Wednesday, March 13, 2019

California at the water’s edge

For Californians, being at the water’s edge is akin to standing at the edge of a cliff.  One needs to back away slowly, making sure you are holding your child’s hand and avoid standing where the cliff is crumbling away. 
About twice a year I write a rant that has to do with water use and land management. 
Once when it burns. 
The other time when it floods. 
So, while Oakland teachers were on strike, Trump officials were before the committee or a sentencing judge and suspect aircraft were on the ground, Guerneville and the surrounding area was once again underwater. 
This is nothing new there or in many places around California. Floods hit regularly in places as urban as San Anselmo and as wild as the South Fork of the Eel River where residents love to place signs way up on polls to show the 1964 high water mark. 
The floods and fires are both natural.
The severity of both is a product of bad land management. 
And bad water management.
Forestry experts, environmental biologists and experts in related fields have been telling us for over two generations that we should learn from the practices of the older, native cultures here and preserve creek beds and set small managerial fires at specific times. 
Keeping brush and forest coverage around the water ways, big and small, is the key to having a healthy watershed.  This keeps top soil from washing away, provides natural fire breaks, allows more water to seep back down to the aquifer and softens the blow from heavy rains. 
A healthy stream is clear water and we all know it.  A healthy watershed gives us healthy streams that flow long after the rain stops. 
Watersheds composed mostly of fields, pastures and parking lots are the exact opposite of that.  The fires burn right past where cows have been allowed to graze to the muddy edge of the ruined creek beds and across our structures and the rain runs off them as if it were a tin roof.  Not only was the water high on the Russian River, it was brown with washed away soil. 
And it is no laughing matter.  Homes and lives were lost in Guerneville, Paradise, Santa Rosa, Ventura and places I don’t know, all in recent times.  I keep having a reason to write the same things. 
There is no way that we can go back to the system of land management that the Yurok and Ohlone peoples had because there are too many of us and too much has changed.  But we can go back to the wisdom behind those ways of life and blend it with what we know as a society that practices industrial engineering and claims to follow the evidence before our own eyes.  Once called science. 
We need to start a sophisticated reforesting effort and we need to start yesterday.
And when we think of reforesting, we need to see beyond trees and think about the whole web of life that thrives in our environment.  Reforesting is a community of plants and animals that survive the burns and absorb the rains.  When we reforest, we need to think of exactly where we reforest and how that relates to fire and flood. 
We also need to make our planning contemplate the extremes.  There never was a California normal, just an average between wide swings.  Nature was already full of big highs and lows out here down wind of the NiƱo and jet stream effects.  We will always see times of drought and high water and need to make that the measure of our “normal”.  With climate change, we know that we need to expect those swings to become wider and the results more unpredictable than they are already. 
We need to carefully back away from the water’s edge and get out of the way of fire.
And we need to back away from the environmental cliff edge that we built for ourselves with over a century of playing God with water channels and fighting fires we should have let burn.  Those high-water marks on the Eel river reached that high because of aggressive and indiscriminate lumbar cutting. There are parts of California where the fires burned so hot that little survived because we fought fires and did not replant a full spectrum of fire ecology trees and scrub and did not do controlled burns. 
There are places in our state that look like the surface of the moon they were scorched so bad.  The Eel river never recovered from its messed-up watershed and in most places a person can walk across it, most of the time. 
In other words, leaving it alone and letting nature come back is not a realistic option unless you want to allow enough time for us humans to die out. 
We need to be part of a healing process for our environment. 
No part of an aggressive reforestation program will keep us from having fires because we live in a set of natural fire ecology biomes. No part of reforestation will provide more water, at best it would provide fire breaks and clean up the water ways while moderating the flows. 
If we are going to fully bring back our rivers to the point that we can have the salmon run again, some of the water we divert from one river to another needs to be left where it was. 
But there is another source of water that we mostly ignore.
We are flushing it down the toilet. 
Yep, our sewage is a resource we can reclaim.  How?  Two parts, first is to stop the use of cleaners and chemicals that turn it into poison, and second, it to pump it back uphill and treat it there with natural methods.  Most people do not know this, but California has pioneered the use of artificial wetlands and sewage treatment.  Arcata has a working model. 
Obviously to make such ideas real, we need to spend a lot of public money and think of environmental restoration and stability as an infrastructure project, as essential to a modern society as freeways. 
And we need to act fast.  The situation is already a series of disasters.  Real improvement over a short decade or two requires an aggressive plan.  To put all the parts together, I offer this proposal: 

