USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

March 19, 2013

It’s Not Always Sunny in LA

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Los Angeles.  The land of sandy beaches, beautiful people, and most importantly beautiful weather. A city whose only worry is whether or not winter will be too warm, or too cool (a chilling 60 degrees)–or so most people think.  The Los Angeles that is remembered is one of a picture perfect city, whose environmental policy is at the forefront of the nation.  Yet, what many disregard is the role that politics played at the turn of the century, which forged a much different Los Angeles than what we imagine today.

1981 postcard of Angelinos on the beach.

1981 postcard of Angelinos on the beach.

As a growing major metropolis, the city’s demographic and economic growth boomed at the beginning of the 20th century, which played key factors in the degradation of the beautiful environment. Yet, the powerful politicians driving this LA political machine set aside environmental pollution controls to further their personal gain and loyalty toward corporation and utility companies (Sabin, 96). As a result, the state of the city’s environment took a back seat and became increasingly degraded by continued demographic expansion and industrialization. Because of this, air pollution from smokestacks created by industrial entities and health hazards from limited municipal garbage collection began to negatively affect many of the Los Angelinos.  Unlike decision makers, who tended to be middle class Angelinos with high stakes in meeting the needs of businesses, those most affected were blue collar workers and lower middle class citizens.  These citizens had high stakes in the values of their homes which were being polluted and lowered in value by the high level of pollution (Sabin, 103). Yet, even when the well-being of its people were at risk, “adverse decisions by governing agencies on how to proceed with regulation [of these pollutants] occurred in a business-oriented, technocratic, non-democratic fashion redirected at delegitimizing or even crushing counter-proposal and opposing agendas” (Keil, 308). The political power of Los Angeles emerging into a diverse metropolitan city thus took precedence time and time again over the health of its people and its environment.  This further extended into the largest economic boost of Los Angeles’ history: oil production.


Oil derricks in Huntington Beach circa 1937

Oil derricks in Huntington Beach circa 1937

The political machine that existed in Los Angeles played a significant  role in the development of the oil and gas industry in the city. In the early 1900s pollution was particularly bad due to the conversion of coal and petroleum into a gas. This process created pollution in the form of tar and soot, and the ever-increasing pollution severely angered homeowners in the region. At the time, the LA Gas and Electric Company had an extremely close relationship with the local government. In fact, many “ward representatives often depended on the company to provide the money, patronage, and campaign workers to retain their power” (Sabin 83). And, in return, the government helped LA Gas and Electric gain a monopoly by shutting out competitors, and did nothing to address the complaints of the local residents about the intense pollution due to the company’s work. Thus, the government was in the pocket of the gas company, and paid little to no attention to the needs of the residents and homeowners.

In 1936 Standard Oil supported a ballot proposal that would allow it to access oil underwater by drilling diagonally from land. The oil giant gained to support of the parks department and the government by convincing them that the drilling royalties could easily be used to improve state parks. Voters in LA County were strongly opposed to the proposition, but there was little they could do against the powerful lobbyists of Standard Oil, and the proposition easily passed (Elkind 87). In 1931 Standard Oil lobbied Governor Rolph to veto a bill that would transfer tidelands to the city of Huntington Beach (Sabin 104). Drilling in Huntington Beach was contributing to overproduction, which was lowering the price of oil overall. Thus, they wanted to reduce oil output in order to increase prices. Once again, Standard Oil used its economic might to lobby and convince the government to act in its favor, regardless of what was in the best interest of the environment and local residents.

As the health and environment of Los Angeles continued to fail, businesses eventually echoed their concerns for the sake of the city as a whole, primarily from deteriorating property values in the real estate trade.  Simultaneously, the structure of politics within the city shifted as machine politicians were replaced by progressive reformers who were less controlled by the influence of big corporations and oil companies. As the residents of Los Angeles fought to protect their homes and the value of their environment, the political machine of Los Angeles shifted towards an agenda that demanded the protection of their coastal waters and their air from industrial pollution.

 By Sophie Cottle & Victoria Chu

Works Cited

Elkind, Sarah S. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” Journal of

            American History 99.1 (2012): 82-90. Print.

Keil, Roger and Gene Desfor.  “Making local environmental policy in Los Angeles.” Elsevier

(1993):Vol. 13, No. 5 pp 303-313. Print

Sabin, Paul. LAnd of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles (2005):


The Troubled Relationship Between LA and Mono Lake

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Los Angeles is naturally a very dry county. You wouldn’t really know this about LA, because it has tons of lakes, rivers, and lush landscapes, right?  However, it all really goes back to the late 1800s, when city officials realized that Los Angeles would not be able to supply water to its constituents at the rate of its growing population.  Los Angeles had been rapidly using up its water resources and city officials were desperate to find more.

Fred Eaton, the city mayor, and William Mulholland, the head of the predecessor to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), were two major players in what became a water scandal.  They looked to the north-eastern part of California, namely at the Owens River and its surrounding tributaries, and strategically bought land to assume the water rights of the region (Elliot-Fisk 1995). Marc Reisner, in his book Cadillac Desert, described their political moves as “chicanery, subterfuge … and a strategy of lies.” They diverted the Owens River water and consequently created the Los Angeles Aqueduct. However, all this water still wasn’t enough.  So, by 1941, city officials decided to divert water from the Owen’s River that would be supplying Mono Lake.

Mono Lake, located in Mono County, California, is at least 760,000 years old.  It is a terminal lake, which means that it has no outlet of water to the ocean.  In fact, in some parts of the lake, it is more than twice as salty as the ocean. Regardless, it has an extremely productive ecosystem of brine shrimp, algae, and alkali flies.  It also houses a nesting habitat of a huge migratory bird population of 2 million every year. So when the Angelinos diverted four out of the five tributaries that supplied the lake, the rate of evaporation from the lake exceeded the influx of water.  In 41 years, Mono lake lost over half of its water and its salt concentration doubled. The lake lost 45 feet of water depth!  This is why the tufa towers are visible on the lake to this day. The brine shrimp and alkali fly populations diminished as a result of the increased salinit and they were important food sources for the migratory birds that passed through Mono Lake (Elliot-Fisk 1995). Additionally, many of the wetland and woodland areas around the lake were threatened by the decreases in runoff.

