RISE: Climate Change and Coastal Communities

October 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Delta Farmer Steve Mello

For the past year and a half, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Claire Schoen on a three-part radio documentary called “RISE: Climate Change and Coastal Communities.” In the second hour, we discover what keeps families at the water’s edge, despite warnings of sea level rise. Here’s a summary:

“Farmer Steve Mello and real estate developer T. Jack Foster have two things in common: climate change threatens the land they have made their life’s work and neither takes the threat seriously.

Steve Mello farms an island in the Delta. He inherited the farm from his father and intends to pass it on to his son. The Delta is comprised of sunken islands, protected by levees from the surrounding waters. Mello’s land on Tyler Island lies 20 feet below sea level. Without the levees, his farm will become a lake. But levees fail and need frequent repair. And with sea level rise from the Bay and snowpack melt from the rivers threatening to flood the Delta, this task gets steadily harder. Federal officials question whether maintaining Tyler Island’s levees is a wise use of tax dollars, Mello says he is not leaving come hell or high water.

T. Jack Foster Jr. heads a family dynasty. In the 1960s, he and his father created a planned community by diking, draining and filling San Francisco Bay wetlands. Today 30,000 people live in Foster City, which boasts parks, shopping malls and several corporate headquarters. But the fill used to turn wetlands into real estate brought the land just up to the current sea level. Foster City needs to be redesigned to protect it from flooding as the sea level rises, says architect Yumi Lee. Still, T. Jack Jr. isn’t worried. He says the levees surrounding the city can simply be built higher and higher.”

Find out more and listen to all three parts of the documentary, the accompanying audio tours, and the multimedia web stories at the RISE website.

Hooked on seafood

June 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Images of suffocating, oil-drenched fish continue to pour in from the Gulf Coast, and while it’s easy to be moved to sympathy by the images, there’s a little-spoken irony behind the sentiment: we fully intended to kill these fish anyway.

Humans have a hunger for seafood, and it’s not hard to understand why. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and protein, with a relatively low calorie count, fish have gained the reputation of being something of a superfood: lowering heart disease, improving cholesterol levels and even making people smarter. The delicate flavor of fish is almost just an added bonus. To feed that global appetite, U.S. commercial fisheries caught over 8.5 billion pounds of seafood in 2008. That same year, Americans ate 16 pounds of seafood per capita. Both numbers were declines from the year before.

For Gulf Coast locals, those numbers may not improve anytime soon; Louisiana’s fish industry is facing a potential $2.5 billion loss from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Still, hungry Americans at large probably won’t feel the loss as acutely as those on the Gulf—the US imports 83 percent of its seafood, surpassing Japan. Because less than 0.4 percent of consumed seafood in the US comes from the Gulf, it’s likely that American menus in general won’t require too much editing.

But before you lift that fork, allow the following question to marinate for a second. Shouldn’t we lament the deaths of sea creatures that we’ve killed intentionally as well?

This doesn’t go to say that BP should be excused from being held responsible for the damage caused to ocean life. Rather, we should use this opportunity to think about our own responsibilities to the sea.

The fact is, we are really good at killing fish, accidental oil spill or not. We’ve gotten so good, in fact, that we’re eating fish faster than they are reproducing. The Monterey Bay Aquarium puts the number at 2.5 times the sustainable level. Three quarters of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or have completely crashed. Larger, tastier fish such as tuna disappear first since they’re slow to grow and reproduce. But if we significantly migrate our appetites to smaller fish, it would only send waves of shock through a delicate food chain.

You might point to the greed of fishermen to justify such huge captures, but many fishermen will tell you that there’s no one who wants fish populations to survive more than they. After all, a sustainable population means a sustainable income.

So, take the time and discover what kind of seafood is not only safe and affordable to eat, but sustainable. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a great start. Unless we change the way we eat seafood, all the world’s fish may end up in oil—cooking or crude.

Following the fate of the Christmas tree

January 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Volunteers anchor unsold Christmas trees to chains at the edge of Quarry Lake in Fremont. Photo by Erica Mu.


It’s been exactly one month since Christmas, and most of us have gotten over the holiday spirit. Just blocks from the station here in San Francisco, Christmas trees are sitting on the side of the road, ready to be carted away by someone—anyone—who will notice. KALW’s Erica Mu followed the fate of these Christmas trees, and it led her to some very interesting places.