The California Integrated Land and Water Management Plan.
This plan would be a combination of pubic works and state land management codes.
Reforest the watersheds.
·        Set aside a zone of at least five times the waterway width at the ten-year high-water mark to be reforestation reserve, independent of ownership.  Ownership need not change.  Inside that zone, we need to conserve the natural tree and brush, or replant it if the land has been cleared. 
·        The reforestation of the watershed would apply to all identifiable stream beds, even the seasonal ones, up to the top of the watershed.  The set aside land would never be smaller than 10 meters either side of the waterway. 
·        If the adjacent land is in agricultural or pastoral use, a supplemental margin of land equal to the natural set aside, will be zoned for orchards, lumbar or other soil stabilizing agriculture. 
·        If the adjacent land outside of the land zoned for orchards is for grazing, there must be a solid fenced barrier to keep livestock out. 
·        Land that is suffering exposed soil erosion needs to be fenced off and have a soil stabilizing cover planted, commercial or nature reserve, or both. 
·        In lands that were private and are becoming natural reserve, develop a system of recreational use for the owners to use for themselves or to let out as tourism properties.  Homes already built inside such areas would have public support to upgrade and modify to have less or no negative impact on the watershed or reforestation.
·        New buildings inside private watershed reserve areas would have to be built to an environmentally friendly code.  The state would help build environmentally friendly access, bike paths, raised walk ways etc. to make these areas accessible for recreational use. 
Forest and Agricultural Land Management.
·        The state would have a schedule of small, local, controlled burns in areas that are ready. 
·        State law would prohibit wide pastures or fields of dried grass or other monoculture fire hazards.  There would be an obligation to cut and mulch. 
·        Areas that are not prepared for controlled burns need to be restored.  This could take the form or removing, or mulching on site, the dead trees from disease and drought and undoing the biodiversity damage that a century of fire fighting and monoculture tree planting has caused. 
·        The restoration of forestry lands will prioritize biological diversity and stability, fire and watershed management and the retention of bio-mass. 
·        Tree farming practices will be introduced and land dedicated to planting lumber farms where it can be the most sustainable and productive.  We will intentionally have farms dedicated to growing lumber in a way that does not allow for a major fire. 
Develop a sustainable water use cycle
·        Limit water extraction to what allows for healthy rivers and fish stocks and do not take water out of the aquifer faster than it can be returned. 
·        Set aside absorption areas to replenish the watersheds and aquifers. 
·        Regulate the chemicals that go into the residential and agricultural waters.
·        Physically separate “grey” water from sewage and agricultural run-off.
·        Pump all residential waste water, including drains, to reclaim facilities strategically located uphill in the various watersheds of the state.  Process grey water and sewage separately.
·        Start a multi-step reclamation process using this waste water to grow fiber for paper, lumbar (the tree farms) and other agricultural products that are no part of the food chain. 
·        In a second step, runoff from the first sewage treatment would then go into the environment in reserve forests or controlled wetlands in a way that it would be naturally cleaned before joining back to the watershed or aquifer. 
·        Treat agricultural run off with artificial wetlands and reserve land allowing the treated water to go back to the watershed and aquifers. 
Fire Management
·        State code would regulate fire resilient building codes that local law could not override. 
These codes would include:
o   Ceramic roofing
o   Nonflammable siding
o   Fire break landscaping around residential areas
·        Environmental buffer zones between urban and rural areas
·        A retrofit program to bring existing structures to a higher fire resilient status.
·        A system of emergency water sprinklers around all housing in fire danger areas
·        A full-time fire force that works on land management between dry seasons and manages the controlled burns during dry seasons. 
·        A strict enforcement of the fire control measures indicated in the state land management plan. 