Because of the various environmental problems that slowly began to degrade Mono Lake, several citizens of Mono County formed the Mono Lake Committee (MLC) in 1978 to ensure its protection from future degradation. A year later, the committee, along with the National Audubon Society (NAS), took LADWP to court on a Public Trust Suit, stating that water diversion of the lake’s tributaries were a violation of the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient legal doctrine established since the time of Roman law that protects navigable bodies of water for the public’s benefit and use. This suit opened the way to a series of legal battles with MLC against LADWP for not only violating the Public Trust Doctrine, but several other California environmental regulations, including violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and California Fish and Game Codes. The suits brought up to the California Supreme Court required that LADWP release certain amounts of water flow to the tributaries that fed into Mono Lake and amended some of its Water Licenses. The series of suits eventually led the State Water Resources Control Board to make a landmark decision in 1994, D.1631, to amend LADWP’s water licenses to the Mono Lake tributaries because of its violations of the California Fish and Game Codes and to protect the lake’s public trust values. This decision limited how much water LADWP could divert from the lake and would hold it accountable for the restoration of the lake’s ecosystem.

Since the Water Board’s decision in 1994, Mono Lake is showing some signs of improvement that seems to resonate outside the area. For instance, LADWP and the MLC are working together for the continued restoration of the lake; the partnership between the two committees, however, still needs to develop more. In Los Angeles, the cause for less water diversion has caused for people in the city to use less water and to conserve it more. Since the Water Board’s decision in 1994, the lake’s level has slowly risen to about 10 feet higher than what it was before 1994. Although the future may seem bright, the current threat of climate change may influence how much water enters the lake in a few years. A recent study on projected changes in climate may affect the hydrology of the Owens Valley and Mono Basin watersheds which could affect how much runoff from precipitation in the Sierra Nevadas could enter the watersheds and ultimately affect how much water may be available to people in California, especially in Los Angeles, in the future. While the study shows the uncertainty on whether climate change in Mono Lake’s region will produce more or less rain and snow precipitation, what is clear is that the amount of water will certainly change and is causing people, especially state legislators, to consider the future regarding water management. Needless to say, the near future for Mono Lake is headed into the right direction, but its long-term future may change if climate change has anything to say about it.

Before Los Angeles began water withdrawals Source:

Before Los Angeles began water withdrawals

After Los Angeles began water diversions Source:

After Los Angeles began water diversions

A photo from 2008 Source:

A photo from 2008

By Sergio Avelar & Daria Sarraf
Works Cited

Costa-Cabral, M. (2012). snowpack and runoff response to climate change in the owens valley and mono lake watersheds. Climatic Change, 116(1), 97-109. doi: 10.1007/s10584-012-0529-y

Elliott-Fisk D. 1995. Sidebar: Mono Lake compromise: A model for conflict resolution. Calif Agr 49(6):15-16. DOI: 10.3733/ca.v049n06p15

Marine Protected Areas

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According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, a Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are “discrete geographic marine or estuarine areas designed to protect or conserve marine life and habitat.” Like the definition implies, these areas are protected by special laws limiting certain types of human activity. In California, this is done through the use of three distinct types of MPAs that restrict different kinds of human activity: State Marine Reserves, State Marine Parks, and State Marine Conservation Areas.

State Marine Reserves are the least limiting of the three designations, and are generally open to the public for recreational and commercial purposes, though efforts are taken to preserve the Reserve in an “undisturbed and unpolluted state” (“Definitions”). According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Marine Reserves are usually established for a few reasons: to protect rare or threatened native plants and animals; to protect or restore marine species, habitats, and ecosystems; to protect or restore important sources of gene pool diversity such as large populations of a species; and to provide areas for marine scientific research.

The next type of area, the State Marine Park, also attempts to maintain a natural marine ecosystem, though this type of area also places limits on human activity for “commercial exploitation purposes” (“Definitions”). While these areas may be established for any of the same reasons as a State Marine Reserve, State Marine Parks may also be established for “spiritual, scientific, educational, and recreational opportunities,” as well as to protect certain geological features that are considered important (“Definitions”). These areas are marine parks in the same way that some forests are terrestrial parks; they are intended for human recreation rather than commercial exploitation.

The final type of Marine Protected Area in California is the State Marine Conservation Area. This type of area is the most restrictive of the three types: “it is unlawful to injure, damage, take or possess any specified living, geological or cultural marine resources for certain commercial, recreational, or a combination of commercial and recreational purposes” (“Definitions”). These areas are also known colloquially as “no take areas.” While these areas can be established for any of the same reasons as a State Marine Reserve, they are usually established to protect particularly important living or geological resources.

Unfortunately it is often difficult to enforce strict adherence to the established rules for a few reasons. Sometimes recreational boaters are not even aware that an MPA exists in the area, or, if they do know an MPA exists, they may be unaware of the rules governing the type of MPA established. Furthermore, even if the boater is aware that an MPA exists and knows what types of regulations are in effect, effective enforcement mechanisms such as the coast guard or police boats may be out of reach. From our experience talking with the residents of our USC Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island we learned the “no take” area at Big Fisherman Cove gets frequent intruders in the form of recreational fisherman. Although residents attempt to warn or chase off the fishermen the island’s single police boat is often too far away to provide effective enforcement.

To date outside of  evaluating the problems associated with the  enforcement of existing MPA boundaries the primary focus of study has been on understanding the ecological impact of designating an area as a marine reserve. While the intent behind MPAs has traditionally been the conservation of a species or particular type of habitat, scientists are increasingly considering incorporating social science perspectives into both the design and implementation of marine reserves. For example, ecosystem managers are working to include stakeholders in the process of designing and placing MPAs in order to better assess the consequences of MPAs on both fishing yields and profits. By taking into account socioeconomic factors and the impact of MPAs on the local community scientists are hoping to better “account for and balance the multitude of  human uses and more effectively address the cumulative impacts affecting the overall health of an ecosystem”(Gaines et al).

