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A Ray of Hope from the Lone Star State


By United States Census Bureau, modified by Decius (Based on Image:Serbin TX.PNG with dot erased), colour added by PonderTerra, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From way up here in the Great White North (aka Canada) it is easy to view Texas as a collection of stereotypes. Many of us have some kind of mental image involving cowboy boots, ten-gallon hats and plate-sized steak dinners. Those of us who grew up with Dallas (the TV show) may also think of big bad oil companies.

When the discussion shifts to science and education, what comes to my mind are the textbook battles that the state seems to go through on a regular basis.

Two of the most publicized battles involve the teaching of evolution and climate change.  In my superficial understanding of the situation, the groups responsible for selecting the science textbooks for the entire state’s schools have been infiltrated by unscientific groups who exercise significant control in choosing the content.  As a result, evolution and climate change are either removed, rebranded as possible theories, or placed up against competing and contradictory pseudo-scientific theories. In both cases, the intent is to place doubt in the real scientific results and, by association, the scientists and their methods.  Indoctrinating people when they are young, especially with the help of publicly funded institutions, is much more cost effective for those wanting to sell an alternate, unscientific message that goes against what science is telling us.

Since Texas is one of the biggest textbook markets in the US, their choice frequently directly influences what other states use.  In other words the stakes are huge.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I saw the following recent article at

Science Textbooks Across the Country Will Teach Real Science Because of a Decision in Texas

This time around, it appears that the Texas Board of Education consulted with top Texan scientists and teachers and accepted their recommendations almost without change. As a result it is more likely that evolution and climate change science will now be taught without too much of a taint from special-interests.

As for me, it’s probably time for me to review my collection of Texas stereotypes.

References and Some Further Reading

2013-11-29:  Ryan Koronowski, Science Textbooks Across the Country Will Teach Real Science Because of a Decision in Texas

2003-07-09:  Steven Schafersman President, Texas Citizens for Science;  TEXAS TEXTBOOK ADOPTION: An Historical Analysis

National Center for Science Education:  Climate Change Education

2013-11-27:  Chris Mooney,  Why Climate Change Skeptics and Evolution Deniers Joined Forces


Artificial turf video: “What’s the Deal With Synthetic Turf Particles?”

I came across this interesting video What’s the Deal With Synthetic Turf Particles? on YouTube recently which looks into a number of issues associated with the use of crumbled tire waste as a filler for artificial turf. This video is focused on sports field installations but many of the issues apply to domestic installations as well.


Richard Alley on Glaciers, Climate-change and Sea-level

Slip Slidin’ Away – Ice sheets and sea level in a warming world

I like Richards presentation style.  The story is pretty interesting too though the implications that sea-level rise might have some unpredictable relatively sudden events should is a tad scary.


James Hansen TED Talk

James Hansen: Why I must speak out about climate change

This may be more than a year old but it is still news worth listening to.

The Artificial Grass Lawn – What a Waste

It has been almost two years since I wrote my article Artificial Turf Grass Lawn – Good Idea or Bad? A couple of the comments on that article have induced me to write this short follow-up as there was the suggestion that I am a naysayer implying that I am biased against artificial turf. I’m not against artificial turf per se. I’m just advocating for a careful analysis of the real long term costs. I also have a lot of criticisms for the perfectly manicured lawn.

One person commenting on the original article mentioned the HOA (Home-Owner Association) and the fact that those who are a part of one may not have the choice of anything but the flat green expanse of a lawn – artificial or real. This is a problem with the HOA itself and does nothing to change any positive or negative aspects of either natural or artificial turf.

If someone were to come up with a good way to deal with the end-of-life issues when the artificial turf has to be replaced, that could go a long way towards changing my opinion on some aspects of artificial turf. To see why this is a big deal, let’s take the extreme case where everybody switches to artificial turf.

In a 2005 article entitled Could the Grass be Greener? Thomas Hayden talks about the environmental costs of what he calls America’s biggest irrigated crop, the 40 million acres or so of grass that is found on residential lawns, in parks and sports fields and in many other spots big and small across America.

