Columbia River Melt-Down

This is the Columbia River.

DSC_9320It is the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, and the fourth largest river in the United States.  It winds south from British Columbia into Washington, then runs westward to the Pacific Ocean, forming the border between Washington and Oregon.

And in 15-20 years, it could be carrying up to one million U.S. gallons (4,000 m3) of highly radioactive waste that has reached it via groundwater contamination from the Hanford Site if cleanup does not progress on schedule.

The Hanford Site is the production site of the plutonium used to create the first nuclear bomb, via the Manhattan Project, and Fat Man, the atomic bomb used over Japan in 1945. During the Cold War era, this site produced plutonium that was used in the over 60,000 weapons in the US arsenal.  Production slowed by 1971, although the plant continued to function until the late 1980s.  The radioactive waste that was created was stored in 177 underground tanks, which are holding about 52 million gallons of radioactive waste.  The tanks were originally supposed to have a life expectancy of 22 years.

In early February of this year,Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee reported that there was small leak in one of the tanks.  About a week later, on February 22, it was announced that actually six tanks are leaking.

Cleanup of the waste at the site has been bolstered in the past through $2 billion in federal stimulus funds, but progress has been slow.  The site actually started clean up efforts in 1989, and a recent report by the Department of Energy estimates that cleanup will require another 40-50 years.  This requires resources from the government, of which budget cuts and competing interests may interfere.

Damage to the environment has probably been occurring since the 1940s.  There was a major leak in 1951 that went unreported to the media.  Between 1945 and 1951, radionuclides were being released into the air, and entered the food chain through cows grazing in nearby pastures on contaminated grass.  There was an estimated 685,000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 released into the water and air between 1944 and 1947, affecting the fish in the Columbia River that were an integral part of the diet of Native American people who lived near the river’s edge.

A mass tort lawsuit has been tied up in the court system since the 1986 release of 19,000 previously unavailable documents detailing the risk of cancers to those who lived downwind of the site.

Initially, it was thought that the land the site was on would be uninhabitable for 150 years due to contamination after cleanup efforts were completed.  The latest estimate actually projects that time period now to be 1,000 years.

And what happens if the tanks continue to leak, and no solution is found before all the radioactive material that is left in them leaks out into the river?  The reports I am reading online talk about the danger to the Columbia River system, but if it flows out into the ocean, how much of our marine life would be affected if we do not do something?  I believe we should keep a watch on this matter, and pressure government representatives to continue to financially support the cleanup effort to get that done as soon as possible.


Mono Lake Micro-Model

So, I described our trip to Mono Lake a few posts back.  This visit, the summer of 2012, was actually my second trip to this area.  During the first trip, I took the following pictures that demonstrate the towers of tufa coming out of the water, as well as the islands in the middle.  These are unique geological features that became part of the language of the struggle to keep Mono Lake alive in an environmental drama that played out in the California court system in the 1970s.  I was reading more about that story in a travel guide to California that I recently acquired, and wanted to share with you more of the story.TRAVEL In the 1940s, the city of Los Angeles began diverting water from Mono Lake to supply the city with.  This was made possible by a feat of engineering that involved tunneling through the Mono Craters, which were an active volcano field.  This water diversion was to supplement, or replace, the water obtained from the Owens River Valley area.

There is a long, complicated story involving shady deals with investors who were selling or buying property and water rights for unreasonably cheap prices to gain profit and benefit Los Angeles by stripping the Owens Valley of its former status as a fertile agricultural area, and rob Owens Lake and river of its water supply in the process.  This process had been occurring in the early years of the twentieth century.  By this time, the Owens Lake had become a dust bowl, and the supply of brine shrimp that formerly lived in its waters had disappeared, along with the birds that fed on them. There was a stand-off for water rights between the local farmers of the area and the city investors that finally culminated in a dynamite explosion at a gate to the aqueduct.  Soon after,a shut-down of the town bank  left the ranchers high and dry, literally; their water sources shriveled up and their life savings disappearing.  The town became a ghost-town as businesses shuttered their doors, and those who stayed may have found themselves now working for the other side, doing repair and  maintenance for the aqueduct.  That was in 1927, and after much court doings and goings on between this county (Inyo) and the city of Los Angeles, the water was finally allowed to flow back down the river bed at the end of 2006.  However, groundwater continues to be pumped out at a rate higher than what can be recharged, leading to long term desertification of this area.