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation recently (December 2012) published two new guides in the hopes of aiding intergovernmental cooperation in establishing Marine Protected Areas: “Scientific Guidelines for Designing Resilient Marine Protected Area Networks in a Changing Climate” and a “Guide for Planners and Managers to Design Resilient Marine Protected Area Networks in a Changing Climate.” The CEC recognizes that marine resources do not obey national boundaries, including this map, appropriately without borders, in its recent publication.

North American MPAs CEC

The aforementioned publications differ in their target audiences: the former is geared towards scientists collecting data for MPAs while the latter is focused more on informing public leaders of how to organize the creation of MPAs. The “Guide for Planners and Managers” suggests four main guidelines should be observed when creating MPAs, mandating the protection of “Species and Habitats with Crucial Ecosystem Roles or Those of Special Conservation Concern,”  with effort to protect the “Full Range of Biodiversity Present in the Target Biogeographic Area,” as well as protecting “Potential Carbon Sinks” and the  “Ecological Linkages and Connectivity Pathways” necessary for species to migrate from differing habitats.

One of the ways ecosystem managers have sought to reconcile conservation goals with social and economic interests is through the establishment of marine reserve networks. Marine reserve networks not only allow for habitat connectivity, but also allow for ecosystem managers to increase the benefits of a series of smaller reserves “without excluding human uses over large areas”(Gaines et al.). While the establishment of marine reserve networks has only occurred recently, the benefits of marine reserve networks established by both scientific and socioeconomic information has already been documented in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary by Hamilton et al. In this paper Hamilton et al. documents that marine reserve network has resulted in an increase in both density and biomass of the target fish species.

Another, albeit larger, example of a marine reserve network is the California State Marine Reserve established from the Marine Life Protection Act. The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) was a law passed by the state of California in 1999 with the expressed intent of improving both the design and management of marine protected areas in California State waters through the use of the best available science. Some of the major goals of the MLPA initiative included protecting the natural diversity and abundance of marine life, improving recreational, educational, and study opportunities, protect marine natural heritage, and ensure MPAs have clearly defined objectives. Overall the project spanned  the 1,100 miles of the California coast and focused on five regions: the North Coast, North Central Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, and San Francisco Bay.

This extensive undertaking that began in 2007  and was  completed in 2012 includes  124 MPAs and 15 complete closure areas. In the Southern California region the  MPAs  created by the MLPA project account for 354 square miles ( ~15% of total area) and include biodiversity hotspots such as the kelp beds off of La Jolla, Lover’s Cove on Catalina Island, and Naples Reef. Of the 50 marine reserves in the south coast region 37 were implemented as a result of the passage of the MLPA.


CA MPAsBy Scott Lindeman & Katie Robinson


Works Cited

CEC. 2012. Guide for Planners and Managers to Design Resilient Marine Protected Area Networks in a Changing Climate. Montreal, Canada. Commission for Environmental Cooperation. 42 pp.

“Definitions and Acronymns.” California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 21 Jan. 2010. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.

Gaines, Steven D., Lester, Sarah E., Grorud-Colvert, Kirsten, Costello, Christopher, and Pollnac, Richard. “Evolving Science of marine reserves: New developments and emerging research frontiers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America  107.43 (2010).18251-18255.

Hamilton, Scott L., Caselle, Jennifer E., Malone, Dan P. and Carr, Mark H. “Incorporating biogeography into evaluations of the Channel Islands marine reserve network.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107 (2010). 18272-18277.

Regions & MPAs. California Marine Protected Areas Educational Resources.Web. Feb. 21 2013.


Oil Development in Southern California

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In the early 1890s, the city of Los Angeles was just beginning to recover from an economic depression. The city was looking for something to boost its economy after this downturn, and the answer seemed to lie within a resource that had been discovered and used on a smaller scale for generations: oil. Exploiting this oil, some argued, would boost both the economy as well as industries by providing inexpensive energy. Edward Doheny and other American businessmen quickly took advantage of this new opportunity.  By the end of the 1890s, there were over five hundred oil wells in a relatively small area of downtown.

While the oil industry seemed to provide the economic boost the city had been looking for, it also had numerous drawbacks. The sudden boom in this industry led to the building of countless oil derricks, which had a significant impact on the city. These large and noisy structures took over whole neighborhoods, and aside from the impact of the structures themselves, the oil pumping leaked oil and natural gas; some Los Angeles residents felt that the oil industry was destroying the city. The building of oil derricks continued, and as this was still relatively new and primitive technology, it was unregulated. Oil would often leak and pour out onto streets, into gutters, and through residential areas. These issues caused a call for regulation, but as the oil industry was so new and profitable, officials were initially hesitant to take any action. Regulations gained support in the early 1900s, but official measures were largely unsuccessful, and the oil industry continued to thrive.

By the 1920s, the state of California began to look to the Pacific Coast as a rich new source of oil. This area offered significantly large oil fields, which were estimated to be more than 5 billion barrels. Accordingly, increased pressure grew to exploit these reserves, but this was a complex issue; recreation, tourism, and beachfront homeowners would be significantly impacted if California proceeded with coastal oil development. As a result, a battle ensued between the government who wanted to drill in coastal areas, and coastal cities who wanted to preserve their beaches. Numerous protests and lawsuits ensued until the California court ruled in favor of the government’s right to prospect all non-public coastal land. Coastal drilling proceeded, but the battle was far from over. Throughout the 1920s and beyond, there was continued controversy about whether or not southern California’s coastal oil should be exploited, particularly in Santa Barbara.