Over the years I have made this proposal in different forms.  Sometimes with more details and sometimes with less.  I am sure that people who actually work in the related fields would do a much better job than I am doing.  Some of what I am proposing is probably wrong.  Something else important is probably left out. 
I write this because I want to provoke the discussion. 
We need such a law and we need such a plan.  If not this one, then a better one. 
And I dedicate this version of my bi-annual rant to my good friend who lost his home, his daughters home and a lifetime of their possessions in Paradise.  They were grateful to get out with their lives and we all are respectful of those who did not. 
And I think of my friend in Ventura watching the landscaping burn around the oil wells near her home or my friend who tells me that his old Guerneville neighborhood was an island for a few days and the whole thing just feels personal.
Another friend tells me that the only reason he had a hospital to work at after the Santa Rosa fire, was because heroic staff went to the roof to stamp out the blowing cinders and keep them from lighting the roof on fire.  Yep, a hospital with a flammable roof in a state that is mostly fire zone.
And a couple times every year I visit the South Fork of the Eel river, long after anyone remembers that I once lived there, and I see those high-water marks way up over my head in the middle of a small town.  And I walk the rocky ruins of the depleted river, and feel that we all must do something. 
It is already late. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

We fight, we win! Win what?

Now that the seven-day Oakland teachers’ strike is over my son has gone back to his high school and the local parent-teacher’s association list serve it telling us what we can do with the wooden sticks that had been used for picket signs. 
The union leadership has been on the air and on line claiming a victory. 
The district management tells a story where everything is back to normal, nothing to see here. 
And on line, there is grumbling.  Only about 60% ratified the contract in a vote that had lower turn out and a lower margin than the strike vote. 
Why the grumbling? 
Let’s start with the money.  What the teachers were asking for was not that much to being with.  They wanted 12% over the next 3 years, and about 4% back over the year and a half that they had worked without a contract.  Given the local cost of living inflation, driven by ever higher rents, the union proposal was just barely above breaking even, maybe. 
What they got was a 3% ratification raise and 11% over 4 years.
Not bad for collective bargaining, not great for paying rent if you teach. 
But that is only some of the dissatisfaction.  There were more issues on the table of importance to the teachers and the public in general. 
They were:
·        the loss of funding and real estate to a charter movement running roughshod over our public schools,
·        distrust in the district's financial reporting,
·        school closures and
·        the high cost of upper school management. 
The group of school officials who stood in front of the press to give us their version of the settlement probably cost the public over a million a year, and back in their offices are many more like them. 
So, let’s step back and take a look at the bigger picture. 
This settlement is a big win GIVEN THE CIRCUMSTANCES. 
Circumstance number one is that the majority of the school board members are friends of Great Oakland Public Schools (called GO and GO Advocates for the PAC).  Despite the name, they are really advocates of a school choice and charter version of our school district making our education system Balkanized at best.  In practice, many privileged people in Oakland send their kids to either a preferred school or a charter and some of our schools are being allowed to fail based on some sociopathic Social Darwinism ideas and practices.  And of course, working class students, especially working class students of color, are getting the short end of the charter movement stick. 
This fact, Circumstance One, casts a shadow and influences every other aspect of our local problems. 
Closing schools?  That publicly owned real-estate suddenly becomes available.  The charters and the developers are first in line for the ugly land grab, and in the Bay Area, anything to do with real estate development, acquisition or use has become very ugly.
High priced staff?  An amazing percentage of our high price staff and superintendents of recent years comes from that same GO charter movement.  Every voter in Oakland should know the name of Eli Broad and know about his academy where he trains administrators to “reform” school districts according to this privet business model.  All kinds of people kicking around GO and the OUSD have this kind of “training”.  If we just fired them, we could have our libraries staffed. 
And one could go on and on about GO and its deceptive antics in our local schools, and I often do talk about these corporate raiders, but let’s step back and look at a bigger issue still.
All across our nation, schools are not getting the resources that they need.  Not the K-12, not the trade schools, not the Junior Colleges and not the state university systems. 