This is the situation Mono Lake became in danger of repeating, as the city of Los Angeles turned to the Mono Basin for water instead.  By the 1980s, 17% of the water supply of the city was coming from this area.  The level of Mono Lake dropped by half, and as the water level dropped, the salinity increased.  This lake, like Owens Lake, was populated with brine shrimp. Algae in the water provided food for the shrimp, that in turn, fed the birds – mostly gulls.  As the lake level dropped, the islands in the middle now became peninsulas, and predators gained access now to the areas where the birds (e.i. California Gulls) kept their nests.  Eggs and young were killed, and the diminishing food supply as well was affecting the bird population.TRAVEL

Fortunately, the changes in the lake were not going unnoticed or unchecked.  In 1978, the Mono Lake Committee was formed to protect Mono Lake.  The group eventually sued the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to protect the lake, and lobbied the California legislature, which then passed a bill funding a scientific study to determine the environmental effects of the water diversion.  Specifically, the aims of the study were to find out of the lake would dry up to the point that the invertebrates and algae in the lake would die out, and nesting and migratory birds would no longer be able to use the area.TRAVELThe scientists who conducted the study took a unique approach to their work, which resulted in a different kind of report finding.  The first task was to hire an oceanographic mapping company to measure the depth of the lake.  They worked with a consulting scientist to develop a computer model of the rates of evaporation from the lake.  Then they worked to discover at what water level was detriment to the ecosystem within it going to occur.  Then they presented three options to the public: the level at which no change would occur, a second level that kept aquatic species going but sacrificed some level of bird nesting habitat and scenic qualities, and a third level which would cause death to all the lake’s life.

This report, with the three options, was taken up to the court – the same court that earlier had decided to uphold the right of the LAPWD to divert 100% of the stream flow that led into the lake unless environmental damage could be measured.  This time, the court reversed its previous decision based on the findings of the report. The judge ruled that the city could not divert any of the water until the level of the lake was above the first level, the one at which no damage would be incurred. Today, twenty four years after this decision, the lake has still not reached this level, and for now, Mono Lake and its waters belong to the wild, and not to man.

This success story can be used as a model on how to balance the needs of the people against the environment, and needs of non-human animals.

Pardon The Interruption: What I Have Learned From My Time in the Chair

So it has been about ten weeks since my accident that resulted my injury, and cessation of normal life for a while. It might be a few more weeks until I am walking again. The past month or so, I have been working on my physical rehabilitation with the goal of walking by mid-March. The weather has been so nice that it has been driving me crazy to be stuck inside and not able to go hiking. I have been spending some time outside a little in the wheelchair, watching the kids or brushing the dogs, just enjoying the outdoors. (I even tried to take it around the block for a spin, but that proved much more difficult than I anticipated).
I’ve also spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what happened, why, and what I can take away from this. These are the ways I have grown and the things I have learned from this experience the past couple of months:

) The world has much more good in it than bad: sometimes it is easy to dwell on the scary stories we see in the news, and we lose sight of the fact that human nature is inherently good. You might start to believe that all human beings operate in their own self-interest without consideration for what is fair or right. However, if you actually interact with people while you are on crutches or in a wheelchair or otherwise injured, you will see, through the actions of others, that humans are overwhelmingly good. I have been amazed at how many people go out of their way to open doors, carry things, help me get situated. Complete strangers show compassion in unexpected places. My friends have made extraordinary gestures. If the 80/20 rule applies in this situation, I would say that 80% of people go out of their way to help another person in need, and that is truly touching to see.

