June 24, 2015: There's a drought on in California, of which you certainly are painfully aware if you live here and probably are if you have been following the news from afar. We're used to drought conditions, having endured them in one form or another for decades, but this one seems determined to stick around longer than most, and our governor has imposed some pretty drastic water restrictions that cities are only now beginning to figure out how to absorb. In our neck of the woods the Contra Costa Water District holds sway over water rules and prices its customers must pay, and not surprisingly those prices are going up while the amount of water we are allowed to use without incurring penalties is going down.
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Folks in Oakley get their water from the Diablo Water District, which is affiliated with CCWD, so the changes have been a little slower in reaching us, but we are nonetheless supposed to cut our water usage by 25 percent from what we used in 2013. That was the last year our outdoor sprinkler system worked, so it has been a relatively easy task to reduce use when our plants aren't getting what they were used to. It showed in our water bill last year, which was a mere $252 for all of 2014. But it also shows in the yard, which is beginning to look like something out of the Great Dust Bowl era.
Roni isn't one to sit idly by and watch while our yard goes to pot. She has been eager to invest in new landscaping – something a lot more drought tolerant that is still attractive to look at and doesn't cost too much. But there is only so much decorative rock or fake grass that you want to put in, and we really love our natural green plants, even if they are greedy little water hogs. It's a dilemma for us and thousands of others, so any innovative answer that presents itself is one we're all willing to look at.
One of those innovations has been right under our nose here in town. The Ironhouse Sanitary District this month opened up a recycled water fill station for its customers to use, and Roni as the district's outreach coordinator has been heavily involved with promoting it. Thanks to its UV treatment methods the district pumps some of the cleanest water around, but because of state regulations that water ended up being discharged into the San Joaquin River or into the ground on Jersey Island, where it was all but useless. The district recently acquired its permit to distribute some of that recycled water to the public – and it's a mighty thirsty public.
No, the water can't be consumed by humans for drinking or cooking, but it is perfect for water-hungry landscapes such as ours, and there is no shortage of it to go around. The sanitary district set up four pumps at its fill station, which looks a little like a gas station. The staffed facility is open Saturday mornings and Monday and Wednesday afternoons. They supply it with a 21,000-gallon truck that is filled at the treatment plant and then driven about a half mile to the recycling distribution site. Customers are allowed up to 300 gallons per visit and must supply their own containers.
The recycled water fill station opened on Saturday, June 20, to an enthusiastic audience. Guys who heard about it from articles in the newspaper came ready with their pickup trucks hauling giant tanks that they filled several times throughout the morning, testing the strength of their vehicles. The water itself may be free for the taking, but it weighs a lot – 8.3 pounds per gallon – so you need a sturdy car to carry it home in large quantities.
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OU CAN'T BE involved with a project like Roni is and not want to get the full user experience, so it was no surprise when we made a visit to Home Depot this week that we found ourselves looking at containers. There are no requirements at the water fill station for what type of container one uses, just so long as it is a minimum of 1 gallon. Although the sanitary district currently places a 300 gallon limit on the amount of water you can collect in one visit, some folks have brought containers as large as 500 gallons. One entrepreneur was finding discarded 275-gallon containers on Craigslist and reselling them for $100 to folks needing them for the recycled water. We needed something considerably smaller to fit in the trunk of Roni's Toyota Corolla.
We have yet to become hardcore recycled water users, so we decided to start small and cheap; we picked up four of the orange 5-gallon plastic buckets with lids that Home Depot sells, figuring they would be relatively easy to carry when full, weighing in at around 40 pounds each. Roni took them in to work on Monday morning and came back with her 20 gallons of free, sparkling clean recycled water. Glenn joked that when he brings stuff home from the office it is usually cool freebies like books, CDs and day-old newspapers; all Roni brings home is purified crap water.
But that water might as well be liquid gold. With some places limiting average daily water use to 150 gallons or less before fines kick in, having even 20 gallons of recycled water can make a huge difference. We lugged the heavy containers into the backyard and set about watering trees, flowers and shrubs that have been badly neglected.
We topped off the water in our fountain in Summer's Garden. That swallowed up about 4 gallons. Our big evergreen ash tree, which is fighting for its very life right now, took another four gallons. The remaining 12 gallons got divided among the roses, herbs, jasmine and ferns. Before we knew it, it was gone and we hadn't even touched the other side of the backyard or anything in the front yard. It made us realize just how much water it really takes to keep up your landscaping – and we have a relatively small yard compared to others. When it comes from your hose and is applied through a nozzle, you don't even think about how many gallons you are using. When we used to water our front lawn – when we had a lawn and not the bare patch of sand it is now – we probably poured 100 gallons on it alone every couple of days. We couldn't imagine doing that now.
The idea of using free recycled water sounds great, but we aren't sure how much we'll actually want to take. The reality is that making multiple trips to the sanitary district to fill small containers is a hassle, and we don't have anything with the capacity to carry larger loads. Purchasing a trailer and a large 300-gallon tank would be expensive, and then there is the matter of how to distribute it once we get it home. It wouldn't be practical to lug around 50 5-gallon buckets to get the watering done, which would mean investing in a pump and hoses, or creating some sort of gravity-fed water tower. All of this sounds very survivalist, and the hope is the drought will eventually end. When it does, how many people will want to go to the effort just for a few gallons of recycled water? Only time will tell. In the meantime, our plants are loving the extra drink and it isn't costing us more than time and a little gas, so we'll keep at it for now.