Let’s assume that we were going to replace the entire 40 million acres of organic stuff with the plastic variety. Most artificial turf has an advertised lifespan of about 10 years so, there would be 4 million acres of artificial turf going into the landfill each year per current practices.

The US creates about 200 million tons of garbage each year so the obvious question is: how does 4 million acres compare with 200 million tons. That’s like comparing apples and orange-peels so it’s time for some research.

I found one artificial turf installer in Southern California ( that lists the face weight (artificial grass product only) and installed weight (including backing and infill) of their products in ounces per square yard. Face weight values ranged from 65 to 88 ounces per square yard with corresponding installed weights of 90 to 116 ounces.

Let’s use a number in the middle of these ranges, say 96 ounces (six pounds) per square yard. There are 4840 square yards in an acre so an acre would weigh 14.5 tons which means those 4 million acres turn into 58 million tons of landfill each year. In the all-artificial-turf world, per capita waste would be 30% higher than it otherwise would be with plain old grass. We could bicker a little over packaging for fertilizers and grass seed or manufacturing waste during the production of related products but my guess is that they would not change the numbers very much.

The bottom line is that artificial turf results in a lot of waste and most installers who tout the benefits of their product don’t have much to say about the liabilities that accrue as the turf wears out. What if tipping fees at your local dump triple – or worse yet, what if turf is banned from the public landfills altogether?

One problem with the discourse over artificial turf is that it is always compared with a lawn of healthy green sod that is heavily watered, fed with fertilizers and sprayed with pesticides. If we throw in other options like xeriscaping, letting it go brown, vegetable gardens, rock gardens, etc. then both real and artificial turf would quickly find themselves low down on the environmental heap.

Review: Straphanger

There is a new book just out by Taras Grescoe called “Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile.” He was interviewed on CBC Radio recently on “The Current”.  Last time that I checked, the full interview was still online here.  I’m more than halfway through the eBook version (for Kobo) and quite depressed at how far most of North America is behind many other parts of the world.

Chapter 9 talks about Portland Oregon and Vancouver (my region).  Happily Vancouver gets a pretty good grade by North American standards.

I especially enjoyed Chapter 5 focussing on Copenhagen, Denmark.  To see why, I only need quote a single paragraph:

Bicycles here actually outnumber humans.  At the last tally, central Copenhagen counted 560,000 bikes, but only 519,000 people.  In the greater Copenhagen area, 37 percent of residents get to work or school by bicycle – a proportion that jumps to 55 percent in the central core – and these numbers are rising every year.  To put this in context: more people commute by bicycle in greater Copenhagen, population 1.8 million, than cycle to work in the entire United States, pop. 310 million.

Before you start making excuses as to why your city could never embrace the bicycle in the same way go find Copenhagen on a map.  If it were at the same latitude but on the west coast of North America it would actually be in Alaska.

Overall, the book is easy to read and full of cool historic detail that helps provide perspective as to how different cities, regions and countries ended up, for better or worse, as they did. I prefer Taras’ writing style to that of many books that are littered with statistics and footnotes.

The title of a review of Straphanger in the Globe and Mail sums it up: “Why North America sucks at mass transit”.

Two thumbs up!

From Palm Springs to the Salton Sea – Hiking, Birding and Climate Change

…in which I describe some of our favourite hiking and bird-watching spots in and around the Coachella Valley and muse about the future of the Salton Sea with and without the help of Climate Change.

In and Around Palm Springs

We spent an extra-long weekend recently vacationing in the Palm Springs area, a place we’ve been to from time to time since we discovered it while living the greater Los Angeles area a few years back.  As we are presently living in British Columbia we have an added appreciation of the warmth in the wintertime.  Now, we don’t go there to golf or to sit pool-side and get a tan.  What we do like about the area are all the interesting places to hike and look for wildlife – mostly birds.