2) Compassion for the ill and wounded: I am hoping that if nothing else, this experience has taught me how to better care for other people, maybe someone in this same situation or a situation with similar conditions. Maybe this is the primary lesson – maybe I would need this empathy to help a loved one later on in life through a debilitating illness or injury.

For about five weeks, I could hardly get around besides moving from the bed to the couch to the bathroom and back again. I was bored out of my mind. I truly appreciated just having someone spend some time with me. There were simple pleasures, like sweet treats brought or sent to me by friends and family, a particular lotion or comfortable outfit, some new movies to watch. The fact that my little family unit here at the house suddenly had to cook for me, to bring me food and drink, to help me with pillows and blankets was something I appreciated. What if I didn’t have these people? J was amazing as my nurse and aid – helping me get cleaned using a shower chair, making sure I had what I needed at hand, helping me get dressed, cleaning my wounds and changing my bandages – I really had to rely on him and maybe someday he will rely on me in the same way, and I hope I can be as calm and patient of a caregiver as he was.

3) Understanding of what it is like to be handicapped: I think I am going to look at the world in a different way now. It is so easy to kind of look past people with handicaps without really dwelling on how hard their life can be, in terms of dealing with just even the day to day challenges of getting cleaned, dressed, toiletry and bathing, cooking and eating – the basic aspects of life as a human. Getting around, participating in the same activities of life as other people presents even greater challenges. While I was out of work, they built a handicapped ramp to get into my building, and installing rails in my bathroom there. Thank God, that would have been impossible to navigate without. Dealing with bathrooms in restaurants, getting in and out of other buildings, enjoying the outdoors in the same ways I used to have all presented their own challenges.

4) Virtues of online shopping: this last one is one Jason probably wishes I didn’t figure out. He probably didn’t mind that I did all the Christmas shopping this way, and he hardly had to get out to the stores to get anything. There were additional temptations, though. I realized through this process that if I wanted something, it was only a click of a button away, and it made it so much easier for me to spend money on it. Also, because this door had been opened (the “Christmas Gift Gateway?”), online ads were suddenly more compelling to me. On the other hand, though, I learned the dark side of online ordering, which actually probably worked in our financial favor. I learned that it is probably better to try on clothes at the store than buy them online, that having a product in hand is probably better than having it delayed or get lost in shipment, and that you can’t judge the quality of a product from its picture online. Three dresses, three books, and three delayed gifts is all it took to teach me these lessons, which now act as a sort of vaccine against making more online purchases. However, I did get exposure to some awfully interesting sites, like Amazon and Etsy, that I have gotten a little obsessed with.

5) Take the time while you have it: because you never know what might happen.  In some ways I thought I had been being good about this, but as I lay in my bed weeping about the things I wanted to do with my children that I couldn’t now, I realized I wasn’t soaking it all in.  I think I am better than some at making plans about what I want to do, and carrying them out, but there is a lot of room for improvement in there, too.

6) Appreciate the little things: like being able to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom without a big production, like being able to make your own meal, or go out to eat to celebrate a birthday, like laying on your left side to snuggle with your honey at night.  There were a lot of little things I was taking for granted, but I will be savoring every one of them from now on!

That’s probably not all; I am sure I will think of more later.  I am also making another kind of list – the list of things I want to do when I get better again, the things I am looking forward to when I am finally cleared to head back to my normal life.  I am looking forward to sharing those adventures as they unfold in the near future.


Off-Beat San Francisco: Bay Area Blooms

If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

DSC_1909 can just find some to gawk at and take pictures of like we did…
July 2 2012
DSC_1910 DSC_1911 DSC_1912 DSC_1914 DSC_1946 DSC_1949 DSC_1953 DSC_1955 DSC_1963 IMG_4305 IMG_4306 IMG_4307
The last three shots are mine, from the Fort Mason Community Garden. The others are Jason’s, found along the way to the places I dragged us to. If you know the name of these, particularly the brown ones, post and let me know!