Enhancing Watersheds with Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission’s Dr. Shelley Luce

The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission monitors, assesses, coordinates and advises the activities of California’s state programs and oversees funding that affects the beneficial uses, restoration and enhancement of Santa Monica Bay and its watersheds.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have on with us right today Doctor Shelley Luce, the Director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. Welcome to Green is Good, Doctor Shelley Luce. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Thank you very much. I’m pleased to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, you know, Shelley, you’re doing great work and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission is really important but before we get there, we have so many listeners around the world that first want to hear your story and what you’re doing and how you even got to this position. Share your journey a little bit with our listeners to learn about you first. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Well, I grew up enjoying the outdoors a great deal. I grew up in Canada in kind of a medium sized town very near the Great Lakes and we used to visit the lakes a lot and I always loved getting under water and seeing fish and turtles and occasionally snakes that swim by and I just was a fish myself basically and as I got older, I really wanted to understand what was going on in the natural environment so kind of naturally fell into studying sciences and biology and ecology and kept going with it and found that the more I understood how the natural world around me worked, the more frustrated I felt by the things that we were doing as a society that was harming that environment and when I came to Los Angeles to do my Ph.D. at UCLA and started working with an environmental group here called Heal the Bay, they really lit my fire and when I understood how things work in Los Angeles with regard to water- We import water to drink, we use it once, we clean it really well, and then we send it out to the ocean. We pave our environment here in order to be able to build homes and drive cars around and that means the rainwater that falls in Los Angeles hits pavement, gets dirty, and gets washed right out to the ocean so when I saw the disruption of what should be a natural water cycle here in Los Angeles where water is so critical, I couldn’t walk away and I just threw myself into that issue. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, that’s so well put that it is and has been historically one of the most fascinating and difficult issues that Los Angeles, both from an economic and political standpoint has wrestled with in time memorial so that’s a great point and LA is about water for the good and for the bad. I’m on your website right now and it is just a gorgeous website. It just makes me harken and wish I was at the beach right now in Santa Monica and I have so many great memories of our children being raised out there and for our listeners who want to follow along, because I’m going to be on your website while we have this chat today, it’s www.santamonicabay.org. It is just simply beautiful and for a shameless plug, I’m going to first read your mission: “Our mission is to restore and enhance the Santa Monica Bay through actions and partnerships that improve water quality, conserve and rehabilitate natural resources, and protect the bay’s benefits and values.” Couldn’t be better. It’s just wonderful. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Inspiring. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, it is, but there’s so many fascinating and wonderful organizations, some of whom have been on the show before, Waterkeepers and Heal the Bay and the Estuary Program. Can you share the differential of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation and the Commission and what you do compared to those other great and important organizations first? DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Yeah, sure, and those organizations are our partners and we couldn’t do what we do without them, but we are different. We fill a different niche here in Los Angeles. Our role is to bring everybody to the table and I’ve had some colleagues tell me that they think I have the hardest job in the city or in the region because we have to get the representatives of business and industry, reps from environmental groups, regulatory agencies, those who are regulated, and elected officials all around the same table and these people are suing each other outside of my meeting room but when they come to our table, they have to work together and I give them enormous kudos because they do it so they come to our table where our goal is to solve problems to enhance and restore the values of our coastal waters, as you just read from our mission statement, and that is a very different method, I should say, from what a lot of the other groups are doing and they work quite well together. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting, and your organization seems to be science focused. What does that mean? Because in so many ways, we’ve forgotten the importance of science in America and in our education process or at least, it hasn’t gotten the topical highlight that it deserves. Talk about how your foundation and the restoration commission is more science focused than others. