Saturday, December 31, 2011

Protecting the Coast

Catherine Ryan Hyde summarizes the struggle Cambria has had with its own governing body, the Community Services District, to protect the local environment. The area is legally protected by state and federal law, but the CSD board of directors has pursued invading it to build a desalination plant. The full text of her summary includes video of some of the players and meetings.
For about three years, a small, committed group of Cambrians have spoken loudly, factually, and often eloquently against drilling on the beach, at the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek, in pursuit of desalination.The creek/lagoon is a highly environmentally sensitive area. In fact, it is a protected natural preserve. It would stand to reason that a careful environmental impact report would be prepared for any project in such an area. Or, better yet, that no project be done there at all.
So that's what the Cambria Community Services District did, right?
Well . . . no. Their original plan was to categorically exempt themselves from any CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review. (Cambria Activists_and_Mercury_Put_Desal_Plan_in_Retrogade.pdf ) In January 2010, the CCSD called a special meeting to announce that, together with the Army Corps of Engineers, geotechnical drilling would take place in front of Shamel County Park and on Santa Rosa Creek Beach—very fast. Within two months. The meeting announcement was poorly timed (over the New Year's weekend), given on unusually short-notice, and the work strangely immediate. It all gave the impression that they hoped the public would have no time to object. (They have never explained, to this very day, how, when, or by whom the site was chosen.) When lots of people showed up and registered lots of objections anyway, the CCSD withdrew that tactic and tried instead for a Negative Declaration — far from ideal in the opinion of most environmentalists, but at least it's a type of CEQA review. As such, it involves allowing both citizens and public agencies to respond.
Citizen letters aside, the project received detailed comments from such agencies as the State Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Native American Heritage Commission, and the County Air Pollution Control District, to name just a few.
Their concerns included public safety, endangered species, mercury hazards, loss of public access, loss of access to a children's playground, construction on the beach, vehicles on the beach, and piecemealing environmental review by separating the drilling plan from the actual desalination plant.
Those are big hurdles to any project.
So what did the CCSD do? They announced that the geotesting (drilling for paleochannels under the sand that might support a subsurface desal intake) was not their project at all, but the Army Corp of Engineers' project. Completely. Retroactively. I'm not sure exactly how that works, but it seemed to involve careful phrasing. They were not "turning the project over" to the Army Corps of Engineers. Rather, they contended, they'd discovered the overlooked fact that it always had been the ACE's project. Oh, right, and that it's not a "project." It's only an "investigation." One envisions the Army Corps going down to the beach to ask the sand a few questions.
In truth, it was a bit more invasive. It involved drilling a number of wells — as deep as 150 feet — and lining them with PVC pipe, which would later have to be augured out. As much as could be augured, anyway. The bulk of the thousands of pounds of shards would then be sifted out of the sand. Oh, and then the plan was to build a desal plant nearby, but the two objectives were artificially separated at this point, because there's no way to make Cambria's desal plant federal.
Having federalized the project to their own satisfaction, the CCSD then abandoned CEQA review. Because CEQA is a state process. The ACE would now conduct a NEPA review, the federal version. Except all the ACE did toward an environmental impact report was simply to grant themselves a categorical exclusion from NEPA.
The next sound heard around Cambria was that of heads exploding.
I want to note that I've read the NEPA handbook for citizens. Categorical exclusion was intended for such minimal-impact projects as outhouses and hiking trails, or changing all the light bulbs in a public building to more environmentally friendly ones.