Oil derricks on Huntington Beach. Photo credit: Orange County Archives

Oil derricks on Huntington Beach.
Photo credit: Orange County Archives

After a catastrophic oil spill from Platform A off of the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, leasing of offshore tracts was stopped due to the high visibility of the incident and the strong public opinion against offshore drilling. Because of the ban on leasing in state and federal waters, and the fact that California is not thought of as a highly productive oil region, many people do not realize the extent of California’s oil production today.

Platform A in Santa Barbara. Photo credit: LA Times

Platform A in Santa Barbara. Photo credit: LA Times

In spite of the aforementioned drilling bans, drilling continues on pre-existing sites that had already attained leases. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, reports that, as of 2009, there are twenty-three oil and gas platforms off of the California coast that have produced a cumulative 1.24 billion barrels of oil.

Even more surprising are the figures for onshore oil fields in California. According to a 2004 study done by the California Department of Conservation, there are 208 active oil fields producing nearly 270 million barrels in 2004 alone, or a cumulative 27 billion barrels. And this production is not likely to stop any time soon, with fifty-one of California’s oil fields estimated to have a total of 100 million barrels of cumulative discoverable oil, the largest of which, Midway-Sunset, still has just shy of 11 thousand producing wells.

When thinking about the likelihood of Los Angelinos allowing another situation like the early twentieth century to occur in order to capitalize on a large cache of oil, the answer seems clear. Current day Californians pride ourselves on being some of the most environmentally conscious and forward thinking in the nation. We look back on the days when oil fields intruded along our sandy shores and tell ourselves confidently that we would never let this happen.

However, there is a subtler and possibly more troubling trend that threatens our environment now. Hydraulic fracturing may not be happening on beaches up and down the coast, but it is happening in California. The Inglewood Oil Field has undergone a reported twenty-three hydraulic fracturing operations since 2003, according to its owner. Many sources, including the academy award-winning documentary Gasland, chronicle disconcerting connections between ‘fracking’ and human health. With all the uncertainty that surrounds hydraulic fracturing and its side effects on the water table and the concerning lack of regulation, it seems that Californians should know what they are getting into before future generations look back with disbelief as we do now on Southern California in the early 1900’s.

This post was written by Lindsey Estes, a senior pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies with a minor in Political Science, and Kyle Ferree, a senior pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies.

Works Referenced:

Sarah S. Elkind

“Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles”

Daniel Johnson & Paul Sabin

Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles

2004 Oil and Gas Statistics







The Natural History of Catalina Island

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Santa Catalina Island, commonly referred to as Catalina Island, is located some 20 miles off the coast of Southern California. The Island’s close proximity to the mainland and large size results in an interesting geology and wide biodiversity.

The Geology of Santa Catalina Island varies by region.  Catalina schist is a combination of crystalline metamorphic rocks: blueschist, greenschist, and garnet amphibolite.
In the southeast region of the island, a young pluton of quartz hornblende diorite porphyry, dated to about 19 million years ago, protruded through the approximately 200 million year old Catalina schist.
Volcanically formed rocks, mainly located in the high center of the island, are the third most abundant form of rocks found on Catalina Island.
Sedimentary rocks such as sandstone are also found on Catalina island, in a wide range of elevations.  Relatively young alluvial deposits exist at lower elevations, while other sedimentary rocks exist atop high peaks.  Uplifting, resulting in high elevation sedimentary rocks, is evidenced by the stair like formations visible along parts of the island’s geography.
Useful minerals such as gold, silver, lead, zinc, and steatite (soapstone) exist on Catalina.  Interestingly,  Native Americans used the soapstone to produce goods such as bowls and pipes.



Terrestrial vegetation
Catalina has a wide variety of plant species due in part to its close proximity (20 miles) to North America.  When species arrived at Catalina they evolved without predators, and with many ecosystem niches to fill.   In total, there are 606 species of wild plants on Catalina; 421 species are indigenous to the island, while 185 are invasive.  The island has six endemic plant species, and certain natural species, like Malva Rosa, only exist on offshore rocks .  ”Natural History of the Islands of California” separates Catalina’s plant communities into six groups.
Coastal sage scrub
Coastal sage scrub thrives in ecosystems that have frequent fog, and the temperature remains above freezing.  Therefore coastal sage scrub is the dominant community on Catalina.  Catalina coastal sage scrub includes plants from the sunflower, snapdragon, broom-rape, mallow, and nightshade families.
Coastal bluff scrub
As the name suggests, the coastal bluff scrub is a plant community along the coastal cliffs of Catalina.  Plant species specific to coastal bluff communities are the Sea Dahlia (Coreopsis gigantea), Nevin’s Eriophyllum (Eriophyllum nevinii), Catalina Crossosoma (Crossosoma californicum), and the Santa Catalina Island Live-forever (Dudleya hassei).  Interestingly, the Dudleya hassei is endemic to Santa Catalina Island.
Island chaparral
The island chaparral community is generally found at a higher elevation than the coastal sage shrub community, and on the northeast slopes of the island. Many species of the island chaparral community, such as island scrub oak, rely fires as a natural part of their life cycle.
Island woodlands
Island woodlands tend to exist in areas such as canyon floors and north facing slopes that collect extra moisture.  Catalina woodland species, such as the Catalina Ironwood and Catalina Cherry, are not in fact trees, but gigantic shrubs.
riparian woodland
Riparian lands, or areas of land near sources of continuous water, have enough moisture to support tree species.  Catalina’s tree species include Black Cottonwood, Blue Elderberry, and Red Willow.
Coastal grassland
Under the gigantic shrubs exist a myriad of invasive grass species, and to a lesser extent, native grasses.  Invasive grasses and weeds migrated to Catalina Island via domestic live stock brought to the island by settlers.

