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California’s 2014 Water Bond: The Good, the Contentious, and the Uncertain

Past bonds funded restoration of the South Bay salt ponds. (photo by Jitze Couperus)

It’s hard to believe that people still power-wash sidewalks three years into California’s worst drought on record. But it’s even harder to believe that state lawmakers have hardly been better about solving our water problems. They’ve been working on a water bond for five years and barely managed to squeak one with a chance of passing onto the November 4, 2014 ballot.

A water bond seems like a no-brainer. California is parched, with much of our groundwater already at historic lows in April and with many reservoirs at levels far below historic averages in September, according to the state Department of Water Resources. And the $7.5 billion water bond — Proposition 1 — has widespread support that includes a good showing of environmentalists. But not everyone is convinced that this bond delivers what we need, or even that bonds are the best way to finance our water system… (more)

Bay Area Monitor (2014)

Resolving the Flap over Bird Wrists


How wrists morphed from dinosaurs to birds.

Somewhere along the way from early dinosaurs to birds, wrists changed so much that we could be excused for thinking birds don’t even have them. Wrists went from straight to bent and hyperflexible, allowing birds to fold their wings neatly against their bodies when not flying. Underlying this change is a drop in the number of wrist bones from nine to just four.

Paleontology and embryology tell different stories about how this happened, however. Now, in this issue of PLOS Biology, Alexander Vargas and colleagues resolve this flap, drawing on both fields to clarify the identity and evolution of bird wrist bones… (more)

PLOS Biology (2014)



Taking Stock of the Bay Area’s Water Supply


Two-thirds of the Bay Area’s water is delivered from the Sierra Nevada and government water projects.

Water. It flows out of the tap every time we want, cool, clear, and clean. We take it for granted even now, three years into one of California’s driest stretches on record. But we can’t go on like this for much longer — the Bay Area’s water could start to run short in just two decades.

“Population growth will increase demand, and climate change will reduce the supply and increase demand,” said Heather Cooley, director of the Water Program at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to sustainable resource research.

The Bay Area’s population is projected to rise about 25 percent in the next two decades, from 7 million people today to 9 million in 2035. And without preparation there won’t always be enough water for us all. Our expected water demand will exceed the supply by nearly 7 percent in a dry year, and by more than 11 percent in the worst case scenario of multiple dry years… (more)

Bay Area Monitor 2014



How Spiders Spin Silk


Spider silk is wonderful stuff—light as the breeze and stretchy yet stronger than steel. People can manufacture synthetic fibers, such as Kevlar, that come close but can’t begin to match the process spiders use. Their silk proteins, called spidroins, rapidly convert from the soluble form to solid fibers at ambient temperatures and with water as the solvent.

Not only is this beyond us, we don’t even know how spiders do it. But now, Anna Rising and colleagues unravel this mystery… (more)

PLOS Biology 2014



Super Patient: Francesca Keeps Fighting Pancreatic Cancer


Francesca enjoying a recent vacation with her family

In 2011, Francesca knew something was wrong. Her stomach hurt and was upset after eating, and she just didn’t feel right. She had also lost a lot of weight, but thought that was normal, considering her life at the time. “I was working fulltime and had just stopped breastfeeding,” she explains. So when she went in for a checkup, she expected to hear it was a stomach problem.

But an ultrasound in November 2011 showed she had pancreatic cancer. “I was shaken. I was only 41 with an 18-month old daughter,” Francesca says. “My whole life was in front of me…” (more)

Cancer Commons 2014



Running Our Groundwater Dry

Historical groundwater overdrafting sunk parts of the San Joaquin Valley up to 28 feet.

California often leads the nation in environmental protection, but we’re way behind when it comes to groundwater. Like mineral rights, aquifer rights have been viewed as coming with the land. So while surface water is allocated to the last drop, groundwater isn’t even regulated comprehensively. This makes us the exception in the western U.S. from Texas to the Pacific coast.

And now that we’re in our third straight year of drought—with the Sierra snowpack down to 18% of normal in the final 2014 survey—we’re pumping more groundwater than ever, and levels statewide are the lowest ever recorded… (more)

Estuary News 2014



Salmon hitch a ride to the sea


Trucked salmon smolts acclimate in net pens before release into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

California’s dry winter left rivers so low that young salmon couldn’t swim from the inland hatcheries where they’re reared to the ocean where they grow up. So wildlife agencies decided to truck them toward the sea instead.

 The big question is whether any of these three-inch smolts will ever find their way home to spawn… (more)

 Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2014



Keeping green waste green

Surprise! Guess where much of that green waste really goes?

California mandates cutting waste streams in half through reduction and recycling, so it should be a no brainer to compost all those grass clippings and orange peels. But a third of the green waste collected statewide, or about 11 million tons per year, goes straight into the dump. That’s because local governments get recycling credit for sprinkling green waste on landfills every day to control odors.

But solving this problem creates another. Buried green waste degrades anaerobically and so emits methane, the second most common greenhouse gas of human origin. “This loophole has been terribly abused over the years — landfills are the largest source of man-made methane”, explains State Assemblyman Das Williams (Santa Barbara), who has been keen on waste reduction since working in a recycling facility at age 16… (more)

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2014

When Work is a Day at the Beach

Sand cores reveal the many invertebrates that are literally underfoot at the beach.

Karina Nielsen loves going to the beach as much as any Californian — and may love it even more than most. That’s because as a marine ecologist, she knows those long sandy stretches that look so empty are actually busy with life. “So many of the organisms are buried that it’s not always apparent, especially compared to tidepools,” she says.

But stand in the swash zone where surf meets sand, and you are likely to see shorebirds running back-and-forth to catch invertebrates and sand crabs digging to get away, and feel small crustaceans called isopods nipping at your toes… (more)

OceanSpaces 2014



Bay Primed for Pea Soup?


Nutrients could be the next big problem for San Francisco Bay — or make that in the Bay, because they’re already here at levels high enough to have caused trouble elsewhere. But despite its excess nitrogen and phosphorus, the Bay has been free of harmful algal blooms and oxygen-depleted dead zones for decades.

We’ve been so sure of this immunity to nutrients that most wastewater treatment plants don’t even have to remove them before discharging into the Bay. But recent chinks in the Bay’s resistance to nutrients are now alerting us to get ready in case there’s worse to come… (more)

Estuary News 2014