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FINDING WATER IS the least of the problems we've had to cope with at the Delta Science Center rice greenhouse on Jersey Island. Last month we battled the wind just to get the greenhouse built, and this month we've been battling it to keep the plastic from blowing away.
Things clearly have not worked out as hoped. We drove up to Davis in mid-May to collect a sack of rice seed from the UC Davis research team. Roni let that soak for several days while we built the greenhouse, with the hope that it would be ready to plant by the time the greenhouse was up and running. We hauled the rice out to the island the first week of June in one of those large green storage totes you can get at Walmart. Despite keeping the lid on the tote, the whole back of Roni's car smelled like fermented rice. We could have made our own sake and it probably would have been a better use of our efforts.
The rice had sprouted by the time Roni was ready to plant it. That was a good thing. She scattered it around the greenhouse and then turned on the water to make sure things were damp enough to continue the growing process. Unfortunately, rice wasn't the only thing growing in the heat of the greenhouse; the native weeds were quite at home there as well, and they steadily took over more of the soil as the month progressed. Roni tried to pull some of the weeds by hand at first, but that was an exercise in futility. She called upon DSC colleague Mike Painter to go in and weed-whack, which he did. That helped trim the grass a bit, but it did nothing to kill the roots, which quickly rebounded.
It got so bad that by the last week of June there was literally no progress from the rice, and Roni had calls in to her contacts at UC Davis to find out about getting another batch. She thinks this is the same blend she used in the first year of the rice project, and that it may not be as tolerant of the heat in the greenhouse. That would be understandable, as we aren't very tolerant of the heat in there either!
That point was proven shortly after the greenhouse was built and we had to make some minor repairs to the plastic. We had tried to construct the greenhouse the same way we had built it last year, but our methods apparently weren't as efficient. The winds on Jersey Island get pretty vicious because there are few natural windbreaks, so all that plastic sheeting on the greenhouse acts like a giant sail. The thin lattice battens and short roofing nails we had used to anchor the plastic to the foundation weren't strong enough to withstand the wind action and had begun to pull away, leaving the plastic flapping in places and letting cooler air into the greenhouse. By cooler, we mean 90 degrees; the temperature inside the structure was easily upwards of 130 degrees. Welcome to Venus.
The other problem was that the PVC pipes we had used to reinforce the plastic sheeting were moving around too much from the wind action. The PVC ribs should have been evenly spaced but had managed to move enough that the plastic was sagging. We had to come in each day and readjust the ribs by hand – a process that was neither easy nor pleasant inside the searing heat of the hothouse. We tried to solve that problem by adding duct tape to the pipes to keep them from sliding around. That was only moderately effective, and still didn't prevent the wind from battering the plastic sheeting.
The worst day was following a thunderstorm that moved through our region, bringing rainfall and cooler temperatures in its wake. Guess what happens when a wall of warm, high pressure air is suddenly replaced by a mass of cool, low-pressure air? You get mighty wind currents. The gusts on Jersey Island that day were in the 35 mph range, and it was all we could do to keep the plastic tacked down. We used 8-foot 2x3s to prop up the PVC ribs so they wouldn't move around so much. We seriously thought the greenhouse wouldn't survive the night. But somehow it did, and now we just need to figure out how to grow rice in it instead of weeds.
The project is seriously behind schedule. Last year by now we already had the rice seedlings transplanted into the adjacent field. It takes four to six weeks from planting just to get the rice seedlings large enough so they can be transplanted. It might be the end of August before we see any progress on this year's crop.
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RONI MAY BE having her struggles growing rice, but the Delta Science Center has been enjoying success in other ways recently. In May, the DSC sponsored an art contest for students to draw some of the endangered species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, and offered prizes for the winner and their classroom. The entries were exhibited during an event at Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley, and then entered into the Contra Costa County Fair that ran from May 28-31.
We went to the fair on its Thursday opening day so Roni could check out how the artwork was displayed. She had submitted about 40 matted drawings as well as six sculptures that had been entered by students of a recreation sculpting class. The fair staff did a nice job arranging everything in one section of the arts and crafts exhibit hall, and Roni eagerly checked her entries to see how they had fared with the judges. She was delighted to discover that every one of the works in the DSC's collection had received a first, second or third prize.
But the biggest surprise of all we didn't discover until June 2, two days after the fair had concluded and we returned to pick up the DSC's entries. Sitting on the display table attached to the DSC's sign explaining the contest was a huge blue ribbon – the fair's Directors Award for the best display. Although Roni had to return the artwork to its creators, along with the ribbons they had won, we took photos of some of the best ones with the idea that they might form the basis for next year's DSC calendar, which we put together each fall. January is always just around the corner.
The Delta Science Center has also started hosting a kids science club for the summer months, with about a dozen participants meeting every few weeks to talk about Delta-related themes. Next month they are planning a field trip to Jersey Island to take photos of the levees and the wildlife in the area. We have plans to tag along with them and take the quadcopter up for a flight. Can't wait.
Well, that will do it for June. We're getting ready to celebrate Glenn's 50th birthday in a few days and watch the fireworks. Hopefully those two things won't happen at the same time! Until next month...