Now, you can imagine that concerned Cambrians felt we'd been the victim of an end run around California environmental law.  21,000-pound drill rigs were about to roll onto a beach that's so delicate it won't even tolerate my 15-pound leashed dog. (And, being a law-abiding citizen, I trust that this rule exists for a reason and don't take her there.)  Our last line of defense seemed to be the California Coastal Commission, which had been stripped of its jurisdiction to grant or deny a coastal development permit, since this was being passed off as a federal project. The CCC could only declare the "investigation" consistent or inconsistent with the California Coastal Act.
In May 2010, the commission conditionally allowed the drilling. I'm not entirely sure what happened, though I attended — and spoke at — that meeting. (Although we later found out that only the CCC staff — not the commissioners — had seen the agency and public letters of objection.) Also unsure as to what had happened was Commissioner Esther Sanchez, who spoke eloquently against allowing the project.
When I emailed later to thank her, she sent me a rather stunning personal reply that stated, among other things, "It was as if no one wanted to listen to the problems that I saw with this item.  I took the time to look at the record — specifically searching for the information upon which staff would have relied in making recommendations that the drilling was consistent with our state's laws — and found the record wholly lacking. It was as if we were supposed to take staff's 'word for it.' I was equally disappointed that some of my colleagues seemed to just want to move on and not take the time to ensure that in fact there was a basis for a decision of consistency.
"I believe it was and is incontrovertible that this is an environmentally sensitive area. I wonder if staff had not been so openly controversial whether others would have joined me. I have discussed the matter with the executive director, as I do believe that staff, including the commission's attorney, interfered (perhaps unlawfully) with a constitutionally protected right, a right guaranteed by the Coastal Act."
That seemed to say it all, yet no one was listening.
What could have been a huge environmental loss took an unexpected turn when Nick Franco of State Parks refused to grant the ACE a right of entry permit. I was there at the meeting of the State Parks Commission when he stated, simply but importantly, "No CEQA, no right of entry." The State Park commissioners were 100% behind him. In fact, one commissioner's jaw dropped, and she remarked, "You mean they thought they could go out on that state beach without CEQA?"
Yeah. Amazing, isn't it? That's what we thought.
Another crucial puzzle piece fell into place at that meeting. The waters off that section of Cambria coast were declared California's first marine park. We were elated, yet did not know how crucial to the story that decision would later become.
The CCSD was not pleased. In fact, director Muril Clift drew a line in the sand at the next CCSD meeting, blustering that they (State Parks) are "no friend," and that we should consider that in all of our dealings with them. His short speech [see video below] speaks volumes to the CCSD's stance on environmental laws, which it seems to regard as little tricks up the sleeves of its enemies. It also seems wrong to brand someone an enemy for not giving you what you want, especially when they've determined that what you want is not procedurally legal and correct. But I guess that's another rant for another day.
Questionably, in my (and many other peoples') opinion, County Parks granted right of entry. The ACE rolled onto the beach in front of Shamel Park  . . .  and promptly hit bedrock at 24 feet(75-foot channels had been predicted there). Eyes turned back to the sensitive lagoon area of the state park beach. This part of the story gets really interesting and . . . dare I say . . . funny.
State Parks managed to prove that the area was a protected natural preserve. (Then-president of the CCSD, Greg Sanders, had insisted on referring to it as "the so-called natural preserve.") It was protected all the way down to the mean high tide line. And no motor vehicles are allowed in a natural preserve.
Here's where it gets funny (except for the level at which it's too disrespectful to be funny). A plan was devised for Amish work horses to be trailered in. To pull a drill rig onto the sand on a type of sled. Know how you can tell I'm not making this stuff up? Because you can't make up stuff like that, that's how. I'm a fiction writer, and even I couldn't have made that up.