In Palm Springs and the surrounding communities, the heavy use of water for lawns, pools and various kinds of plant-life provides a good habitat for birds that, in many cases, would never be found in the desert.  Despite all the development there are still many interesting natural places to hike and look for wildlife in the area.  Some of our favorites are listed below:

  • Joshua Tree National Park is quite large and has extensive hiking trails at all difficulty levels.  It is also popular with rock-climbers.  We saw our first Gambel’s QuailScott’s Oriole and Ladder-backed Woodpecker in different parks of the park.
  • The Palms to Pines Scenic Byway which takes you in a loop from desert to pine forests and back up into the San Jacinto mountains south of Palm Springs.  There are lots of places to hike and look for wildlife along the way.  Idyllwild is roughly half way around the loop and a good place to stop for lunch.
  • The Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in Morongo Valley with its marsh and numerous trails is a good place to hike and, depending on the time of year, a favorite for bird-watching groups from all over Southern California.  We had our first sightings of the Vermillion Flycatcher (a gorgeous male) and the tiny but distinctive Calliope Hummingbird here within a few meters of the main parking lot.  One of our visits also treated us to a display of two Virginia Rails, usually quite furtive, chasing each other around a section of the marsh.
  • The Living Desert is Zoo, Botanical Garden and other stuff all bundled together.  A fun place to spend a half-day and a magnet for a number of bird species.  We saw our first Verdin and Costa’s Hummingbird here though both are quite common around the valley.  There’s a very cool and quite large model train exhibit too.
  • The Indian Canyons is close to Palm Springs and has extensive hiking trails.
  • The Thousand Palms Oasis is close to the Palm Springs area just a few minutes off of Interstate 10 using the Ramon exit.  This is a nice place to visit if you only have a couple of hours.  Our favorite walk is the McCallum Trail, a short desert hike between two oases.  There are typically lots of birds and, unfortunately, lots of places for them to hide from view.

The California Watchable Wildlife site has a good summary page for hiking and wildlife viewing in the Palm Springs area.

On to the Salton Sea

This was the first time that we visited the Salton Sea at the south end of the Coachella Valley though we only made it to the Salton Sea State Recreational Area along the North-East edge of the lake.  The wetlands further south will have to wait until next time.

The shore was lined with gulls and shorebirds attracted, in part, by the good supply of fish in the sea – mostly tilapia, a tropical species and one of the few left in the lake due to its high level of salinity.  A recent cool spell had actually caused a significant die-off leaving large areas of the shoreline covered in dead fish.  Luckily, the cool weather kept the smell down (we’ve heard that the lake can be quite stinky at various times of the year).

Winter time is not the best time of the year for birds here though we did see one new species that we had never seen before – the Abert’s Towhee – a large species of sparrow at the western edge of its range.  We were also somewhat surprised to see 5 Sora within a few yards of each other.  The Sora, though common, is a marsh dweller that is normally quite furtive and whenever we have seen them in the past it was always one at a time.

It was a productive, if short, first trip to the Salton Sea.

Some Salton Sea History

Following my visit, I decided to find out more about the Salton Sea, its importance for wildlife and what the future might have in store with and without the effects of climate change.  Here is a summary of what I think are some of the more interesting bits (I provide links for those wanting more detail).

The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California and one of the best places to see birds in the southern part of the state, particularly during spring and fall migration.

The surface of the sea is almost 230 feet below sea level.  If you look at a topographic map you will see that the Salton Sea sits at the north end of the rift forming the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez to some).  A long time ago the Salton basin, sometimes referred to as the Salton Sink, was cut off from the rest of the gulf by an alluvial plain created by silt from the Colorado River.  The subsequent history of the basin was one of intermittent filling and drying up as the flow of the Colorado River changed.

The most recent filling occurred when a levy broke along the Colorado River in 1905 which led to the creation of the sea over a period of a year and a half until the original river flow was restored.  Since then the inflow from agricultural irrigation runoff has kept the sea from disappearing.  With no output, the sea is currently 25% saltier than the ocean which has caused many of the previously introduced fish species to disappear – and it is getting saltier every year so that it is only a matter of time until it can no longer support any fish species at all.  Worse yet, with the heavy demand for water in the American Southwest, the sea may yet disappear altogether from diminished agricultural runoff if nothing is done to stabilize it.