Native Animals

In addition to vegetation, Catalina Island is home to a variety of animal species including over 50 endemic species – species found only on the island and nowhere else. The endemic animals on the island include five mammals, three birds, and various invertebrates. One of the island’s more famous mammals is the Catalina Island Fox. Although it is the largest endemic mammal on the island, the fox exhibits dwarfism – a decrease in size seen in larger species as a result of limited resources. In the early 2000s, the Island Fox population greatly declined due to disease, and the species was listed as endangered. However, thanks to breeding and vaccination efforts by the Catalina Island Conservancy, fox numbers have increased in recent years. Recovery efforts of the fox population continue on the island today. Another endemic mammal is the Catalina Beechey Ground Squirrel. Unlike the Catalina Island Fox, the ground squirrel exhibits gigantism – another type of allopatric speciation that results from few predators and abundant resources. Other native species include the Island Deer mouse, Scarap beetle, and Catalina California Quail.

Nonnative Animals

Catalina is also home to numerous nonnative species, largely as a result of the island’s population and high visitation rates. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ranchers brought goats and sheep were to the island. Their introduction had devastating impacts on the island’s ecosystems as they overgrazed the grasses. These animals have since been removed.

The largest mammal species currently living on Catalina Island is the bison which was introduced in 1924 when a film crew shooting a movie on the island brought over 14 bison and failed to remove them after finishing filming. Since their introduction, the bison population has grown greatly in numbers, reaching over 600 bison at one time. Today, the Catalina Island Conservancy maintains a bison population of 150-200 animals and controls growth by shipping animals off the island when necessary and by administering birth control shots to the females. Although they remain the largest mammals on the island, Catalina’s bison exhibit dwarfism, similar to the Island Fox, and are smaller than their mainland relatives.

Other introduced animals include feral cats which were once domestic cats released by their owners on the island. In recent years, raccoons have also been accidentally introduced by humans traveling to the island via boats.

These nonnative species threaten the island’s native species and place additional pressure on the island’s resources. The Island’s Conservancy’s efforts focus greatly on managing the impact of these species on the island.


By Katie Peters & Casey Frost

Works Cited

“Animal Species.” Catalina Island Conservancy. N.p., 2009. Web. 19 Feb. 2013.
Cockerell, T.D.A. Natural History of Santa Catalina Island. The Scientific Monthly, Vol.

48, No.4, pp 308-318.

Schoenherr, Allan A., C. Robert. Feldmeth, and Michael J. Emerson. Natural History of

the Islands of California. Berkeley: University of California, 1999. Print. Photograph

R. Randall Schumann, Scott A. Minor, Daniel R. Muhs, Lindsey T. Groves, John P.

McGeehin, Tectonic influences on the preservation of marine terraces: Old and new evidence from Santa Catalina Island, California, Geomorphology, Volume 179, 15 December 2012, Pages 208-224, ISSN 0169-555X, 10.1016/j.geomorph.2012.08.012.



The Central Valley Water Project: A Plan Gone Wrong

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The Forty-niners who moved to the Great Central Valley during the California gold rush of the 1850s would not recognize the landscape of the Central Valley today. What was once covered in yellow grasslands in the summer and sprawling marshes in the winter and spring was quickly converted to the “largest semicontinuous expanse of irrigated farmland in the world” (Reisner, 1993, p. 335) by the mid-1920s. Today the Central Valley is responsible for 62 percent of California’s $37.5 billion annual agricultural production and more than 20 percent of U.S. food production (Stene, Introduction). Clearly the Central Valley is vital to our food security and our national economy but the development of this region has come with local environmental and economic costs.


Irrigated Farmland in California’s Central Valley (Photo courtesy of Underwood)

Irrigated Farmland in California’s Central Valley (Photo courtesy of Underwood)


The Central Valley became a hub for irrigation farming with the invention of the centrifugal pump after World War I. Suddenly there was an explosion of water pumping and by the mid-1920s California was the richest agricultural state. With hundreds of gallons of water per minute being pumped from the ground, it was only a matter of time before the water table dropped significantly. That time came at the end of the Great Drought of the 1930s.

In an attempt to save farmers from the catastrophic repercussions that would ensue if they continued pumping at the current levels and to protect them from the devastating floods, the California state legislature authorized the Central Valley Project (CVP) in 1933. California approved a $170 million plan to begin the CVP. However, the CVP still required further funds so California turned to the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works (FEA), which approved a $12 million grant for the project, and then to the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1937, whose committee authorized an additional $12 million for the project (Stene, Introduction). Fully funded and now headed by the Bureau of Reclamation, the CVP began its hard path of securing and managing water distribution through the construction of dams, reservoirs, and canals around the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus Rivers. The goal of this program was to alleviate the environmental issue of groundwater depletion and to financially help the small farmers in the area. The plan ultimately backfired and the CVP has only exacerbated and created environmental and economic problems in the Central Valley.

Under the Reclamation Act farmers receiving subsidized water were only allowed to own or lease a maximum of 160 acres of land and they were required to live on the land. Instead of creating new farms, the CVP saved thousands of farms that had gone out of production because they had run out of water. Though originally intended to be a way to ensure that the greatest number of people could benefit from the irrigable land, this acreage limitation was viewed as the government’s attempt to convert private lands into federal plots and the acreage limitation was eventually changed and never strictly enforced (Odell, 1992, p. 3). Today, a few large companies including Chevron USA, Tejon Ranch, and Shell own the majority of the farmland in the Central Valley. These companies hire farmers to work on the land and as a result small farmers, for which the project was originally intended to benefit, are the primary beneficiaries of the CVP.

The cheap price of the water has affected the repayment plan of the CVP. Since the water is sold at such low prices, the “payments for water and power have not been sufficient even to cover the operation and maintenance costs of the project” (Reisner, 1993, p. 482).


Source: Environmental Working Group, Virtual Flood: CVP Water Is Heavily Subsidized, 2005

Source: Environmental Working Group, Virtual Flood: CVP Water Is Heavily Subsidized, 2005


This is a graph showing that only 11% of the CVP’s farmers cost, a total of $1 billion, had been paid back in 2002. The nation’s richest farmers who are residing in the Central Valley are essentially making their money off of taxpayer subsidization rather than the selling of food commodities.

