What The New Solar Requirement Means For Housing In California

As of Jan. 1, every new home or three-story residential building in California has to have its energy powered by solar sources.

Developers and builders have had a couple of years to prepare, but there are clear challenges, particularly for smaller companies. And how could it affect the prices in a state where a lack of affordable housing is already a deep concern?

To learn more about the impact already being felt and what it could be going forward, The Show talked to Dustin Mulvaney. He’s an Associate Professor at San Jose State University and author of “Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability and Environmental Justice.”

The Dam Nobody Wants Just Won’t Go Away

Ventura, Calif.—It’s a flawless sunny day in Ventura, California. In the coastal city, north of Los Angeles, surfers bob on boards watching the swells for the ideal wave. If you want a long ride, here at Surfers’ Point, where the Ventura River meets the ocean, is the place you want to be. It’s a classic California point break that creates waves surfers gravitate to up and the down the coast.

It’s a favorite spot for Paul Jenkin, who’s been surfing this break for over 30 years. But today he’s not here waiting for the perfect wave; he’s waiting for a better beach—or at least the beach that used to be here.

Jenkin is the campaign coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on the protection and enhancement of the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. For 20 years he’s been working to restore the natural supply of sand and gravel to this cobbled beach that’s seen its parking lot and bike path crumble into the ocean. He says one of the concerns at Surfrider is that with sea level rise, recreational beaches are going to disappear. “We’re going to lose our surf spots and lose a place just to put a towel down on the sand.”

Rising sea levels along with coastal development are some of the threats to Surfers’ Point, but the real culprit is some 16 miles away in a mountain canyon far above the city—the Matilija Dam.

Matilija Dam

Matilija Dam was built in 1947, driven by farmers and ranchers in the nearby Ojai Valley, who wanted it for flood control and water supply. Peter Sheydeyi, deputy director of Ventura County Watershed Protection District, the agency that owns the dam, says Matilija originally had 7,000 acre-feet of storage. But over the last 70 years it has completely filled with sediment—some 8 million cubic yards of sand and gravel—enough to fill 800,000 dump trucks—that no longer flows to the beach.

Matilija Reservoir has filled with sediment, allowing grasses to grow on its surface. (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

Matilija Dam had bad juju right from the start. The Army Corps of Engineers warned the Ventura County Flood Control District not to build it, saying the surrounding steep landscape of coastal sage scrub and oak woodland was highly erodible and would fill the reservoir with sediment.

Then, during its construction, it was discovered the concrete used in the dam had a condition that would weaken over time. The original structure was 198 feet tall but was notched down in the 1960s and ’70s to 168 feet due to safety concerns. Those safety concerns continue to this day because this is California, where earthquakes are always a possibility. In 2018, Matilija Dam received a “poor” rating for seismic risk in a review by state’s Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD).

Lastly, before Matilija Dam was built, the Southern California steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) would come upriver to spawn. But because the fish can no longer migrate to their historic freshwater habitats to reproduce to maintain or grow their populations, the trout has been listed as endangered. Sheydeyi, who’s managing the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project for the county says if the dam were removed it’s believed that a good population of the fish would return to the upstream watershed.

Cut Here to Empty Contents

Given the numerous downsides—impeded fish migration, beach erosion, and seismic risk—not to mention that it provides no water supply—Matilija Dam has been slated for removal, and among the graffiti painted all around the dam is a dashed line with a giant pair of scissors suggesting, “cut here” to empty its contents. The artwork has become iconic in the movement to remove obsolete dams and was featured in the documentary DamNation.

Matilija Dam (Photo by J. Clifton)

But unleashing sediment that’s accrued for over 70 years is not something you can do without a lot of planning, studies—and money. In 2000, Jenkin formed the Matilija Coalition to bring together the many non-governmental organizations interested in removing the dam, such as CalTrout and Friends of the River, two statewide organizations that were focused on restoring native steelhead. The outdoor retailer Patagonia, which is headquartered along the Ventura River in the city, has been a huge backer of the effort. Also, the Open Rivers Fund (a program of Resources Legacy Fund with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that aids local community efforts to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the western United States) stepped in to help.

And now—20 years, several studies, and over $20 million later—they might finally have a solution. The current proposal is to drill two 12-foot holes at the base of the dam, and then, during a moderately sized rain event open them up to flush the fine sediments downriver. The county would then—potentially the following summer—dismantle the dam once the pressure load was released. Of the 8 million cubic yards in the reservoir it’s estimated that only 2 million cubic yards would move downstream. The rest would be stabilized in place and be restored with native vegetation that would become a permanent part of the landscape. Sheydeyi hopes that after the dam is gone the area will be a recreational destination with trails, which will allow people “to enjoy the cool waters during the late summer months at Matilija Creek.”

But before the flushing event happens however, improvements downstream would be needed. It’s estimated that the river would rise two to six feet in elevation once the dam is removed, so that will require two new bridges and two new levees—something that will likely take at least a decade and somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million to complete. Then, they wait for rain, which given California’s recent drought cycles could be a while.

A Lesson for Other Dams

What ultimately happens at Matilija might be a lesson for the hundreds of other California dams, sitting on creeks and streams that drain to the ocean. A study done by Cope M. Willis and Gary B. Griggs at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that statewide about 25 percent of sand that would have been delivered to the coast is now blocked by dams. In Southern California, where beaches are a huge part of the economy, it’s 50 percent.

All that trapped sediment also means reservoir capacity is shrinking. Toby Minear, a researcher at that Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, estimated in a 2009 paper that statewide, reservoirs have likely filled with 2.1 billion cubic meters of sediment, decreasing total reservoir capacity by 4.5 percent. About 200 reservoirs have likely lost more than half their initial capacity to sedimentation.

Climate Change

Surfers’ Point Bike Path, January 2019 (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

As the number of wildfires and extreme storms increase with climate change it will likely cause more sediment to move into reservoirs, further shrinking their capacity. Sediment transport in this fire-flood scenario is accelerated because burnt material is highly erodible and ready to be swept down hillsides with heavy rains. Sheydeyi says the 2017 Thomas Fire caused another influx of sediment and led to the growth bulrushes and grasses growing on the reservoir’s surface.

Phase 1 of the Managed Shoreline Retreat project at Surfers’ Point

The lack of sediment moving downriver combined with sea level rise will exacerbate problems already occurring along the coast such as flooding, cliff erosion, and threats to infrastructure. Beaches may seem static—that the sand just stays put—but it’s always in motion due to waves, wind, and tides. Winter waves have high energy that pulls sand offshore, making beaches narrower. In the summer, sand is carried back onto beaches, widening them again.