Word had it that someone with State Parks in Sacramento was considering going over Nick Franco's head. But when the CCSD/ACE came up with the idea to hover over the beach with a helicopter and lower a drill rig, patience seemed to run out in the state capital as well.
Did it ever occur to anyone on the pro side of this project that drill rigs are motorized, and do far more harm than the tires of a pickup truck? And that maybe Amish work horses pulling a sled weren't listed as prohibited only because no one had the imagination to envision that such a threat even existed?
But back to my story.
So the CCSD gave up. Right? You don't know the CCSD very well.
The CCSD and the ACE came back with a plan to drill below the mean high tide line. Which put it in our new marine park. Where it doesn't appear legal to try to place any sort of wells or desal intake/outfall systems.
Undeterred, the CCSD — oops, I'm sorry, I mean the ACE (I keep forgetting whose project this is) — headed off for a brand spanking new Coastal Commission consistency determination.  They had scaled the project down considerably. On the one hand, it could be argued that this made the investigation slightly less harmful. It also raised the argument that the investigation might now be quite useless.
[Note: This is an admittedly brief history of a very complex situation. It may be hard to do it justice in so few words. I hope if you're interested you'll go out to the Cambria Water Watch website - Cambria Water Watch - and read up on the background of this mess. The Water Watch site (disclaimer: I help maintain it) links its statements to source material. If it says there was a letter from Fish & Game, for example, it links to a PDF of the letter. The page entitled "More Information" is a particularly rich source of documentation.]
The consistency hearing was scheduled for December 9th. On December 8th, the ACE got together with Coastal Commission staff and lined out most of the stipulated protections. In retrospect, that might have been pushing the envelope.
The project was unanimously denied by the 11-member Coastal Commission.
But even better was the way it was denied. Not only did the commissioners (a couple of whom generally support desalination) call the site inappropriate, they suggested this was an end run around California environmental law.
Right. Exactly what all us "crazy" Cambrians have been saying since the play was run.
Commissioner Steve Blank asked, "Is this an end run around our process?" and "Isn't this just a way to take it out of our jurisdiction?" He suggested, "  . . .  raising red flags with our legal staff and thinking about what the issues are here, because I think they're bigger than—much bigger than—Cambria." Other commissioners said, "There's just no way around that this site — this beach, this creek mouth, is an environmentally sensitive area by any standard," and, "In my mind, there isn't a section of Chapter Three  [of the Coastal Act] this doesn't go against." And, "This project represents an avoidance of proper procedures." And, "The risks of the testing alone are substantial." And, "Page after page of conditions that are almost standard conditions in any action we take . . .  we want to make sure that the public is safe and the noise is diminished, and all of those were gone." And, "It really smells of going around the system."
It was a wonderful moment for the Cambrians who have been shouting these same words for several years now and feeling as though no one cared to listen.
At the December CCSD meeting, district engineer Bob Gresens claimed there had been some confusion among the commissioners, and some kind of disconnect of logic in their decision. I think it goes without saying that the logic involved in this story disconnects somewhere, but I don't agree that the problem took place at the Coastal Commission level.
But don't take my word for it. Complete video of the commissioners' comments are available on the home page of Cambria Water Watch. Watch and listen, and decide for yourself if the commissioners seem confused or if they seem to have an excellent grasp of what's really going on.
Cambria Environmentalist Mickie Burton sent this Christmas card to those who
had worked to protect this beautiful and important piece of coastline. (Photo by Joe Johnston)
The animals rejoice. And so do we, on their behalf. At least for the time being.