The cheap prices of water encouraged agricultural expansion creating even more pressure on the water table. Even though the CVP was delivering more surface water throughout the San Joaquin Valley, the pressure on the aquifer still remained. Half of the agricultural water being pumped was coming from groundwater sources and farmers were still pumping water from their personal wells. This unsustainable water usage is still in effect because the low prices make any efforts at conserving water expensive so it is financially beneficial for farmers to pump all the water they can. According to the Environmental Working Group (2005), “while the average acre of U.S. farmland gets 2.48 acre-feet of water each year, the average acre in California gets 36 percent more, or 3.37 acre-feet”.

The inefficient use of water has led to water shortages for wildlife and urban customers and salinity and toxicity problems. With such a large demand for water by the farmers, there is less water for those in urban areas and for the wildlife populations reliant on the rivers. As the rivers are drying up and unnatural facilities and diversions are being constructed, the ecosystems are being altered. Fish population have been severely affected and out of the 29 native fish species, two are extinct, three are endangered or threatened, three are considered “species of special concern”, five are rare, and nine are declining. The delta smelt, an endangered indicator species, was being sucked up by the pumps delivering water from the San Joaquin River to the Central Valley and as a result they were dying so the pumping stopped. Today, less than 10 percent of the original wetlands remain and 20 percent of the wintering waterfowl in the US are dependent on them (Congressional Budget Office, 1993, p.333).

Since water is so cheap the naturally desert type of land that makes up the Central Valley is able to still be farmed though it is not suited for it. As a result, there are drainage and toxicity problems. The poisoning of waterfowl at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge due to farms discharging selenium that was ending up in the Kesterson Reservoir is an example of this. The heavy irrigation and lack of proper drainage has also increased the amount of salt in the soil and today the issue of the high salinity is the most under recognized problem in California.

The Central Valley has been transformed into a regional garden of fruits and vegetables and is referred to as “America’s Breadbasket” because of its vital agricultural role. The area should never have been farmed to the extent that it is today but it was and today the US is dependent on it. The only way to ensure that it continues to be profitable is to alter the farming techniques so that we do not further degrade the soils, alter the ecosystems, and deplete our water sources. Farmers may not be able to afford to conserve the water due to the cheap prices they purchase it at, however, they must begin to think in the long term. Continuing to use water unsustainably will be detrimental for them, for the local wildlife populations in the Central Valley, for the urban users, and for the country as a whole.

 By: Iñaki Pedroarena-Leal and Kelsey Valentine


Congressional Budget Office. (1997, August). Water Use Conflicts in the West: Implications of

Reforming the Bureau of Reclamation’s Water Supply Policies. Retrieved March 14, 2013 from

Environmental Working Group. (2005, March). Virtual Flood: CVP Water is Heavily

Subsidized. Retrieved March 14, 2013 from

Odell, D. (1992, December). The Transfer of the Central Valley Project. Environs, 16, 1-7. Retrieved March 14, 2013 from

Reisner. M. (1993). Cadillac Desert. New York: Penguin Books.

Stene, Eric A. “Introduction.” The Central Valley Project. United States Bureau of Reclamation. Retrieved March 12, 2013 from

Underwood, A. “In the Central Valley, Organic Farming Is Slowly Taking Hold.” Grow Switch News Blog. Retrieved March 12, 2013 from



Fire in Southern California

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:10 pm

Arid southern California, an area highly susceptible to fire, is one of the nation’s more concentrated centers of wealth and home to tens of millions of people.  Minimizing the loss of life and property to fire is a priority. Various methods have been tried and tested; yet a uniformed fire controlled policy has yet to be determined. Public opinion stands to be one of the driving forces behind fire policy instead of science. This is partially due to the lack of scientific research being able to quantify the effects of the different methods used. This blog will look at two of the methods that have been used in Southern California and discuss the benefits, consequences and effectiveness of each one.

One method historically used to reduce the risk of fire is prescribed burning, a fire management strategy involving the purposeful burning of an area by humans.  However, recent research suggests that this option is generally ineffective in decreasing the area burned by wildfires.  Price et al (2012), taking into account changing weather patterns, studied the relationship between the area burned by wildfires and the area burned purposefully by humans in seven counties in southern California, an area dominated mostly by shrub and grassland fuel.  The study measured southern California’s leverage, the reduction in area burned given one unit of controlled burning.  Tropical savannas have high leverage.  Australian eucalypti forests have some.  Price et al (2012) found that that the seven counties it looked at had none whatsoever.  In other words, prescribed burning, while it may be a useful tool elsewhere, is ineffective in reducing the amount of land burned by wildfires in southern California. The basis for this debate is that areas with reduced fuel have an inhibitory effect on later wildfires. While it’s a known fact that fires spread less rapidly and with less intensity in a setting with lower fuel, the actual regional scale at which fuel reducing practices are effective is not as certain. Therefore it is imperative that a quantification of such effects be done. An attempt to do this is a term coined as “leverage,” referring to the unit area reduction in wildfires resulting from each unit of treatment. For example, studies done in Australia on a forest dominated by Eucalyptus trees found that three to four hectares of prescribed burning resulted in a reduction of subsequent wildfire burning by 1 hectares- resulting in a 3:1 hectares ratio for leverage. Although this study shows prescribed burning to be effective in this case, new research is showing that fire patterns and fuel age vary greatly from biome to biome and therefore data and conclusions drawn from outside Southern California will be hard pressed to be applicable to it.

Another strategy previously employed to avoid damage to life and property in southern California is fire suppression.  Today society largely believes this strategy, in its attempt to reduce the frequency and severity of fires, has actually led to more intense fires.  According to the fine-grain age patch model, fire suppression causes more high intensity fires than would occur normally. The model contends that fire disruption leads to a disruption of the natural fuel assemblage, and the prevalence of old-age fuels that build up as a result of fire suppression encourages larger fires.  However, a recent study by Keeley et al (2009) examined this hypothesis and determined it was unfounded.  Keeley et al saw that the last four mega-fires involved a mix of fuel ages, implying that old-age fuel may not be responsible for larger fires.  In essence, the idea that fire suppression has changed the fuel assemblage to increase the severity of wildfire in southern California is false.