But this cycle only continues when there is a steady supply of sand. As sea levels rise a deficit of protective sand will expose cliffs and development to further erosion and flooding. Additionally, overbuilt shorelines mean that beaches lack the room to migrate inland to accommodate higher water. It’s in this context that, in 2011, a working group, including Surfrider, city planners, the California Coastal Conservancy, the State Coastal Commission, the Ventura County Fairgrounds, and others completed the first phase of what they call the first “managed shoreline retreat” project in the state of California, where infrastructure is moved back out of harm’s way in lieu of armoring the shore with seawalls and rock revetments.

In phase 1 of the Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat a 70- to 100-foot-wide stretch of sand dunes was engineered, underneath which rests an 8-foot-thick layer of imported river cobble. On the surface native plants and driftwood anchor the dunes in place. The project has gained recognition for coastal management in response to climate change, has been featured in numerous case studies, and serves as a model of sustainable shoreline management in the era of rising seas, according to the California Coastal Conservancy.

Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat (Photo by Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.)

An Epic Ride

If the various stakeholders involved in the Matilija Dam removal are able to raise the needed funds, the necessary infrastructure is completed, and a series of drenching storms hit the area—just how much sand would replenish the beach?

Jenkin says the initial assessment was that around 30 percent more sediment would come out of the river during each storm event, but they are currently completing studies to confirm that estimate. The fly in the ointment, he says, is that when the project was built they were predicting perhaps a foot-and-a-half of sea level rise by 2100. Now that could happen within the next decade or so. “Once we get four to five feet of sea level rise the whole California coast is going to dramatically change,” he says, adding that the dunes they’re constructing “are perhaps just buying time.”

Until then, he’s looking forward to a different experience at Surfers’ Point once the dam is removed, noting aerial photos taken back in the 1960s show that after big storm events a large sandbar forms at the river’s mouth. So, he says brightly, “we would anticipate—hopefully—a couple of epic days out here.”

This is the second story in H2O Radio’s series about sedimentation. Listen to the first story: “Damned from the Start—Many U.S. Reservoirs Could Be Rendered Useless—And That Was Part of the Plan”

Profits and flames: Private firefighters an option for the wealthy

The fire season across the West has been brutal. In California, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire together left more than 88 dead. The two fires burned more than 15,000 structures and nearly 200 people are still missing. Huge fires in Nevada have burned hundreds of thousands of acres. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico have all been affected.

Amidst the flames, a trend has emerged – a two-tiered system of private firefighting resources for those who can afford them, and a system stretched thin for those who can’t.

Troy Kurth is the CEO of the private firefighting company Rocky Mountain Fire, near Missoula, Montana. Members of his crew have the same baseline certifications as federal firefighters.

His crew works out of a barn with a sign on the door that says “STALLION Do Not Enter.” Kurth used to run 15 stallions each season before he got into the firefighting business.

“I decided to leave those (signs) up,” he said, after “we converted this horse barn into our fire cache and shop.”

And he says those firefighting services are increasingly in demand. In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2 billion suppressing fires.

Starting in the 1980s, the Forest Service began facing tighter budgets and more destructive fires, so it started contracting with private firefighting companies to help out. More recently, the private insurance industry got involved and started offering private firefighting services on its home policies.

David Torgerson is president of Wildfire Defense Systems in Bozeman, Montana – the largest private firefighting group in the country.

“This contribution from the insurance industry is here to stay,” he said. “It’s become the new norm.”

Torgerson said his company now is bigger than many state firefighting agencies. Like other private companies, Wildfire Defense Systems contracts with state and federal government, but Torgerson now also is working with about a dozen private insurers. Since 2008, he said, his crews have responded to more than 550 wildfires that threatened thousands of private properties. In addition, the company helps fire-proof properties before blazes hit homes.

He said most of the homes have been average value, not million-dollar mansions. Either way, he said, the more resources for these raging fires the better.

“Quietly in the background, these insurer programs have been growing and contributing in a strong way and creating better results to the extent possible and contributing to these incidents,” Torgerson said. “It’s really a win-win. It’s a partial solution.”

But how easy is it to get that coverage for the average homeowner? That’s not clear.

Insurance giant AIG describes its “Wildfire Protection Unit” as a “complimentary service.” However, according to its website, those services are only available to its Private Client Group, which is “custom-designed for high-end properties.”

AIG did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Eric Samansky is with Chubb, another insurance provider that offers this service to all clients in fire-prone areas in 18 states.

“It’s complimentary, so if you are a policyholder within those states, all you need to do is enroll,” he said.

But there may be another problem with any kind of insurance in some areas.

“The affordability issue is one that is growing here in California. We’re continuing to see prices increase,” said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance.

Her state has more homes in fire-prone areas than any other. And homeowners there are having more and more trouble securing coverage of any kind due to increasing premiums, Kincaid said.

Carl Seielstad has been studying fire trends for decades as an associate professor of fire science and management at the University of Montana; he’s also a fire-incident commander.

This trend toward private firefighting is a reflection of our society, he said.

“I mean that’s capitalism, right?” he asked. “That if you have assets to be protected and you can pay for protection, that you would pay extra for the protection that you get.”

Whether it’s fair and equitable is more complicated. For one, nobody’s keeping track of the industry and who’s using the services. However, “even the perception that fire management plays favorites – whether it’s fair or not – erodes confidence in the fire management enterprise,” Seielstad said.

And he’s not just worried about the insurance industry protecting individual properties. It’s also the private money flowing into state and federal fire suppression.

“When does private enterprise start dictating how fire management gets done?” he wondered.

Fire and forest management already is an ecological and political issue, Seielstad said, so what happens when profit comes into play, too?

The private firefighting industry continues to grow. There are more than 150 companies employing more than 12,000 crew members, the industry’s trade group said.


This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

The 1922 agreement that governs the Colorado River is flawed. Why not fix it?

GREELEY, Colo. – Colorado River water managers have plenty to argue about, including how they should deal with lower water levels caused in part by higher temperatures, long-term drought and increasing population.

But there’s one thing on which nearly everyone who relies on the river can agree. The foundational document that divvies up the water – the Colorado River Compact, first signed nearly 100 years ago – is not easily altered. And the word renegotiation is bound to cause political ripples.

The late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., learned that lesson the hard way.

In summer 2008, McCain was the Republican nominee facing President Barack Obama. Colorado was considered a swing state.

