty of the ducks to combine with the richness of the colors of sun, the rock and shade. When I am lucky I can find a goose in the water at the right time and place to catch them at their photographic best.

All too soon the suns rays are too strong to catch the colors, the ducks have moved too far on the water to easily shoot, and the water itself seems to turn a muddy green.  It is time to leave the geese for another day.

Water, Water Everywhere, in San Francisco Bay….But a precious resource, indeed

It’s a beautiful part of the world. San Francisco Bay has become our new home this last year, and we’ve loved exploring the area. Last week we took the Larkspur Ferry into the city, and seeing the water and beautiful views reminded me of why I care so much about the health of the environment and protection of our natural resources.

Many of our dinner conversations lately have circled around one of the most precious natural resources: water. With all the water that surrounds us here…the bay, the ocean, the rivers…it is easy to forget how important it is to conserve water. In California, our water bill is by far our highest priced utility. It costs so much because there are so many people in California who draw from a rather limited water supply. It makes me wonder, do people really pay attention to their water usage? When taking a shower, does someone turn on the water and wait 5 minutes for it to get to just the right temperature? What about landscaping. When designing the layout for the front yard, does someone in California choose local plants and landscaping that doesn’t require an excessive amount of water, or lush grass that requires water every other day? These have all been on my mind lately.

I imagine this will be an ongoing discussion for me, so I encourage you to include your thoughts. I am also interested to know how people feel about water usage in different parts of the U.S., or even the world.

I encourage you to take note of the amount of water you use in a day, and see where in your routine you might be able to save a gallon or ten. If everyone made an effort to conserve water, and only use what they needed, surely we could better protect such a precious resource.