Porpoises return to San Francisco Bay

Like the elephant seals to Piedras Blancas, porpoises are recovering and returning to San Francisco Bay. NPR reports:

Something that has been missing from San Francisco Bay since World War II appears to be making a comeback: Harbor porpoises are showing up in growing numbers, and researchers are trying to understand why they're returning.
The walkway across the Golden Gate Bridge is almost always packed with people taking photos. But Bill Keener isn't here for snapshots of the stunning views. He's aiming his massive telephoto lens at a dark shape in the water 200 feet below.
"There's a porpoise right there, coming very, very close," he says. "Here's a mother and calf coming straight at us." Keener is with Golden Gate Cetacean Research, a nonprofit group focused on studying local porpoises, whales and dolphins.
Harbor porpoises have dark gray backs, and they're about 5 feet long — smaller than most of their dolphin relatives. Keener spots one turned on its side and spinning.

The porpoises, feeding in the middle of a busy shipping lane, spin as they go after schools of herring and anchovies. Seeing this behavior is huge for Keener because harbor porpoises are notoriously shy in the open ocean. But the fact that they're here at all is what's most remarkable.

Keener and his colleagues have identified 250 porpoises with their photos by looking for unique scars on the animals. When the team first started working on the bridge, the patrol officers took notice.
"We're staring down at the water for hours," Keener says. "They start getting worried about us. But they know us now; they know what we're doing."
Bill Keener (left) and Jonathan Stern search for porpoises under the Golden Gate Bridge. Water quality has dramatically improved since the 1970s, which may be bringing the porpoises back.
Enlarge Lauren Sommer/KQED Bill Keener (left) and Jonathan Stern search for porpoises under the Golden Gate Bridge. Water quality has dramatically improved since the 1970s, which may be bringing the porpoises back.
Porpoises In Decline

The big question, though, is why harbor porpoises disappeared in the first place. Keener says the bay has always been porpoise habitat. Sightings were common until the 1930s.
"We don't really have reports from around World War II, and there were a lot of things going on during World War II that could have caused [the decline]," he says.

San Francisco Bay became a wartime port. It was a major ship-building center. One newsreel reported that 14 warships at one time sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. And the Navy strung a seven-mile-long net underwater across the opening of the bay to keep out Japanese submarines. Hundreds of mines were planted in the waters outside the Golden Gate.
Keener says all of this certainly would have disturbed the porpoises. But there's a bigger change that may have driven them away: water quality.

The bay waters today are a far cry from those of the 1950s and '60s. As the region boomed, so did water pollution. Keener says raw sewage used to flow right into the bay.
"I remember coming across the Bay Bridge when I was very young, and it would just smell," Keener says. "It would stink."
A group of harbor porpoises in San Francisco Bay, photographed from the Golden Gate Bridge. Harbor porpoises haven't been seen in the bay since the 1930s. Researchers believe World War II activity may have contributed to their disappearance. The Navy strung a seven-mile underwater net across the mouth of the bay to keep out enemy submarines.
William Keener/Golden Gate Cetacean Research A group of harbor porpoises in San Francisco Bay, photographed from the Golden Gate Bridge. Harbor porpoises haven't been seen in the bay since the 1930s. Researchers believe World War II activity may have contributed to their disappearance. The Navy strung a seven-mile underwater net across the mouth of the bay to keep out enemy submarines.

Rediscovering The Bay
After the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, the bay's water quality began to improve. But it took time for the food web to come back. San Francisco State University whale researcher Jonathan Stern says maybe the porpoises had to rediscover the bay.

"Over 60 years, we're talking about a number of generations of porpoises," Stern says. "So it's quite likely that San Francisco Bay as a habitat was out of the institutional memory."
Stern and Keener glide over the bay waters in a 22-foot boat, slowing down as they pass under the bridge.
"There's porpoises between us and the south tower at 200 yards," Stern says. Keener and Stern have a special permit to approach the porpoises. They wait, listening for them to surface.
"I just heard one here," Keener says. "Here's a cow-calf pair close to the boat, and we'll hear this puff. The old-time sailors used to call them puffing pigs. That's the exhalation."
The porpoises seem calm around boats in the bay, which Stern says will let researchers study their life cycle and social structure.
"It's one of those very few good-news environmental stories. And it's in our backyard. It gives one hope," Stern says.
It also gives researchers a chance to study how porpoises will react to the America's Cup race, which comes to the Bay Area in two years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Whale songs

Welcome to the Whale Song Project!

You can help marine researchers understand what whales are saying. Listen to the large sound and find the small one that matches it best. NPR reports on then project and how it works.

Marine biologists are turning to citizen scientists, sitting at home in front of their computers, to help unlock the secrets of whale songs.

In Pixar's aquatic adventure Finding Nemo, Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, attempts to communicate with a whale to find the missing title character. She speaks in a loud, slow drawl to the whale, but when that fails, she says, "Maybe a different dialect."