Water scarcity issues are always top of mind for Western politicians. That’s why when reporter Charles Ashby, then with the Pueblo Chieftain, now with the Grand Junction Sentinel, got McCain on the phone and asked him why Colorado voters should trust an Arizonan when it comes to water.

“I thought that was relevant because he’s downstream on the Colorado River,” Ashby said, “and Arizona and Nevada and California are big water users.”

Because of population growth and dwindling water supplies, McCain said he’d be in favor of renegotiating the document that divvies up the river among the seven U.S. states that rely on it. Ashby was floored.

“I knew immediately that was a no-no, at least for politics here in the state of Colorado,” Ashby recalled. “And so I said to him, ‘Are you sure you want to say that? Because that won’t go over well up here.’”

Their phone connection kept cutting out, but McCain called back twice to double down on his idea. Sensing a big scoop, Ashby called a few other Colorado politicians to get their reactions. Prominent Democrats and Republicans agreed that McCain was out of line. Colorado’s sitting Democratic senator at the time, Ken Salazar, went so far as to say the Colorado River Compact would be renegotiated over his dead body.

“Then-Governor Bill Ritter said to me after that story ran, he said, ‘Charles, that story may have delivered the state to Obama,’” Ashby said.

McCain eventually walked his comments back after a thorough lashing in the press.

But with one sentence, he had touched a nerve in Western water politics.

“A lot of it is just the word choice: renegotiation,” said Doug Kenney, a water policy expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Some of Kenney’s work is funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Renogotiation is a word that inflames decades-old tensions in the vast watershed, Kenney said – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin.

“I think a lot of the parties think it’s scary simply because it’s a little scary to negotiate when not all the parties have the same political power,” Kenney said.

That power imbalance is what brought regional political leaders to the table in 1922, when the Colorado River Compact was signed. The desert Southwest was beginning to grow rapidly, and rather than acquiesce all of the river’s flow to the sprawling cities and cropland of Southern California, water managers felt it was in their best interest to come to an agreement to divvy up the river among themselves. The alternative was conflict and litigation.

Each basin was to receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year, which the basins allocated among themselves. The Upper Basin opted for percentages, with Colorado receiving the largest share. The Lower Basin chose to parse it into discrete, fixed portions, with California and Arizona receiving the largest amounts.

Conventional wisdom about the math underlying the compact goes something like this:

Water managers used the available data to figure out how much water they had to work with; however, the time period they examined had been uncharacteristically wet. Soon after the compact’s signing, the river returned to its more normal flows, and right from the start, the compact didn’t mesh with reality. More water existed on paper than in the river, creating a gap between supplies and demands that continues to today. So the story goes: It was no one’s fault, just a historical fluke.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, says that conventional wisdom is wrong. Allocating more water than was available was the politically expedient thing to do. He’s finishing a book with Colorado River expert Eric Kuhn on what water managers of the 1920s knew about the river’s flow and when they knew it. They found that scientists with the highly respected U.S. Geological Survey were complaining about the inflated numbers even before the compact was signed.

“They all concluded the same thing, ‘You’re basing this on an unusually wet period. You need to take into account dry periods. There is really less water than you think,’” Fleck said. “And all those scientific experts were ignored.”

Today, there’s broad consensus about the compact’s math problems. Although it was scoffed at a decade ago, McCain’s proposal to renegotiate has support among some environmentalists, including Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director with WildEarth Guardians. She says the only way to fix the river’s fundamental supply-demand problem is to go back to the beginning.

“It’s just like curing illness, right? You have to get at the source,” she said.

Old agreements among states to manage water in the West don’t reflect modern realities, like climate change or broader environmental concerns, Pelz said. Compacts for the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers allocate every drop for human use. There’s value in leaving water in rivers for recreation and ecosystem health, she says.

“I think that is a huge problem, and I think that we don’t want to have that conversation because it’s hard,” Pelz said.

The river’s foundational problems are front of mind these days as Colorado River water managers are attempting to finalize new agreements called Drought Contingency Plans, designed to boost declining reservoirs and cut back on water use throughout the watershed. Pelz says the plans don’t go far enough.

“It’s all like shuffling chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “The ship is sinking still. And if you shuffle all those chairs around and you make it look pretty, it’s still not going to make any difference.”

Reopening the Colorado River Compact would require the support of people like Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming state engineer. And he is not interested.

“No, I would never advocate going back to the compact,” he said.

There’s a work around, he says. Rather than renegotiate the original document, water managers like him come up with new agreements that build on it and address some of the compact’s bad math. But throwing the whole thing out would be a mistake.

“If it were to go away, there would be a free for all,” Tyrrell said. “There is no magic second compact sitting in the wings behind it, and the battle between Arizona, California and Nevada against us four Upper Basin states would be brought anew.”

Although water managers today have no appetite for changes to the compact, it’s uncertain the compact’s framers meant for it to be immutable. When Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was selling the deal to Congress, he hedged the agreement’s finality. In 1926, Hoover told members of a House committee that if the deal could “provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years, we can trust to the generation after the next to be as intelligent as we are today.” And that those future water leaders “will settle it in the light of the forces of their day.”

In his Ph.D. dissertation at University of Colorado, Jon Berggren, now a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, summarized Hoover’s testimony as suggesting that, “at least from Hoover’s perspective, the negotiators of the compact did not intend to make the original allocations of the compact static.”

Hoover gave the original agreement a shelf life of 75 years.

“He underestimated us a little bit, didn’t he? We’re still here making it work,” Tyrrell said. “We have shown in the Colorado River Basin the ability to adapt, even in areas where the compact may may feel constraining.”

The word “adapt” seems to go over a lot better with Colorado River water managers than the dreaded “renegotiation.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Southern California fires: 2 dead, hundreds of homes destroyed, nearly 100,000 acres burned

The wildfires sweeping across Southern California have destroyed hundreds of homes, killed at least two people and injured several more, and ravaged beloved landmarks and park space.

Here’s the latest on the Woolsey Fire burning near Malibu as of Tuesday.

Thousands of firefighters remain on the line Tuesday, working to contain the fire, which has burned more than 96,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties since Thursday afternoon.

The fire started north of Bell Canyon and rapidly moved south through the Santa Monica Mountains, jumping the 101 Freeway and tearing through hillside communities in Malibu, eventually burning all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Two people were found dead Friday afternoon in the 3300 block of Mullholland Highway, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Investigators believe the driver may have become disoriented while escaping the area, but the investigation is ongoing.