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ERICA MU: If you’re like me, the sight of inflatable Santas and fake, twinkling icicles anytime after December 25th may cause you to roll down the car window and yell out, “Christmas is over!” Mind you, I’m no Grinch; I just think holiday sentimentality has its place and its expiration date is approximately 11:59 p.m. on December 25th. And while my neighbors can continue to flaunt their cheerful, plastic, and apparently permanent anchored reindeer, there is one thing they really have to get rid of: their Christmas tree.  Throughout January, when they’ve finally had enough, people dump their evergreens on the side of the road, so I have to look at them all month long. Well, I decided to do something different this year, and follow these ghosts of Christmas past as they travel from the lot to the lake and landfill.

PETE ALEXANDER: And you’re gonna be taking the rope, and you’ve gotta get the tree secured to the chain.

That’s Pete Alexander, manager of the East Bay Regional Park Fisheries Program. He’s teaching a group of 75 volunteers how to tie a Christmas tree to a heavy chain. It’s a strange sight, and some of the younger volunteers aren’t sure how to explain it.

MU: What are you guys doing here today?

CALE MILAMACKE: Uh, throwing trees into the lake.

JATEL DASAI: We’re going to plant them on the side of the ocean.

EMILY WILLIAMS: Making habitat for fish. I don’t know. Oh wait! Putting the leftover Christmas trees and putting them on chains.

That’s Cale Milamacke of Castro Valley, Jatel Dasai of San Jose, and Emily Williams of Fremont. They’re here at the muddy edge of Quarry Lake in Fremont just as dawn is breaking. And you know what? All of them are kind of right.

ALEXANDER: If you go underwater when the trees are underwater, you’ll see algae growing on them.

Again, that’s program manager Pete Alexander.

ALEXANDER: The limbs of a Christmas tree are fairly small but they grow sometimes an inch of algae on the side of them so it really moves a lot of nutrients up through the system, up into the fish themselves. The algae’s there, the insects are there to feed on the algae, and then the fish come in to feed on the insects. Instead of a flat, 2-dimensional bottom you have a 3-dimensional bottom.

Right now, Alexander’s got 800-1000 unsold Christmas trees and 250 acres of lake to put them in.  And he’s set up a process to make it happen. Milamacke, Dasai, and Williams are fluffing up the Christmas trees, laying them down and tying them to chains spreading like rays from the edge of the lake.

STACEY THOMAS DELANG: You never stop to think about what happens to a Christmas tree when the Christmas tree is done, it just goes away.

That’s Stacey Thomas DeLang, who came here with her teenage son, Carter.

DELANG: Now every time the kids come out here to Quarry Lake, they’ll think, I put Christmas trees in there, I helped to rehabilitate it.

Over the next eight years, the trees will eventually become submerged.  Instead of a forest nesting birds and squirrels, the trees will look more like an underwater reef harboring large and small mouth bass.

But that’s just a thousand Christmas trees…After the holidays, the Bay Area’s got maybe a million to get rid of. That’s where this comes in:


You’re hearing the Diamond 1436B, the two-week old, 1200 horsepower, industry-grade grinder at the Newby Island Compost Facility in Milpitas. If you live on the Peninsula and put your Christmas tree in the compost bin…well, now you know what happened to it.

MARK BUNTJER: We’ve got a sample of 20 Christmas trees out there…that won’t even make it hiccup.

That’s general manager Mark Buntjer. He and I are standing next to the massive grinder and a massive pile of…organic waste. It doesn’t smell bad…in fact, it smells a little pine-y.  because once these Christmas trees meet the Diamond 1436B, the chopped up remains are added to 7-foot high rows of decomposing yard waste for the next 51 days. The result? Perfect fodder for garden beds, golf courses, and erosion control.


Standing here in front of the grinder, a song pops into my head. Maybe it’s not so bad to extend the holidays. Christmas trees do have a life after Christmas, and it’s not standing limply in my neighbor’s living room window.  They’re making the Bay Area a better place. Now if only I could get that plastic reindeer to the Diamond 1463B…

For Crosscurrents, I’m Erica Mu.

Bay Area aid workers contribute to Haiti relief effort

January 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Early this morning, a powerful 6.1 magnitude aftershock struck Haiti, just over a week after last Tuesday’s earthquake devastated the already poverty-stricken country.  Rescue crews continue searching for survivors among the rubble, but the world’s attention has turned from saving lives to aiding those who survived.

The European Union and the United States have pledged a combined $675 million dollars in aid, and people all over the world are using Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones to contribute financial support. The Northern California Coast Guard deployed late last week, and here in the Bay Area, medical groups such as Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente, are sending a total of $2.4 million dollars in supplies and personnel.

Individuals and local groups are also mobilizing to do what they can to help.  KALW’s Erica Mu joins husband and wife aid workers Paul and Michelle Lacourciere of Sirona Cares as they prepare to leave for Haiti.

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