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Well, I agree with you that that’s under appreciated in many ways, science itself by the general public and I teach college level science courses and one of the things I tell the kids right from the top is that there is a process to science. There is a long established methodology behind all sciences and that’s how we know when we get to an answer that we’ve uncovered something, we’ve uncovered a reality in the way something really works, what’s behind what we’re seeing, and that’s something that the Bay Restoration Foundation brings to our everyday work. We’re really fortunate because we are all scientists and we get to work on really relevant problems that, when we solve them, make our city a better place to live and make our ocean cleaner and the way that we incorporate science in what we do is that we approach all problems with the goal of finding a solution. we’re not going to point fingers. We’re not going to lay blame. we are going to figure out what the problem is and look at a range of options and in the very rational way that looks at water quality and looks at all the other benefits of the work we do and comes to some suggested solutions and of course, there will be an expense to implement those solutions and we want to make sure that that’s allocated fairly and maybe the users pay or maybe someone who caused some damages is going to pay but we let others figure that out and we can propose what is going to be the solution that works in that location so being a scientist means that you approach problems. You can break them down. You can look at them from different angles and it also means that you can read the scientific literature. You can understand why this way of treating water is the right thing to do in this location and something else isn’t going to work and that’s what really makes us different from a lot of environmental groups and government agencies as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know Shelley, again, I’m on your beautiful website, SantaMonicaBay.org, and I lived for years in Los Angeles and still spent a lot time out there for both business and personal reasons and on the website, I’m just now totally shocked of my lack of knowledge but here I am on the area that you cover, the Santa Monica Bay, and I’m looking at the map and I see the red outline here and my gosh, I thought the Santa Monica Bay was much more limited, but it literally goes from Point Dume all the way down to Palos Verdes, you’re covering here. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Yeah, it’s a really big area and it’s amazing that most people in Los Angeles don’t realize that all those beaches that they swim at are beaches at Santa Monica Bay so that is part of our goal is to help people become familiar with the natural geography all around them, which is really one of the reasons people come here. We have beautiful mountain ranges, we have this lush basin in the middle, and then we have this stunning coastline, rocky cliffs and headlands in Palos Verdes and Point Dume and then beautiful sand beaches. In some cases, even remnants of sand dunes that are really gorgeous and support beautiful insect and bird life and many people just aren’t quite familiar with how it all fits together so that’s one of the things we try to do is educate people that this is all connected and it’s all part of the great system that you’re enjoying every day just by living here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, when I’ve traveled out of the country- and this story’s about five years old or so- people have asked me about the show, Baywatch, because Baywatch is one of the most famous shows in the world, most popular shows, and they think most of America looks like Baywatch, which of course, is a Southern California, Santa Monica beach-based type of show but when I’m looking at what your website points out here that your watershed actually is about 9 million people that get to enjoy the beaches there and 5,000 species of plants, fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife. What a responsibility but an honor at the same time that you get that kind of interaction and that kind of care and responsibilities in your hands. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: It’s really incredible and we appreciate it so much and I’m so grateful that I’m able to work on it and it also is really challenging. If you look at a map of our watershed, the entire northern half is the Santa Monica Mountains, very steep and highly erosive, meaning when it rains, a lot of sand and stuff flows off of those mountains. It’s a little bit more sparsely populated in general. A lot of it is owned by the public. It’s state park and national recreation area. Then the entire southern half of the watershed is much flatter and that is of course, where we’ve chosen to build over the years so that whole part of the watershed is largely paved over and very, very densely inhabited by those millions of people that you mentioned so we have two distinct environments but very closely related environments and even in the north, it’s not what you would call pristine because it’s very heavily used by the people from the surrounding area who want to go there and hike and dip in the creek and enjoy the nature that’s up there so it is very challenging to work in these different environment and of course, very rewarding when we are able to make it work. JOHN SHEGERIAN: At the top of the show, you brought up, of course — you touched on the history of Los Angeles and the water issues that exist in and around the LA basin and region, but since you know so much about water and of course, the Santa Monica Bay, you get to interrelate with so many interesting thought leaders with regards to water across the United States. Can you share with our listeners some of the more pressing urban water issues that you’ve been exposed to and give some visibility to those that we’ve seen not only in Los Angeles right now, which you’re working on, and we appreciate your great work, but in the United States and what does that mean to all of us that are listening to this show today? DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Yes. I think two very closely related issues, really