            The new studies being done show that regional-scale patterns of fire extent in Southern California are not influenced by fuel age and therefore using prescribed burns as a method of fire treatment does very little to reduce the area of wildfires. However this is not to say that should a wildfire encounter a recently burned patch it would not inhibits is path and growth. Therefore prescribed burns could be most efficiently used if focused in areas or assets that need protection, while using fire suppression in parallel to unsure a minimization of property loss in the event of a wild fire.

By: Farzad Bozorgzad and Amanda Alvarez

Works Cited:

Price, Owen F., Ross A. Bradstock, Jon E. Keeley, Alexandra D. Syphard. “The impact of antecedent fire area on burned area in southern California coastal

ecosystems” Journal of Environmental Management 113 (2012): 301-307.

Keeley, Jon E., Paul H. Zedler. “Large, High-Intensity Fire Events in Southern California Shrublands: Debunking the Fine-Grain Age Patch Model.” Ecological Applications 19 (2009): 69-94. Web.

March 13, 2013

The War Over Water: Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:47 pm

As the 1800s drew to a close, the burgeoning population of arid Los Angeles began to outgrow its water supply. By 1900, the city’s population had doubled since 1890 and grown tenfold since 1880 (Hoffman 1977). William Mulholland, the superintendent of water for Los Angeles, recognized that water was the limiting factor of the city’s growth. He took note of the quality, quantity, and proximity of the water possessed by the Owens Valley, and realized that Los Angeles desperately needed that supply. Along with Fred Eaton, mayor of L.A., and Joseph Lippincott, the regional engineer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Mulholland began the process of acquiring water from the Owens Valley. Using deception, subterfuge, bribery, and a strategy of divide-and-conquer, Los Angeles essentially stole all the water it needed while the farmers of the Valley received barely a fraction of the fair value for their water rights.

Figure 1. Map showing the 223-mile path of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (Hoffman 1997

At the beginning of the 20th century, the farmers and ranchers residing in Owens Valley had their own plans for the river’s water and were seeking federal funding from the Bureau of Reclamation for a public irrigation project, which would have blocked Los Angeles from diverting the water (Hoffman 1997). Determined to prevent the scrapping of the Owens Valley Project, Eaton used his friendship with Lippincott to gain access to inside information about water rights, which he used to influence Bureau decisions that would benefit Los Angeles, while Mulholland focused on manipulatingpublic opinion by misrepresenting the amount of water the Owens Valley would provide and by lying to the Valley’s residents about how much of the water would be diverted. Then, Eaton began buying up land in the Owens Valley under the false pretense that the land would be used for the reclamation project, and by 1905 Eaton had purchased enough property to secure the necessary land and water rights to block the Bureau’s irrigation project and build the aqueduct (Libecap 2009).

Mulholland needed a way to store the surplus water from the aqueduct, especially because he feared that the residents of Owens Valley might claim back any water that went unused. However, having underestimated the cost of the aqueduct, Los Angeles couldn’t afford to also build a large reservoir. In fact, there wasn’t even enough money to build the aqueduct itself. Mulholland found a solution to both these issues in the San Fernando Valley. If the aqueduct traveled through the Valley on its way to the city, any water dumped in the Valley would drain into the L.A. River and its broad aquifer, creating a large, convenient, non-evaporative pool for the city to tap—essentially, it would become a big, free storage site. Adding the Valley and its residents to Los Angeles would also provide a means to fund the aqueduct by creating a new tax base. Thus, with the annex of the San Fernando Valley the Owens Valley project would finally be ready to move from conception to reality.

Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct began in 1908 and was completed in 1913. The enormous project, directed by Mulholland, employed more than 2,000 workers and spanned a distance of 223 miles. Once the aqueduct was completed, Los Angeles began to prosper and grow at an unprecedented rate as homes and businesses spread across the basin. The expanding population combined with demand from the San Fernando Valley forced Mulholland to take all available water from the Owens Valley, resulting in the rapid depletion of its water supply.

Figure 2. The Los Angeles Aqueduct took five years to complete and represented one of the greatest engineering feats of its time (Los Angeles Times)

Figure 2. The Los Angeles Aqueduct took five years to complete and represented one of the greatest engineering feats of its time (Los Angeles Times)

Much of the land in the San Fernando Valley had been previously bought up for low prices by a syndicate of investors, who had inside knowledge of the plan to incorporate the Valley into the city and run the aqueduct through it. Unbeknownst to the public, the San Fernando Valley would be converted to agriculture and irrigated by water from the Owens Valley, drastically increasing the productivity and value of the land. This infuriated the farmers of Owens Valley, who were being robbed of their precious water to support agriculture in Los Angeles in addition to residential use.

By 1924, Owens Lake and about fifty miles of the Owens River were completely dry. Conditions were so bad that the farmers rebelled, culminating in the use of dynamite to blast out part of the aqueduct and return water to the river. The conflict between the farmers and the city of Los Angeles escalated until 1927, when the Inyo County Bank collapsed and brought down the Valley’s economy with it. Los Angeles officials continued to purchase private land holdings and their water rights; by 1928, the city owned 90 percent of the water in the Owens Valley and agriculture in the region had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory (Libecap 2009). It would be an understatement to say that Los Angeles won this water war, which will forever serve as an example of how economic demand can lead to the unsustainable, and sometimes unfair, exploitation of natural resources.


This post was authored by Katherine Moreno ’13 BA Environmental Studies and Miller Zou ’13 BS Environmental Studies  ’14 MA Environmental Studies.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Abraham. 1977. Origins of a Controversy: The U.S. Reclamation Service and the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Dispute. Arizona and the West 19.4: 333-46.

Libecap, Gary. 2009. Chinatown Revisited: Owens Valley and Los Angeles-Bargaining Costs and Fairness Perceptions of the First Major Water Rights Exchange. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 25.2: 311-38.