"We actually know that killer whales do use dialects," marine biologist Peter Tyack tells Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish. Despite the tongue-in-cheek depiction of whale songs, Tyack says the film got it right.

"We don't know what the sounds mean, but each killer whale family has its own set of calls, like a dialect in human language," he says.

Tyack, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews, is also a coordinator of Whale FM, a new online experiment that's recruiting citizen scientists to study killer and pilot whale calls from around the world.

"The experiment is the first step in understanding how these whales communicate," he says. "The first thing we need to know is how to categorize their calls."

His research team needs help to sort through almost 15,000 different sound recordings and group similar ones together. That's where you, the citizen scientist, come in.

Tyack's team is counting on whale-song lovers to log on to Whale FM and listen to sounds of various whales calling to each other.

Tyack says much about whale communication remains a mystery for scientists, and he hopes crowdsourcing this new study may lead to some answers.

"We share a mammalian hearing system with killer whales and we think that lots of people, just using their own ears, should be able to make good matches of these calls," he says. "And the more people who decide, the better sense we get of how reliable their judgments are."

In the end, Tyack says, one of the major parts of the crowdsourcing concept of the project is to promote the fact that anyone can take part in science.

Monday, December 26, 2011

New research on deep diving marine mammals

December 21, 2011, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute reports:

Source: Media Relations

Any diver returning from ocean depths knows about the hazard of decompression sickness (DCS) or “the bends.” As the diver ascends and the ocean pressure decreases, gases that were absorbed by the body during the dive, come out of solution and, if the ascent is too rapid, can cause bubbles to form in the body. DCS causes many symptoms, and its effects may vary from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death.
But how do marine mammals, whose very survival depends on regular diving, manage to avoid DCS? Do they, indeed, avoid it?
In April 2010, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Marine Mammal Center (MMC) invited the world’s experts in human diving and marine-mammal diving physiology to convene for a three-day workshop to discuss the issue of how marine mammals manage gas under pressure.  Twenty-eight researchers discussed and debated the current state of knowledge on diving marine mammal gas kinetics—the rates of the change in the concentration of gases in their bodies.
The workshop resulted in a paper, “Deadly diving? Physiological and behavioural management of decompression stress in diving mammals,” which was published Dec. 21, 2011, online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“Until recently the dogma was that marine mammals have anatomical and physiological and behavioral adaptations to make the bends not a problem,” said MMC Director Michael Moore. “There is no evidence that marine mammals get the bends routinely, but a look at the most recent studies suggest that they are actively avoiding rather than simply not having issues with decompression.”
Researchers began to question the conventional wisdom after examining beaked whales that had stranded on the Canary Islands in 2002.  A necropsy of those animals turned up evidence of damage from gas bubbles. The animals had stranded after exposure to sonar from nearby naval exercises.  This led scientists to think that diving marine mammals might deal with the presence of nitrogen bubbles more frequently than previously thought, and that the animals’ response strategies might involve physiological trade-offs depending on situational variables. In other words, the animals likely manage their nitrogen load and probably have greater variation in their blood nitrogen levels than previously believed.
Because the animals spend so much time below the ocean’s surface, understanding the behavior of diving marine mammals is quite challenging. The use of innovative technology is helping to advance the science.  At WHOI, scientists have used a CT scanner to examine marine mammal cadavers at different pressures to better understand the behavior of gases in the lungs and “get some idea at what depth the anatomy is shut off from further pressure-kinetics issues,” Moore said.   For other studies, Moore and his colleagues were able to acquire a portable veterinary ultrasound unit to look at the presence or absence of gas in live, stranded dolphins.
There’s still a lot to be learned, including whether live animals have circulating bubbles in their systems that they are managing.  If they do, says Moore, noise impacts and other stressors that push the animal from a normal management situation to an abnormal situation become more of a concern.  “When a human diver has some bubble issues, what will they do?  They will either climb into a recompression chamber so that they can recompress and then come back more slowly, or they’ll just grab another tank and go back down for a while and . . . and just let things sort themselves out.  What does a dolphin do normally when it’s surfaced?  The next things to do is to dive, and the one place you can’t do that is in shallow water or most particularly if you are beached.”
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent, non-profit organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment.