The National Weather Service extended its Red Flag warning through 5 p.m. Wednesday for Ventura County, the mountains of Los Angeles County and the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. The warning for the LA coast from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills remains in effect until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

On Monday night, fire officials said the Woolsey Fire had scorched more than 80 percent of the total national park lands in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

National Park Service officials responded to a flood of inquiries about the condition of wildlife in the mountains, saying the home range of four local bobcats have been completely destroyed. They added that some of the mountain lions biologists are tracking have not yet been accounted for, but said that wasn’t out of the ordinary given how the cougars are monitored.

President Donald Trump meanwhile said he had approved an expedited request for a Major Disaster Declaration, which would open up federal funds to assist fire-ravaged California.

“Wanted to respond quickly in order to alleviate some of the incredible suffering going on,” Trump tweeted Monday. “I am with you all the way. God Bless all of the victims and families affected.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced several evacuation orders will be lifted at 9 a.m.

Meanwhile, the community of Topanga and the city of Malibu remain under evacuation orders.


BY THE NUMBERS

  • 96,314 acres burned
  • Containment at 35%
  • 2 deaths reported
  • 3 firefighters injured
  • At least 435 structures destroyed and 35 damaged
  • 57,000 structures threatened
  • About 3,590 firefighting personnel on scene


ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND RESOURCES

For the latest information straight from local emergency officials, including evacuation orders, road closures, evacuation centers and animal shelters, check the following sites and social media accounts:

Cal Fire Incident Information
Cal Fire on Twitter
Los Angeles County Emergency Information
Ventura County Emergency Information
Los Angeles County Fire Public Information Officer on Twitter
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Twitter
Ventura County Fire Public Information Officer on Twitter
The National Weather Service Los Angeles on Twitter

OTHER FIRE COVERAGE FROM LAist

How To Keep Yourself Safe From Wildfire Smoke (And Where To Get An N95 Mask)
Man Uses Boat To Rescue His Grandparents From Woolsey Fire In Malibu
Malibu Fire Victims Share Their Stories
These Images Show How Devastating The Woolsey Fire Is
How You Can Help Those Affected By The Southern California Wildfires
What To Do — And Not Do — When You Get Home After A Wildfire
Paramount Ranch’s Iconic Western-Themed Set Is No More

Arizona national parks need $531 million for maintenance, behind California, Virginia

GRAND CANYON – Arizona’s national parks are feeling their age and need a $531 million makeover on hundreds of roads and buildings that serve millions of annual visitors, park officials said. It’s a problem in national parks around the country, but financial rescue may be edging closer.

The Grand Canyon, Petrified National Forest and other recreation sites, such as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, are sagging under the weight of their popularity. As visitors increased 40 percent over six years at the Grand Canyon – 17 percent at all U.S. national parks – maintenance to parks and monuments has been delayed year after year.

Government officials call the multimillion-dollar backlog “deferred maintenance,” and the projects range from minor to major: fixing gutters, painting cabins, renovating water systems and repairing roads and trails.

Few claim the situation is dire, but advocates say the economic draw of tourism warrants timely renovations and repairs.

The backlog sweeps across the country, spurring concern in some quarters.

“It’s been a pure black eye for Congress,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s lands-protection program.

Painting over a backlog

“Grand Canyon National Park has thousands of structures and hundreds of miles of roads, and it’s a lot to take care of,” said Chris Lehnertz, the park superintendent. The most pressing need is repairing the only water pipeline serving the South Rim, which is leaking, prompting water rationing.

Some volunteers said they are trying to make a dent in maintenance projects, one brush stroke at a time, and are spending weekends doing what they can.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke paints a cabin in Grand Canyon National Park, along with several volunteers. He was at the Grand Canyon in September to learn more about the park’s nearly $330 million maintenance backlog that include six historic cabins. (Photo by Corey Hawk/Cronkite News)

One day in September, several volunteers and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke brushed reddish brown paint on the walls of six cabins built in the 1930s in Grand Canyon Village. The volunteers hailed from Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, which has a new class that requires students to volunteer at the park.

“It’s a great real-world experience,” college President Colleen Smith said. “Everybody works together and as a team, and that’s what it takes to get things done.”

But volunteers can accomplish just a sliver of what needs to be done. One estimate by the Arizona Trail Association is that one hour of volunteering is worth a little more than $24. In those few hours that September weekend, nine volunteers made a $1,111 dent in the multimillion dollar backlog, according to the National Park Service.

Zinke said Congress needs to work across the aisle to approve funding for national parks in the U.S., where the total backlog has reached $11.6 billion.

“Parks are not a Republican or Democrat issue,” said Zinke, who was appointed by President Donald Trump. “Parks are an American issue.”

A bipartisan bill, introduced by Arizona and Utah congressmen, called the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, last month passed the House Natural Resource Committee on a voice vote. It still has to make it through the full House and Senate.

A century of natural wonders

California, Virginia, New York and Wyoming have the highest backlog of maintenance bills, ahead of Arizona, but Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular parks in the country.

The park, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, is the second most visited national park, according to the park service. It carries the bulk of the state’s maintenance backlog at $330 million.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said visits last year to national parks contributed nearly $36 billion to the U.S. economy. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

Smaller parks in Arizona have issues as well. Tonto National Monument needs $1 million in repairs and Petrified National Forest needs $44 million worth.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, who cosponsored the Restore Our Parks Act with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, lists national parks and their maintenance as a priority of his legislative agenda, according to his website.

“I want to see leaking roofs repaired and crumbling roads rebuilt, but even more importantly, I want clean air to breathe and clean water that’s safe to drink,” Grijalva said in a news release.

The burden of popularity

More people have been visiting national parks in recent years, with 40 percent more visitors to the Grand Canyon in 2017 than 2012, according to the National Park Service.

And all the love is wearing parks down.

Brad Traver, superintendent of Petrified Forest National Park, said most buildings were erected in the 1930s or ’60s, when the number of visitors was a tiny fraction of what it is today.

Manuel, of the Sierra Club, said visitors notice that infrastructure is wearing out.

“When my kids were younger,” he said, “we went to national parks all the time… and you run into times when the bathrooms were broken, there weren’t enough parking spots.”

Related story

Congress fails to renew federal Land and Conservation Fund

Manuel, who bikes in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park in Maryland every weekend, said Congress for years has underfunded the NPS.

“These bills keep adding up and adding up, and Congress makes it worse by not appropriating the funds they need,” Manuel said.

He noticed some recent improvements at the park he frequents at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Park, but said maintenance still lags, which affects domestic and international tourists alike.