Hard water, Heavy water, Light water, Soft water

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:38 pm


“There are dozens and dozens of nanotechnologies currently in development that will impact water. And for every amazing nanotech solution, there are mirroring developments in biotech. For every biotech solution, there’s a wastewater recycling solution equally as exciting. But many believe the most promising line of development isn’t even in the water space; it’s in the metatechnologies surrounding this space.”

-Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance p. 95, 2012


The continued failure to meet basic human needs for water calls for the implementation of soft path water solutions. Freshwater management solutions can be categorized in two ways: the hard path and the soft path. The hard path focuses on the construction of large infrastructure, such as dams, aqueducts, pipelines, and centralized treatment plants to meet human demands. It has extreme economic and environmental costs that can be minimized by moving toward soft path solutions. Environmental impacts of the hard path include a decline in freshwater fauna organisms and a disruption of the hydrological cycle, which leads to multiple other problems (e.g., nutrient depletion and decline in wildlife populations). Moreover, the cost of water per year to meet basic human needs by hard path solutions is systematically higher than those for soft path solutions (Gleick).

The soft path takes into account both social and environmental concerns.  (Gleick). While the hard path focuses largely on increasing water supply, the soft path heeds the importance of reducing the demand for water as well (Brooks). Furthermore, the hard path encourages the exploitation of natural resources through its narrow focus on extracting as much water as possible. In contrast, the soft path is a more holistic approach because it takes into account the effects of natural resource extraction, use and disposal on ecosystem health. The soft path allows for human water consumption to go hand in hand with environmentally sustainable and economic development through the utilization of “human ingenuity rather than resource-intensive inputs to improve natural resource use patterns” (Brooks).

Artificially low water prices have led to minimal integration of demand management as a component of water management solutions. However when looking at the opportunity costs, one can easily see that a reduction in water demand is a source of water in itself. In other words, more efficient freshwater use means more available freshwater. Furthermore, reducing water demand is much more time effective than any hard path solution (Brooks). Overall, the soft path complements centralized physical infrastructure with lower cost community-scale systems, decentralized and open decision-making, water markets and equitable pricing, application of efficient technology, and environmental protection (Gleick). Below, we discuss a few examples of the aforementioned components of soft path freshwater solutions.

Not only are surface sources and aquifers currently utilized above replenishment rates, but the problem persists that a billion people are living off of untreated water outside of cities and infrastructure. Fortunately, a variety of social forces are taking heed of claims that the Earth is entering an era of heightened water scarcity. The business model of social entrepreneurship is currently catching up with developing countries’ water crises. What began with a brand of ‘high-status’ Ethos water bottles in American coffee shops has helped create mentalities to inspire creativity where finance development costs were thought insurmountable. Starbucks revenues from Ethos are dramatically insufficient to address the world’s water problems (only $10 million), but thanks to its motivations, and those from entrepreneurs in areas like energy and agricultures, those historic impossibilities are being used as justification to renovate the entire water distribution paradigm.

In their 2012 book, Abundance, X Prize and Singularity University founder Peter Diamandis, along with entrepreneur Steven Kotler, described a role for four key forces to produce orders of magnitude improvements in basic service industries like water. These are  Moore’s Law, Do-it-Yourself Inventors, Technophilanthropists, and the “rising billion.” Economically, these forces translate into fantastic technical capabilities, a newly tapped pool of high-skilled workers, vast pools of tech-savy financing, and markets that have remained unsaturated for decades. It is a perfect storm for soft path water development. Moreover, Diamandis and Kotler are not alone in their forecasts. They are joined by economists like Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution, and technologists like Ray Kurzweil, inventor of text-to-speech technology for the deaf.

A quintessential example is the Lifesaver bottle invented by Michael Pritchard. It employs a filtration membrane with pore only 15 nanometers thick and lasts for six thousand liters. At a cost of $0.05 per day, Pritchard has become famous for alleging that Millenium Development Goals for water might be met for only $8 billion. Buttressing his claims are a thriving global nanotechnology industry, which is estimating to encompass $1 trillion in investments by 2015 (Abundance, p. 93). Future iteration of Pritchard’s device could feature additional nanotech devices such as particles with affinity for heavy metals and arsenic. And, scaled-up versions of these nanotechnologies can become even more widely commercialized as desalination processes. NanoH2O is a Los Angeles company that is revamping the reverse osmosis with a stated goal of created 70% more water using 20% as much energy. With these deployed, the world would be unlikely to see desalination technology confined to energy-abundant regions like the Middle East.

It is easy to reframe the techno-optimistic paradigm as a mere few anecdotes, however Diamandis, Kotler, Rifkin, and Kurzweil envision a radical transformation of both technology and society as it grows to be more decentralized and more interconnected as the same time. “Smart grips” for water distribution to farmers have been implemented in Spain, while at the same time, they are being researched by giant technology corporations like Hewlett Packard (Abundance, p. 95). These stand in sharp contrast to the construct-at-all-costs mentality epitomized by Pat Brown’s campaign for the California Aqueduct. Social entrepreneurship, Moore’s Law, Do-It-Yourself invention, technophilanthropy, and demand from a rising billion people are not confined to working in a single industry or country. While ecologically-minded activist express concern for the standards of living of “future generations”, the world is well on its way to realizing massive efficiency and production gains within the lifespans of the current generation (Rifkin).

This post was authored by Sean Hernandez ’13 BA Economics and BA Environmental Studies, and Nazia Gangani ’13 BS Environmental Studies with a Minor in Business.


Brooks, David, and Susan Holtz. “Water Soft Path Analysis: From Principles to Practice.”Water International 34.2 (2009): 158-69. Web.

Diamandis, Peter, and Kotler, Steven, 12’ Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012): 90-98. Print.

Gleick, P. H. “Global Freshwater Resources: Soft-Path Solutions for the 21st Century.”Science 302.5650 (2003): 1524-528. Print.

Rifkin, Jeremy, et al. “The World in 2025: Ways to the Future.” European Business Forum 29 (Summer 2007): 15-27. Web.