Pups on the beach

About a dozen pups are visible from the South boardwalk at Piedras Blancas. The first was born December 17. Re liable reports say additional pups have been born on beaches near the lighthouse. Although the beach isn't very crowded yet, two of the mothers were caring for two pups each already. As usual, a certain amount of confusion reigns.

This pup and his mother barked at each other, perhaps getting acquainted.

This pair were happily settled in.

Friends of the Elephant Seal are moving forward with plans to place a Webcam at the viewpoint. "We have reached our financial goal to place a live camera in the rookery," says the latest newsletter. "The equipment has been purchased and shipped to California State Parks personnel for installation. State Parks has informed us that they expect the installation to be completed early in 2012--in time for the peak of the birthing season. When the camera is installed, images of elephant seal behavior can be accessed by anyinternet-capable computer from anywhere in the world."

A Webcam is no substitute for being there, but it will be a welcome addition. Visitors who have been enchanted by seeing the seals can keep track of them from home, where ever that may be. And others who have never been to California can whet their appetite for witnessing this phenomenon.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

More senior males arrive daily

Lat week's few have become many. This mixed group of males tussled with each other. The largest adults take little notice of the subadults as they wrangle on the beach. Perhaps they are conserving their energy or are too burdened by the weight of gravity to rouse themselves.

At least one female tried to settle on the beach, but the attentions of a subadult were more than she could endure. She escaped back into the water. After she evaded this one, an even younger male harassed her. She'll find a place for herself soon.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ebony and Ivory

This pair seemed to be assessing the food possibilities of a large crowd of visitors.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

S.S. Montebello

On December 23, 1941, the S.S. Montebello, loaded with a cargo of 73,571 barrels of crude oil and carrying 2,477 barrels of bunker fuel oil and an unknown quantity of lubricating oil, was torpedoed by a Japanese Imperial submarine and sank in federal waters. The wreck is located approximately two miles south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and is 6.5 miles off the coast of Cambria, California. It is completely submerged and laying upright in approximately 900 feet of water, adjacent to an un-named submarine canyon.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded two investigations (1996 & 2003) to assess the vessel’s integrity using a manned submersible. Several dives were conducted and the observations made concluded the hull was “remarkably intact” and the torpedo did not penetrate the cargo and bunker fuel tanks.

Robert Schwemmer, West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, presented his historical research on the Union Oil Company tanker S S Montebello at a meeting in Cambria December 2. He also shared  underwater imagery of the sunken ship that sits in 900 feet just south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  Schwemmer was part of the science team that rediscovered the wreck in 1996 in the two-manned submersible Delta.  In 2003, Schwemmer returned to the sunken tanker along with a science team from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and State of California to continue the visual survey of the Montebello.   

In 2009, the Montebello Assessment Task Force was established at the request of California State Senator Sam Blakeslee to coordinate a risk assessment to determine the likelihood of a release of the cargo of more than 3,000,000 gallons of Santa Maria crude oil that potentially could be onboard. In 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard awarded a contract to Global Diving & Salvage to conduct an assessment of the condition of the sunken tanker and determine if the oil was still onboard.  Schwemmer served on the taskforce and was on board the OSRV Nanuq during the U.S. Coast directed assessment serving as a technical advisor.  “The history of the Montebello is still deeply rooted in the communities of Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay, for these citizens took heroic action to launch a sea and land rescue for the Montebello’s crew of 38.  Today, 70 years after the sinking, of the Montebello people are just learning about the little known history of Japanese submarines attacking and sinking American merchant ships within site of the California shoreline” said Robert Schwemmer

Schwemmer encouraged the community to seek listing for the site on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps to commemorate the 75th anniversary? He has helped retrieve this event from lost history. Such a listing would do Cambria proud.