Because rich people have decided to stop paying taxes.
In California we have our property tax “reform” called Prop 13, which is something of a scam, and the state Democrats do not have the backbone to either straighten it out, or simply stop taxing real estate just for value and find some other, more equitable way to raise money.  In any case, they have not raised taxes where money is being made and they have not provided an alternative way to fund schools, libraries, parks, health centers, the arts, youth activities or much of anything that serves the greater public. 
The long and short of it is lower taxes on the rich translates to austerity in public services. 
Some people think that this is too big a problem to fix.  Somehow, we should do some more minor, practical thing first, and…. well I have good reasons not to be a Democrat.  Let’s just note that currently the Dems hold both houses of the state legislature and the governorship and have appointed most of our state court justices, yet somehow, they are not able to submit some kind of comprehensive tax and equalization system to the voters? 
The Republicans had no such self-limiting hesitations when they pushed their anti-social shift of taxes from the rich to the middle and lower classes.  They still talk BS about Prop 13 as if it saved us somehow and the Trump tax cut as if it was the engine of our economy. 
So, thinking about how we live in a time when public spending is always leaving our basic needs begging and the politics does not really support the “public” in public schools, what the Oakland Education Association got as a settlement is not bad indeed. 
They got more money than was offered.
The got some movement on class size and made it a bargaining item. 
And they got the school board to hold off on school closure decisions and commit to hold a vote on a charter moratorium.  (a vote of the board, not the people of Oakland) District staff tried to say that those items were not subject to collective bargaining, but they were and the union got a small step. 
State wide, this strike and the one in Los Angeles just before it has made a shift in the public discourse.  The state Dems might want to pass the buck on school spending back to the property tax deprived counties and cities, but the public wants state action and some has come forward.  It is not enough money and some of the motives have nothing to do with teachers’ strikes, but there is motion after a long period of neglect and throwing up their hands at the dreaded Prop 13. 
And locally something great happened. The public came out in support of their teachers. 
Here in Oakland we had solid student and parent presence on picket lines and among the general public there is a consensus that they need higher pay, much higher than 11% over 4 years. 
And after many years of not getting the attention from the public and press that it deserved, this walking scandal of a trojan horse school board is getting some scrutiny. 
On the fist day after the strike, the school board met to vote even more questionable budget cuts and try to qualify for a dubious state assistance under law 1840.  Hundreds of parents were there to complain, as were hundreds of students who skipped their freshly re-opened schools to be at the meeting and demand to be heard. 
The board did not listen, but the greater involvement of the public can only be a step towards a better group of decision makers getting elected next year. Then maybe we get the long overdue independent forensic audit we need BEFOR deciding what needs to be cut or closed. 
I would call all of those things a partial win, all things considered.
The state Dems have already come up with a deflective half measure that they are calling a “start”.  If we had a dollar for every one of their first steps never followed by a second step, we could fully fund the schools.  This time it is some kind of lame law to make the charters “more transparent”
What we really need is real district control over district charters. What we have now is private or nonprofit schools operating with public money on public real estate.

A real public-school charter:
·        can be denied
·        is subject to oversight
·        accepts registered public-school students assigned to it.
·        participates in district programs.
·        has public dispute resolution.
·        Hires union member staff.

There is lots of room for experimentation and different types of school. That is what a real charter could be. What we have is not that. What we have is people opting out and taking public resources with them. A lot of them are not professionals. They run these "charters" like startups, and akin to a small business, many fail. Then the students come back to the normal schools who have the obligation to take all students who register.

These fake charters need to either come back and become public schools, or just go off and be private schools that pay their own way as other private school already do.
And all the schools need more funding, probably about double what they get now.
And to do that, the rich need to go back to paying taxes.