Visitors bring in money, exacerbating the tension between welcoming them and shielding the park from their impact. According to the National Park Service, visitors spent more than $18 billion in U.S. parks and surrounding communities last year. Zinke said park visits last year contributed nearly $36 billion to the U.S. economy – more than three times the cost of repairing every national park, recreation area, memorial and highway overseen by the NPS.

Visitors to national parks and monuments in Arizona, like Grand Canyon National Park, have increased 17 percent over six years. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

Long road ahead

Road repairs account for half of all deferred maintenance at national parks, according to the NPS, and nearly every park is affected. That includes the George Washington Memorial Highway, a scenic drive in the Washington, D.C., area, which needs nearly $400 million in upgrades.

Traver, at Petrified Forest National Park, said road repairs are the top maintenance need. The main culprit here is the acidic soil, which eats away at the pavement, he said, adding that the park has a roads project next year that “will address $13 million of that deferred maintenance.”

At the Grand Canyon over the past year, a contractor has repaved cracked roads on the South Rim and sealed old pavement, the NPS said.

Buildings are a large part of the deferred maintenance backlog, but repairing them can be complicated if they are on the National Register of Historic Places, which is overseen by NPS.

“So those (buildings) become additional resources for us to protect,” Traver said. “You can’t just do whatever you want, you have to protect the character of the building as it was considered to be historic.”

Grand Canyon National Park Service employees and workers with the Interior Department pose with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at Hopi Point in September. Zinke, wearing the white shirt, was at the park to draw attention to a backlog of maintenance projects at national parks. (Photo by Corey Hawk/Cronkite News)

The park’s Painted Desert Community Complex, designed by architects Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander in 1958, is a National Historic Landmark and has some foundation issues. The complex serves as the park’s visitor center and operational headquarters, and it houses most of the park’s concession operators, Traver said.

The complex also needs sprinklers in many of its buildings, as well as accessibility for people who are disabled.

Other structures at national parks serve utility purposes, such as Grand Canyon’s water system and Glen Canyon’s electrical generators and docks.

“A lot of these systems, for example, that generate electricity, they’re at or almost at the end of their intended lifespan,” said William Shott, superintendent of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Repairs to those systems are given high priority, he said, because they impact visitor safety.

But at the Grand Canyon, that argument has not provided the requisite funding for a pipeline that delivers all of the water used on the South Rim.

Lehnertz said the pipe, known as the Trans-Canyon Water Line, “is out of date and it’s failing. It’s over 50 years old.”

The pipe leaked as recently as this month prompting water restrictions, and park officials said they’re not sure where the leaks are at.

Matthew Nelson is executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, which maintains the Arizona National Scenic Trail that runs the length of the state. He says access to water basically means access to Grand Canyon National Park.

“People plan their trips day to day based on water sources,” Nelson said. “Without that facility functioning, that trail corridor is no longer safe. So projects like that are an absolute priority.”

The size of the parks and the distances involved to maintain the infrastructure compound the issue. Shott said park staff might have to drive for hours to work on a project.

“Today, we literally don’t have enough housing for employees to stay onsite to actually get that work done,” Shott said.

Still seeking funds

The backlog goes back decades, as Congress started underfunding the budgets for parks, Manuel said. It was nearly $11.5 billion in 2014, and hasn’t changed much since.

“As fast as we work to lower that maintenance backlog number, it rises just as fast,” Shott said.

Nelson said the best way to address the maintenance is “through volunteerism.”

An NPS official wrote in an email that volunteers spent more than 71,000 hours working on projects in the Grand Canyon, saving the park over $1.75 million.

More than 20 years ago, Congress passed a law meant to address the maintenance backlog. The 1997 legislation redirected royalties from private mineral mining off Alaska to the National Park Service and similar agencies.

Congress has since passed several similar bills, none of which chipped away at the backlog.

Still, Interior Secretary Zinke said he’s hopeful the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act – which would use royalties from energy production on public lands to fund maintenance projects – eventually will pass. The legislation has made it further in Congress than any other recent proposal to tackle deferred maintenance.

“If you’re going to create wealth and energy on public lands, then I think you also have an obligation to support, fund our public lands in perpetuity,” Zinke said.

Manuel, of the Sierra Club, said he is satisfied with the act because it caps the amount of money that could be raised each year by offshore drilling interests.

“We think this is a responsible approach to dealing with a serious problem Congress has let fester for far too long,” he said.

The Senate is considering an alternative bill that would use revenues from minerals taken from federal land to fund park repairs.


– Video by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News

‘Somebody’s going to have to use less’: Colorado River managers grapple with drought

PAGE – Years into a record-breaking drought across the Southwest, officials of the seven states along the Colorado River finally forged an agreement in 2007 on how to deal with future water shortages. Then they quietly hoped that wet weather would return.

It didn’t.

Those states now are back at the negotiating table to hammer out new deals to avoid a slow-moving crisis on the river system that supports 40 million people from Colorado to California.

You can see the extent of the problem in a place like Page, Arizona, on the southern edge of Lake Powell, the second-largest reservoir in the country behind Lake Mead.

Jennifer Pitt, who works on Colorado River policy for the National Audubon Society, stands on an overlook peering down at the lake and the immense concrete dam holding it in place.

“Now you can tell that there’s a river here underneath this reservoir because it has somewhat of a linear shape,” said Pitt, tracing the red rock canyon with her finger. “And it’s wending its way towards where we’re standing, here, overlooking the Glen Canyon Dam.”

The canyon behind the dam is stained with a stark white ring. For the past 20 years, Pitt said, demands for water have outstripped the supply, meaning Lake Powell and Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam further downstream, continue to drop. Both are less than half full.

Without changes to how the two reservoirs are managed, Pitt said, levels could dip below the point where no water can be released, referred to as “dead pool.”

“If that happened, that would be a catastrophe for this region’s economy,” she said, “for all of the people who depend on the Colorado River and for all of the wildlife that depends on it as well.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funds from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

It’s not about blame

That dystopian future of abandoned farms, dried-up streams and water-stressed cities is one that James Eklund of the Upper Colorado River Commission and other water managers are attempting to avoid.

“Take Lake Mead. More is being taken out than comes into it,” Eklund said. “Like your bank account, if you do that over a sustained period, you will run a deficit, and if you’re talking about water for 40 million people and economies that are massive – fifth-largest economy in the world, the Colorado River Basin represents – then that’s significant.”

Managers are attempting to boost reservoir levels with a suite of agreements under the umbrella of “drought contingency planning.” The premise is simple: Cut water use now, use that saved water to bump up Powell and Mead, and doing so will help to avoid bigger problems in the future, when supplies are likely to be even tighter.