So why should we care if the sea dries up?  After all, the Salton Sea has been dry many times before.

One reason is that the sea represents an important stop along the “pacific flyway”, the migration route followed by millions of birds each year.  More than 90% of California’s wetlands that once formed part of this flyway have disappeared as a result of human development – much of that since the formation of the Salton Sea.  If the sea disappears, the effect on bird migration may be significant as many of the alternate stopping points that once existed no longer do.

A second reason is that if the sea dries up, the resulting dry lake bed is expected to cause serious air-quality problems as strong winds send clouds of aerosolized salt and dust into surrounding areas.  To understand what the consequences of a dried up Salton Sea might be, consider the legacy of Owens Lake which lies about 200 miles due north of Los Angeles and along the eastern edge of the Serra Nevadas, between Sequoia National Park and Death Valley.  In 1913 the water that normally flowed into the lake was diverted to supply Los Angeles and within 15 years the lake was dry.  Today, Los Angeles County is still suffering the consequences of this water diversion as the 2011 essay Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake by Karen Piper poignantly describes.  In draining the lake, they have, decades later, run afoul of both EPA air quality regulations and the North American Migratory Birds Treaty Act.

If you are interested in additional information on Owen’s Lake I would recommend reading the articles: Owens (Dry) Lake, California: A Human-Induced Dust Problem from the USGS and Owens Lake by the non-profit Owens Valley Committee.

For more information on the Salton Sea, see the The Salton Sea Story…so far, a position paper by the Buena Vista Audubon Society (representing north-eastern San Diego County).  Another excellent read is the 2005 National Geographic article on the Salton Sea (make sure to follow the link to the full article).  Finally, on a somewhat unrelated note, you might find the 2011 article Flooding of Ancient Salton Sea Linked to San Andreas Earthquakes from ScienceDaily interesting.

So, What’s in Store for the Salton Sea?

In 2003, an agreement was made between the state of California, 4 water districts and some environmental groups that redistributed a large chunk of the Colorado River water rights in southern California.  For the Salton Sea this meant less inflow from surrounding agricultural areas that had lost some of their irrigation water.  As part of the deal, the state of California assumed the responsibility for mitigating environmental damage which has resulted in the development of a Salton Sea restoration plan which appears to be still in the approval phase.

Restoration looks like it will be expensive too – one estimate I have seen was for about $7-billion.  I guess that it should not be surprising that this project would be expensive since the plan is in effect fighting Nature.  If left alone without the agricultural runoff inflow, the Salton Sea would probably have disappeared years ago with much less of a salt-dust problem.

With large budget deficits at both the state and federal level, I can imagine that there will be significant resistance to such an expenditure so whether or not the Salton Sea will ever be truly stabilized is not clear.

I wonder how many wetlands could be restored elsewhere in California for $7 billion?

The Salton Sea with Climate Change

I have to admit that the future of the Salton Sea looks gloomy, even without climate change.  Climate change is expected to make the climate in the southwest of the US both warmer and drier meaning less inflow and higher evaporation rates making stabilization even more difficult.

Climate change, however, may be the ultimate savior for the Sea.  One of my favorite climate change tools on the web is the interactive Sea Level Rise Explorer.  I grabbed an image from this tool showing the elevation above sea level for areas between the Salton Sea and the Gulf of California.  You can see that a rise in sea level of about 10 meters would be enough for the Salton Sea to rejoin the Gulf of California.

How long will it take for sea levels to rise 10 meters or more?  Looking at different sources of information shows significant uncertainty, however, it is interesting to note that the Dutch are planning for 2 to 4 meters of sea level rise by the year 2200 (see this NY Times article) in their plans for protecting their country from raising seal levels.  At these rates it will take 5 to 10 centuries before the ocean starts to fill the Salton Sea.  Given the apparent global political disinterest in dealing with climate change, it seems almost certain that it is only a matter of time until the Gulf of California reclaims its long-lost Salton basin.