intertwined issues, that pretty much every major urban area in the southern half of America struggles with are urban runoff from when it rains and that water hits pavement and other hard surface, gets dirty, and then flows into rivers, and eventually lakes or the ocean and water supply, which is the water that we want to drink. These aren’t separate issues. There’s only one water and it goes around and around and around and everybody learns that when they went to school. It’s called the water cycle but we’ve managed to disrupt that and treat water as though it’s a linear thing so we take it from one place, we use it, we let it go down a drain, we hopefully clean it. In LA, we clean it very well and then we flush it out to the ocean never to be seen again. At the same time, we let our clean rain water fall on to dirty surface, flow into storm drains, the underground pipes, or into rivers and creeks and then out to the ocean carrying with it metals and oil and trash and other contaminants from our roadways and then again, out to the ocean polluting the ocean so these two things, really, we can solve both of those problems by putting them together allowing our water cycle to function naturally and we know how to do it already. One thing we can do is to make our city more permeable and that’s kind of a geeky way of saying it but what we want to do is we want to allow that rainwater that falls to sink into the ground like it would have before we paved everything so we call it unpaving the city but it doesn’t mean tearing up the roads and we’re all going to hike around with backpacks instead. What it means is directing water from hard surfaces to areas where it can sink into the ground. In some cases, that does mean unpaving. If we can unpave the edges of our parking lots, plant lovely native plants there, and allow the water from the parking lots to flow into these vegetated ditches, or swales we call them, there’s a big improvement because that’s a bunch of storm water that’s not going into the ocean. Instead, it’s going into a vegetated swale where it is filtered naturally by the soils, cleaned further by the plants taking out contaminants and by bacteria that break down contaminants, and then the water itself is allowed to either flow into a river now clean or even better, sink into the groundwater where it can become part of our water supply and that is really the ultimate goal for us at Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation and for the cities and the county of Los Angeles and we’re moving toward that. It takes a lot of education. The good thing is people love it when you do it because guess what. It greens the city at the same time and LA is a beautiful place and we come here because it’s a beautiful place but we’ve taken away a lot of the native vegetation and when we bring it back by making our streets greener and allowing water to sink into the local water tables, it makes our communities more beautiful and our people healthier so it’s really not that hard of a sales job when you think of it that way. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Shelley, is that then a paradigm that other cities can also then follow? DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Yeah. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay. Explain that a little bit. Like, are you trading information and processes and best practices with other leaders who are in charge of other water bodies or who have similar positions that you do all across America and potentially the world? Is this part of what you do? DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Absolutely. I’m very fortunate to be part of the National Estuary Program, which is a program of the U.S. EPA. Santa Monica Bay is considered an estuary of national significance and there are 27 others throughout the United States and we all get together twice a year with scientists from the U.S. EPA and we share these kinds of ideas exactly and it’s really productive because there are so many aspects to doing this kind of work. One is technical. One is legal. There are issues of property ownership. There are issues of easements and who owns the water once it gets into the ground and things like that and then there are funding issues. We have to figure out the right way to pay for all this work and there are a lot of really smart people devoted to doing exactly that, to solving all these concerns or addressing all these questions so there’s the National Estuary Programs of the U.S. EPA and then of course, there are cities whose agencies and elected officials really want to make this happen. It’s going to save them money in the long run and it’s going to add resilience. It’s going to make their cities more resilient to upcoming changes in our climate, which means changes in our rainfall, changes in how much water falls on the ground do we may have to deal with flooding in a different way and changes to how much water is available for us to drink so we really have to address that so it’s a huge question for cities all over the country and the methods I just described with regard to unpaving certain areas, they work all over the place. Seattle and Portland, where they get much more rain than we do, have been doing this with a great deal of focus for a number of years now, in part to clean up the water that’s flowing into their rivers and into Puget Sound, for example, in Seattle. You may have talked to people from there before. They’ve been leaders in this. In LA, we have to innovate different ways of doing it, in part, because we have different rainfall patterns. It’s dry for a very long time and then we get really big, intense rainstorms so our facilities, our bioswales and rain gardens and other things that we build need to be able to handle a lot of water at once so that’s a different challenge for Los Angeles. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, that’s why some of these cities, like you just pointed out, Seattle, Oregon, every time I go up to there, they seem very green because of some of them doing the processes that you’re suggesting. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Yes. They’ve been doing this for at least 10 years that I know of and maybe longer and they’ve helped to really figure out a lot of the early issues with it and now LA is really active in this as well and we’re innovating different things as well. For example, we feel that it needs to happen throughout all of our communities, rather than one big central facility, for example. We want to see this on every street in Los Angeles and it’s hard to expect an agency to go home to home and work with each property owner, ‘Can we do this here? Can we do this there?’ so we help with that and other environmental groups as well are working with communities to show them what they can do differently on their properties and to help them not only do it themselves but to get neighborhoods together. There’s a wonderful program in Panorama City neighborhood of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley that’s being run by The River Project and they are working with neighborhoods to engage every household on the street to do each other’s property. It’s kind of like a barn raising except instead of a barn raising, it’s removing some lawn or some concrete area, planting native plants, and configuring the ground so that water can sink in locally instead of flowing off and getting dirty and flowing into the ocean. I think that’s a really exciting way to go and it engages people in the water cycle and in what’s happening when the rain falls. Funny in LA, when it’s raining, people’s first thought is usually oh, the traffic’s going to be terrible. The freeways get slow and there’s fender benders all over the place. We found that when we worked with the community in Culver City and had people install rain barrels to collect rainwater from their roofs, their first thought when it rained was, ‘I’m going to fill up my barrel,’ and they would run out and check and then they would call us when the barrel was full and say, ‘I need another barrel. Can you give me another barrel? I gotta collect more water,’ and they would get upset when water was running over their driveway or running down their street because they were thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. That water is being wasted. I could be keeping that in a barrel and using it for my tomatoes.’ It really changed the way people thought about it and that’s very inspiring to me because that is where the change really needs to happen. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s inspiring to me and for our listeners that just joined, we’re so excited and honored to have Doctor Shelley Luce on. She’s the Director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and it’s www.santamonicabay.org. We’re talking about with Shelley this important issue of water, both on a national basis and of course, on a more micro basis on the importance of her and her organization protecting the Santa Monica Bay, which I learned and when you go on the website you’ll learn, covers much greater region and a much greater area than I ever could have imagined and I’ve lived out in the Santa Monica area since 1988 or so, so share this a little bit. Let’s go back to what you mentioned at the top of the show the issue of the real Chinatown story in Los Angeles, the importation of water and is there a movement today or do you feel hopeful that LA is going to eventually become self-reliant when it comes to water and is there anything that LA can do to move towards that direction right now? DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Absolutely. I’m very optimistic about that happening and one reason is because we have a couple of great examples here in Los Angeles already. When we say Los Angeles, we’re talking about the whole region right now. We have a couple of cities that are almost 100% local water sources right now. One of them is the city of Santa Monica, where they use local groundwater for the most part and also, they collect and clean and reuse rainwater for purposes of irrigation. Another city is the city of Downey, where they are also 100% dependent on their own local groundwater and this has some really good outcomes. One, they’re not moving water from far away, which costs a lot of energy because water is very heavy to move, and two, they’re very protective of the quality of their groundwater so they’re very careful about cleaning up rainwater and making sure that it is able to sink in in a way that it gets filtered by soils so a couple of examples in some of the smaller cities in LA County and then we have the rest of the county and the city of Los Angeles following those examples and working really hard to clean up our existing groundwater. There’s a very large groundwater aquifer in the San Fernando Valley, supplies drinking water already to portions of LA and it could supply a lot more but we need to clean up some of the contaminated parts of that groundwater and we need to do a better job of letting our rainwater sink into it. There’s an enormous momentum for that right now and we’re really moving that way so it’s very exciting. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, one of the things that we like to do on this show, Shelley, and you’re full of great ideas and opportunities, is talk about solutions. We have lots of listeners, not only here in Los Angeles in the Los Angeles region that you directly get to affect but also, we have listeners around the United States and around the world who want to know what they can do to help with the water issues that exist both on a micro level and on a larger scale. Can you share some of your solutions with listeners with regards to our urban water issues around the United States and around the world so people can feel like they can, instead of hearing about the issues, they can actually become part of the solution? DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Definitely. There are lots of things that people can do. The first one is what your mom always told you. Don’t waste it. There are so many ways in which we can be better conservationists of our own resources and water is such a big one. I like to show people what they can do around their homes, especially outside, and that’s partly my bias because we live in Los Angeles and we’re very active outside and we like to have beautiful flowers and things around our property. We have so many native plants and different species of natives here that we can use that use so much less water and throughout the southwest, this is a very strong movement and also in the southeast. They have been in a very long drought period there. There have been a number of issues for water supply for big cities like Atlanta. People there have green lawns that they’re watering all the time that can be converted to native plant gardens that use so much less water and give you a beautiful variety of plants and flowers right outside your door every morning so getting a little bit educated about different kinds of plants and different things you can do on your property is a big deal. Also, I am advocating that cities and counties like the County of Los Angeles create new ordinances for landscaping, at least on public property, where they can require native plants or at least low water use plants and this just opens up a whole new world of interesting plants that people are now going to see and get accustomed to. The other thing about planting native plants is then you get native butterflies and native birds and other native wildlife that’s able to come back to our city. Once we let nature back in our city, it starts doing work for us, that work of cleaning our water that I talked about and other work like keeping us cooler as the climate changes and cleaning our air as it goes through the plants so it has many, many benefits and people love it once they see it in place. Los Angeles, I’m just in love with our Department of Water and Power right now. They’ve done a few wonderful things, everything from a terrace for solar that we now have in place and now a dollars for turf program where for every square foot of grass you take out, they’ll reimburse you a couple of dollars so the Department of Water and Power is really taking a strong lead in making it easier for people to make these changes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I want to take it back now just to the Santa Monica Bay organization. Talk about some of your partners and can some of our listeners who live in your region be volunteers and be involved? How do they get involved with your great organization and continue to support your amazing work? DR. SHELLEY LUCE: We have a lot of volunteer opportunities and many of them center around working with boaters in Southern California to help recreational boaters understand how to protect the ocean that they love and use so much because recreational boating can cause pollution so we have programs for working with recreational boaters, which is fun because you get out on the water. We also have more science based program where we need people to help us survey and do restoration work, largely removing invasive plants and pulling weeds in wetlands areas so we have a few remaining wetlands here along the coast of Southern California. We need to take care of them. They’re very precious and very important to our water cycle and we have volunteer programs where we work with local youth groups to get them working on the wetlands and get them out there to understand and value what those areas mean to our city and we have a really neat program where we are restoring kelp forests. Kelp is a form of seaweed that grows very tall and it’s along the coast of Southern California and it’s unfortunately been greatly reduced from historic levels but it’s very important to our fish populations. It’s where fish shelter and grow and a lot of invertebrates that we really like such as lobsters and abalone can thrive and what we’ve done is started a program to help restore those kelp forests and that relies on volunteer scuba divers. We have a great scuba diving community in Southern California even though the water’s not as warm as you would hope. There’s such beautiful abundant under sea life here that we have a lot of scuba divers who really want to help and ensure that that undersea life is protected and restoring kelp forests has shown without a doubt to be one of the best ways that we can do that so we can go from a barren rocky reef that’s covered in too many of a particular animal like a sea urchin where they have an overabundance in their population. We can turn that into a much more balanced ecosystem of a kelp forests where all kind of different animals can thrive and people will come there to collect lobster, to go spear fishing for fish they like to eat like kelp bass and sheephead or to just scuba dive like me. I just like to go out and look at it all. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Shelley, it’s time for the shameless plug. We’ve got 40 seconds left. Tell our listeners one thing that you want everyone to realize about your great organization before we leave. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: I want them to realize that we are here to make our water cleaner and our communities healthier and they can go to our website at SantaMonicaBay.org to find out how they can help. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Doctor Shelley Luce, you’re an inspiring ambassador for the Santa Monica Bay and truly living proof that green is good. DR. SHELLEY LUCE: Thank you so much.