Calcium deposits on the rock formations at Lake Mead, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, show the impact of lingering drought on water levels. Hydrologists fear the reservoir will drop to the level at which no water can be released – a situation known as “dead pool.” (File photo by Alexis Kuhbander/Cronkite News)

Water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are working on a plan that covers the river’s Upper Basin and focuses on boosting snowpack with weather modification, better management of reservoirs and creating a water bank in Lake Powell.

The Lower Basin plan, being worked on by officials in Arizona, California and Nevada, is meant to create new incentives for farmers and cities to conserve water in Lake Mead and to agree to earlier, deeper cuts to water use so the reservoir can avoid dropping to dead pool levels.

Tuesday, water officials with all of the states, except Arizona, released draft agreements that spell out water cuts to boost levels at Mead and Powell according to azcentral.com. Arizona water officials plan to work through November to develop an agreement that state lawmakers would need to approve next spring.

“There is clearly enough evidence that if we were to have another 2000 to 2004 kind of a multiyear drought, the system is in very serious trouble,” said Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

When the current management guidelines were written in 2007, planners were optimistic, Kuhn said.

“Historically, we’ve always said, ‘Well, next year will be better,’” Kuhn said. “And that’s the easy way out.”

Now, after another of the driest and hottest water years on record, much of that optimism has evaporated.

Kuhn said Arizona has had the hardest time coming to an agreement because of intrastate battles over who will take cuts to water allocations and when they’ll take them. But states in the river’s Upper Basin have had issues, too.

One example is with the concept of demand management.

“It’s the difficult one,” Kuhn noted. “Somebody’s going to have to use less.”

Kuhn said there’s a fear that if those cuts aren’t doled out fairly, it could injure economies throughout the Southwest. Colorado River District officials and agricultural interests from Colorado’s Western Slope have said they’re on board with a demand management program only if farmers are given a choice about how much water they give up, and that they’re paid for forgoing water deliveries to their operations. But state officials have left the door open to mandatory cutbacks in a crisis.

Lake Mead sports a white “bathtub ring” more than 100 feet tall in this December 2015 photo, illustrating how far the water level has fallen after years of drought. (File photo by Alex Demas/Cronkite News)

Over the past three years, drought contingency negotiations have laid bare old tensions throughout the basin. Farmers and cities have blamed each other’s collective water uses for decades. And the same is true with water managers protective of their own interests in either the Upper or Lower basins.

“The thing we have to remember is (water use) in the basin is over 80 percent agriculture,” said Colby Pellegrino, who handles Colorado River issues for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the utility serving metro Las Vegas.

Current conservation programs, like the utility’s aggressive buyback of residential lawns, won’t be enough, Pellegrino said.

“We can take out all the lawns we want and still not solve the problems that climate change is going to throw at us,” Pellegrino said.

Climate change is just one pressure to get these deals done quickly. The U.S. Department of the Interior has given the Colorado Basin states an end-of-year deadline to get things done. If not, the assumption is the feds will step in to do it for them.

“That’s I think a fear of everybody on the river, especially in the Upper Basin,” said Jennifer Gimbel, a former Interior undersecretary, now with Colorado State University. “And the last thing we want is interference by the federal government in that role.”

The fate of the entire region hangs in the balance, said Gimbel.

At Glen Canyon Dam, Pitt, with the Audubon Society, said more than the fates of people and economies are tied up in river politics: An entire ecosystem is at stake.

“I think a lot of people who care about wildlife in this region are concerned,” Pitt said. “And it’s not just birds. Seventy percent of all wildlife in the arid West rely on rivers at some point in their life cycle. So it has outsize importance for anyone who appreciates nature in this part of the country.”



This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Why do we keep building houses in places that burn down?

It’s a real-estate paradox: The most desirable places to live also are among the most susceptible to wildfires.

Mansions in the Santa Monica Mountains, tiny cabins tucked into the Angeles National Forest and homes at the edges of subdivisions all are beautiful because they’re surrounded by undeveloped land. But that land is a tinderbox.

Every year in California, there seems to be a bigger, crazier, more destructive wildfire. But every year, new houses go up in their path. And it’s not just some houses, but thousands of houses — more than 85,000 new houses in high fire risk areas in Los Angeles County alone, from 1990 to 2010.

Shouldn’t we know better by now? Why do we keep building houses in places that are likely to burn? I’ve reported countless wildfires over the years and this question continues to come up.

To answer it, I examined a housing development proposed for an undeveloped swath of land in Orange County north of Yorba Linda. Esperanza Hills is a fancy development: 340 multimillion-dollar homes on a gated, dead-end street.

It definitely fits the definition of high-risk – 10 years ago, a wildfire completely scorched the land Esperanza Hills would be built on. And Cal Fire – the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – calls the entire site a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” a wonky term for an area that’s likely to burn again in the next 30 to 50 years.

That matters because fire ecologists say where – and not how – you build your house is the most important factor in determining whether it will burn.

An artist’s rendering of the entrance to Esperanza Hills, a high-end development proposed for a high fire risk area north of Yorba Linda, Calif. (Courtesy Yorba Linda Estates LLC via Orange County Board of Supervisors)
ounty
“There are many cases where you can do everything right, but if you’re in a very risky location, your house can burn down,” said fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard, who has been studying wildfires for 20 years.

Building with modern, fire-resistant materials, clearing 100 feet or more of brush from around your house — those things can help, but if you put your house in a fire-prone place, Syphard says, such measures are mere Band-Aids.

‘THE MOST DANGEROUS SITE YOU COULD PICK’

On Nov. 15, 2008, a small brush fire started near California State Route 91, which lies in a corridor for Santa Ana winds. The fire raced west, connected with another blaze and torched the entire Esperanza Hills site before moving south into Yorba Linda and burning 381 homes. The Freeway Complex Fire was one of the most destructive in Orange County history.

The evacuation was chaotic, recalls Ed Schumann, who was among those who lost their homes. Streets were gridlocked. Kids were running down the sidewalks with their pets. At one point, a teenage boy got out of his car to direct traffic because no one else was doing it.

To Schumann and other Yorba Linda residents, the idea of adding 340 houses and residents and vehicles to that mess is frightening.

“Evacuating that many more people with the same infrastructure, it’s a scary thought,” he said.

It’s why Kevin Johnson, a lawyer for one of the environmental groups that sued over the Esperanza Hills project, delaying it for years, calls the location “probably the most dangerous site in Southern California you could pick to put 340 new families into.”

MEET THE DEVELOPER

So, why would anyone want to build in such a risky place? I reached out to the developer behind the project, Douglas Wymore.

He has his reasons. First, he believes he can build these houses, on this site, safely.

“I disagree with somebody that just comes in and says, ‘Oh, anytime that you put something next to an open-space area that’s a very high fire (hazard) zone, you can’t protect it,’” he said. “I think the bottom line is you can mitigate it, you can protect it.”

And Wymore is doing a lot to protect it. All the houses will be “hardened” – in other words, built using fire-resistant materials as required by state building code, including sprinklers in the attic.

He’s planning at least 170 feet of defensible space around the homes. There will be two on-site water tanks for firefighting. And two entrances, one for emergencies, one for everyday use (local residents say this is insufficient, and point to the multiple tight turns on the main entrance, but Wymore is doing what is required under the county’s fire standards).

Second, by building modern, fire-resistant homes in the path of a wildfire, Wymore believes he is protecting everyone else in the area whose houses may not be up to the latest building codes. His project, he contends, will act as a fire buffer for older, more flammable homes.

And third, he says, people want to live here.

“The bottom line is, there’s a demand for people that want to live in those areas for obvious reasons,” Wymore said. “And so if you’re going to take on the task of satisfying that demand and building a project, I think you have a responsibility to make sure you do what’s necessary to make your development safe.”

MONEY MONEY MONEY

That’s why the developer wants to build. But given the obvious risks, why would the Orange County Board of Supervisors approve this project?

Well, to start, it will generate $8.25 million a year in property taxes. And since voters passed Proposition 13 in California in 1978, which limited how much property tax bills can go up each year, cities and counties haven’t seen their tax revenue increase as housing values rise.

“Prop 13 handcuffs local jurisdictions in finding additional revenue,” said Howard Penn, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League. “They can raise sales tax or build more homes. There’s not a lot of ways to get more revenue.”

It’s also worth mentioning that since 2011, Wymore has donated nearly $50,000 to the re-election campaigns of several members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, none of whom would talk to me for this story.

Wymore was frank about why: “If you put political donations in, whether those people agree with you or don’t agree with you, they will at least give you an opportunity to sit down with them and listen. Which maybe they would and maybe they wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Melanie Schlotterbeck, a consultant for the non-profit Hills for Everyone, shows the history of fires in the Yorba Linda area. (Photo by James Bernal for KPCC)

THE DECIDERS

Although none of the Orange County supervisors wanted to talk, you can get a pretty good sense of why most of them support it from things they said at previous public meetings about the development. One big reason is the classic private property rights argument: Wymore owns the land, and he should be able to develop it as he sees fit.

“I don’t have any reason to now deprive someone of the right to use their property,” Chairman Andrew Do said at a May 2017 meeting.

Another big reason? The fire department had given Esperanza Hills the green light.

“If the fire department is satisfied, I’m not inclined to argue with them. I’m not a fireman,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson said.

BUT WHY WAS THE FIRE DEPARTMENT SATISFIED?

Well, according to deputy fire marshal Timothy Kerbrat of the Orange County Fire Authority, the preliminary plans for Esperanza Hills met all the state and local requirements for building in a high-risk area.

“Do they have access, do they have water, do they have defensible space, do they have hardened structures that they can protect? Are all those things occuring? And in the Esperanza project, that’s the things that I’m seeing. That it’s occurring,” he said.

Although the supervisors approved the project in May 2017, an Orange County environmental group sued and a judge overturned the approval, which is why Esperanza Hills was back in front of supervisors again on Sept. 25. And, despite continued opposition from some homeowners, the board approved the project 4-1 – prompting one homeowner to shout, “See you in court!”

WHO PAYS? WE PAY

There’s another factor here: The Orange County Fire Authority will get just more than $1 million a year in revenue from the Esperanza Hills project.

And if a large wildfire breaks out, the agency likely won’t have to spend much of its own money to protect this neighborhood. That’s because state and federal agencies largely reimburse local fire departments for the costs of firefighting.

Back in 2008, for example, the Orange County Fire Authority spent $2.3 million fighting the Freeway Complex Fire, but 94 percent of those costs were reimbursed.

“The irony is that we, as taxpayers, are paying for the protection of homes that are built in high-risk areas,” said Kimiko Barrett, a researcher at the Montana-based think tank Headwaters Economics.

You read that right: When a big fire breaks out and threatens houses built in risky places, you and I are the ones picking up the bill.

Kerbrat, the deputy fire marshal, staunchly denies that money or firefighting costs play any role in approving developments.

“I’ve never heard firefighters, or a fire agency, talk in that manner,” he said. “It’s not in our thought process. We don’t think of this as a business, for profit.”

A MORAL HAZARD

Barrett, however, calls the situation a moral hazard.

“The consequences actually aren’t borne by the people who are approving these developments,” she said.

And it’s not just Barretts theory: The Office of Inspector General agreed with that assessment in a 2006 report.

“If state and local agencies became more financially responsible for (wildland-urban interface) protection, it would likely encourage these agencies to more actively implement land use regulations that minimize risk to people and structures from wildfire,” they wrote.

But until this case of misaligned incentives changes, Barrett says we’re going to keep building in risky areas. Nearly 1 million new houses in California could be built in these areas before 2050.

This story is part of an Elemental series “Fire in the Neighborhood” about fire danger in cities and surrounding areas.

Traffic continues to be huge air polluter – but local politics makes it hard to say no to new roads.

LOS ANGELES – Based on the annual 2018 “State of the Air” report from The American Lung Association, Los Angeles was ranked the top city spot for high ozone days out of 227 metropolitan locations.

Arizonans should be concerned too as the Grand Canyon state ranked eighth in the same category. And during the summer of 2018, Arizona exceded recommended ozone 49 times.levels and had a record 49 days of dangerous air.

Traffic combined with heat can create unsafe air and in many big cities in the west, air pollution and traffic combined are two of the biggest problems facing those areas. The problem is made worse by rapid growth, suburban sprawl and the “inversion affect,” which traps polluted area in cities near mountains.

The crux of the problem is alleviating the headache of heavy traffic while simultaneously preserving open space and endangered species.

Based on yearly transportation studies, Los Angeles is the most congested city in the country. Orange County, home to 3 million residents, connects to L.A. county and contributes to the load of traffic in the area.

With congested traffic as a main concern for most drivers in Southern California, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) has established a project involving a route from Orange County, south of LA, to San Clemente, 60 miles south of LA. Orange County is one of the largest counties in the country, home to 3 million people.

Approximately 25 million people live in Southern California, an area where most destinations are not within walking distance.

To combat the escalating population in the 1980s, state transportation officials created four new highways in the Orange County region. The purpose was to create alternative routes to Interstate 5, one of the country’s busiest highways.

Today, the state owns 51 miles of highway throughout the county The plan TSA had in mind was to connect the 241 state highway in the south portion of the O.C. to Interstate 5 freeway. It would eventually merge in San Clemente.

The plan faced several obstacles over the years, most notable lawsuits from the San Onofre coalition, comprised of organizations including the state of California.

Phoenix, ranked lower than L.A., is the fifteenth most congested state in America, based on a 2017 report from the transportation analytics company Inrix. It revealed the city has over three thousand hotspots and the 2026 cost of congestion will be $9.5 billion.

The state is also working on expansion, adding 22 miles to the South Mountain Freeway. According to the Arizona Department of Transportation, the construction is projected to be finished by the end of 2019.

It’s not just you. The mosquitoes really are worse this year

Can’t leave the house without getting bitten? Legs swollen from scratching? Welcome to the crowd. Because yes. The mosquitoes are worse this year.

Why? There’s a new type of mosquito roaming the southern United States. You might have heard of it — it’s the aedes mosquito — and it first showed up in 2010. It’s even present in areas experiencing drought like the southwest. It’s way more vicious than the most common mosquito, known as the house mosquito, or the culex.

(Maps credit to Center for Disease Control).

Unlike the culex, aedes mosquitoes bite during the day. And they go for the legs and ankles, instead of buzzing around your ears, so you can’t hear them coming.

“They’re sneaky biters,” said Yessenia Avilez, an inspector for the Greater L.A. County Vector Control District.

It’s Avilez’s job to find and destroy the aedes mosquito. And on a hot day in August, I went along for the kill.

WHAT TO BRING TO A BUG HUNT

It’s 8 a.m., and Avilez and her mosquito-killing partner, Faiza Haider, are parking their big white truck on a steep street in Echo Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles.

It’s their second appointment of the day, and they have at least six more to go after this. Vector Control inspectors are busiest in the summer, when the heat speeds up the aedes’ reproductive cycle. That means the invasive mosquito infestation could get worse in the future, as temperatures rise.

Vector control inspectors Yessenia Avilez and Faiza Haider see if they caught a mosquito in the net inside their aspirator. (Photo by Emily Guerin/LAist)

Both women are petite, and their matching blue shirts and work pants look a bit too big for them. They both wear visors with an embroidered mosquito on the front, and their shiny Vector Control badges. The only thing personalized about their outfits are their tiny sparkly earrings.

(Sidenote: Avilez and Haider both starred in Vector Control’s awesome “Mosquito Rap” video PSA last year. It’s fun and catchy and you should watch it below. It was written by Metamorphosis and is part of the Mosquito S.W.A.T lab. )


-Video by GLACVCD

Avilez and Haider bring a few things to every appointment: a big black tool box — they call it “Fat Max” — that contains tupperware to bring mosquitoes and larvae back to the lab, their flashlights, pamphlets to give to residents and their mosquito catching vacuum.

They call it the “aspirator,” but it’s really just a leaf blower with the motor reversed, so it sucks air (and bugs) in instead of blowing out.

BREEDING IN BOTTLE CAPS

Once they get into the back yard, Haider and Avilez fan out.

“We’re looking for standing water,” Haider said. “Something as small as a bottle cap can breed mosquitoes.”

Culex prefer to lay their eggs in big sources of water, like swimming pools, but the aedes mosquitoes hardly need any water at all

That’s one key difference between the invasive aedes and native culex mosquitoes. Culex prefer to lay their eggs in big sources of water, like swimming pools, but the aedes mosquitoes hardly need any water at all. Both mosquitoes, however, can carry diseases: culex has successfully transmitted West Nile to six people in L.A. County already this year, while aedes can transmit Zika virus and dengue fever, although that hasn’t happened yet.

The women pick up potted plants, checking to see if the trays underneath are holding stagnant water. They peer into bamboo thickets, looking for places where water collects. They inspect doggy dishes, looking for larvae. And they take out their flashlights to check out empty buckets and pots, looking for the thin white calcium line where water used to be.

“The invasive mosquitoes likes to deposit its eggs right above the water mark,” Haider said. And the eggs can lie dormant for years, just waiting for the pot or bucket to be refilled again. That’s why when she and Avilez find a line of eggs in a dry pot, they’ll take it back to their lab and destroy it, or have the resident give it a good scrub with soap or bleach.

Jane Stephens Rosenthal is scratching her arms while she watches. She’s lived here for five years and called Vector Control because the mosquitoes have never been this bad.

“I was out here on a call at 9:30 a.m. for half an hour, and my legs were totally bitten,” she said. “They’re just nasty.”

GHOSTBUSTIN’ BUGS

After hunting around for 15 minutes, the women don’t find any standing water, or dried eggs. So they decide to try to catch a mosquito, to make sure it is, in fact, the invasive aedes that’s been bothering Stephens Rosenthal.

Haider takes out the aspirator and holds it up like a squirt gun, jabbing it towards a mosquito buzzing near the back of the yard. She looks like one of the Ghostbusters.

If she catches one, she’ll slam the lid on the tube of the leaf blower and check to see what kind of mosquito it is. But this time, the little bugger got away.

As the women turn to leave, Stephens Rosenthal offers a tip: there could be an uncovered rain barrel at the neighbor’s house.

THE MENACE NEXT DOOR

It’s not uncommon for mosquitoes to breed at one house and fly over the fence to bite the people next door.

“This mosquito doesn’t travel very far,” Avilez said. “It stays very close by to where it just hatched.”

So the women head one house down and ring the doorbell. No one is home. But through the fence they can see, beneath the deck, a giant, uncovered rain barrel. They poke their flashlights through the fence, shining it at the hole.

“That’s a point of entry,” Avilez said, “so mosquitoes can just fly in, deposit their eggs and fly out. It’s a perfect environment. It’s shaded, there’s people, there’s food.”

It must be frustrating, I say, to be looking at a potential source of mosquitoes, but not be able to do anything about it. Ideally, the inspectors would treat the rain barrel with larvicide right away.

But Avilez shrugs. It’s part of the job. So they tape a note on the door (tape and pamphlets emerge from Fat Max), and they’ll come back in three days if the homeowner doesn’t call back.

It’s illegal, at least in California, to ignore a source of mosquitoes on your property, and you can be fined up to $1,000 a day for refusing to fix the problem.