Photo – A Geyser in Downtown Berkeley


A huge geyser was caused when a car hit a fire hydrant in the center of Shattuck Ave on April 16th.

(And apparently, it’s not the first time this has happened in Berkeley, CA.)



This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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Essentially, a “foodshed” is a way to conceptualize the total system of food production from farm to table. This includes the various intermediate stages of processing, packaging, preparation and travel before a good reaches its final destination. Similar to a watershed (the system of rivers, streams and aquifers that define a regions’ water supply) one can discuss the impacts of factors such as pesticides, delivery systems and resource efficiency within a foodshed. However, unlike a watershed which is more or less constrained by local topography, a modern American foodshed is limited only by consumer choice and the behavior and/or regulation of industry and agriculture.

See the American Farmland Trust’s study on the San Francisco bay area’s foodshed

Related terms

Locavore: A person who strives to eat primarily locally sourced/produced/grown foods.

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture): A food supply model whereby individuals receive produce and goods directly from the farm that produces them. Consumers assume a portion of the farmer’s risk by buying subscriptions for a prescribed period of time. This allows farmers to effectively manage financial resources with less impact from weather fluctuations and other circumstantial losses. In return, subscribers benefit from receiving  a variety local, seasonal produce and sharing in high yields. Finally, because CSA’s tend to grow a wide range of foods for their subscribers, organic methods of soil management, including crop-rotation is often practiced.

See the Ecology Center’s list of bay area CSAs

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

Finding Data – Watershed Mapping


Pictured above is the U.S. EPA 'Surf your Watershed' site’s display of the six watersheds of Alameda County.

‘Surf your Watershed’ is an excellent tool from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that helps you find basic data on all the watersheds in your county. The site includes U.S. Geologic Survey data, water quality information, and links to local citizen’s groups working on water stewarship, clean up and other  issues (39 in Alameda County!)

Check it out

Finding Data – The Water Intensity of Food


Many of us have heard that we should eat locally grown food to reduce the energy needed to transport and preserve the food between the source and our table. Many of us have also heard that we should reduce our meat consumption to reduce the amount of land and other resources needed to support our diets and lifestyles. Another metric to consider is how much water is needed to produce different foods.

Based on values from the Water Footprint Network, I compiled a chart of how much water is needed to produce certain foods. This is obviously not an inclusive list of all foods, but gives an idea of the range of values for different kinds of foods. These values will also differ in different countries and regions. As noted by the director of the Water Footprint Network, Arjen Y. Hoekstra, “Water problems are often closely tied to the structure of the global economy. Many countries have significantly externalised their water footprint, importing water-intensive goods from elsewhere. This puts pressure on the water resources in the exporting regions, where too often mechanisms for wise water governance and conservation are lacking.”

In the table on the left, values are generally for liters per kilogram unless otherwise noted. In the table on the right, values are generally for gallons per pound unless otherwise noted.

You can calculate your own water footprint with this calculator for an estimate of which parts of your diet and lifestyle are most water intensive.

Ixtoc I and ESI Maps


News sources and commentators have been comparing the size of the current oil spill in the Gulf to that of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. There are of course numerous differences between the spills – the Exxon Valdez spill was in an isolated area in Alaska, for example, and the maximum volume of the spill was known at the beginning of the crisis. The boat could only spill as much oil as it could hold. And the Exxon Valdez spill occurred at the surface – oil was not rising from the bottom of the ocean, becoming emulsified and harder to clean up.

A better comparison for the current Gulf spill might be the Ixtoc I spill of 1979, the worst offshore spill in North American history.

After the well blowout on June 3, 1979, it took more than nine months to cap the well. Nine months. During that time, the well was spewing roughly 10,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day into the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico. 3 million barrels of oil wound up in the Gulf.

As a result of this major spill, new procedures were instituted, existing procedures were revised, and new information was gathered. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) developed Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) sensitivity maps, which plot information about the shoreline and biological and human-use resources. This helps responders identify risks and develop priorities quickly. An example  of an ESI map of San Diego Bay (from NOAA’s website) is below.

An overview of the “anatomy” of ESI maps can be found here. ESI maps can be downloaded here.

Anna’s Links – 5/26/10

A round-up of interesting (and depressing) analysis of the recent oil rig explosion and oil spill…

A “live” feed of the BP oil spill is now posted online (though traffic has been so high that it’s not always possible to view) – U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee.

Experts examining a previous video of the oil leak released by BP estimate that the size of the oil spill is much larger than official estimates – NPR.

Scientists fault the government for “failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope” – New York Times.

Some experts are starting to say that the oil leaks could last for years because “we don’t have any idea how to stop this” – National Geographic.

Aerial photos of the Gulf oil spill show its vast size – NASA Earth Observatory.

A scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab notes that some of the detergents used to clean up spill sites can be more toxic that the oil itself – Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

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Other interesting tidbits from the web…

Two campuses of the University of California system, Berkeley and Davis, have been given  MacArthur grants to launch a new master’s degree program in sustainable development practice – UC Berkeley and MacArthur Foundation.

Developers in Las Vegas are cranking up their sales pitches for brand new homes again, even though the city has 9,500 empty houses and another 5,600 that were repossessed in the first quarter of 2010 – New York Times.

Las Vegas as a whole has been very dependent on growth and construction – the recent drop in new construction had a major impact on municipal funding – Aguanomics and Bloomberg.

Federal officials want public input on a proposal to revise policies for managing urban water shortages in the Central Valley – meetings will be held in Sacramento on May 26, June 23, July 20, and August 19 – The Sacramento Bee.

Current Events – The Cost of Energy Production


There have been many analyses of the financial cost of energy production – in this post I am focused on the human and environmental costs.

It can seem like a huge practical joke – the fossil fuels that we have become so dependent on are tucked away into all kinds of inaccessible corners of the planet. And the more we need them to keep up with increasing demand, the harder and harder they are to find and to safely extract.

This issue of “safe” extraction has been in the news and on my mind a lot lately.

First, there was explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

Then, the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion that is presumed to have killed 11 workers. The estimates of the size of the resulting oil spill are being revised upwards (again).

There have been numerous other disasters over the years, both in the United States and the rest of the world.

There is always initial shock and outrage at these disasters, of course. But the focus of the outrage is on whether proper permits were acquired and safety procedures followed. Doubt is and will be expressed at company management and government for their oversight and handling of the crisis.

But there is little shock and outrage over the potential long-term human and environmental cost of extracting these fossil fuels, and over how little we seem to value the resulting energy. There is real risk involved in getting energy from the source, into a usable format, and transporting it to the location where it will be used.

While we should absolutely improve oversight and regulation of these enterprises, a major lesson of these disasters is that we need to rethink why we really need this energy in the first place and to use this precious commodity with increased care.

Editorial – AC Transit Service Cuts


*AC Transit is considering options for another 8% of service cuts (effective in August) to meet its budget. Public hearings and comment sessions on the new cuts will be held this Wednesday, May 26, 2p.m. and 6p.m. at 1600 Franklin Street in Oakland. We will be reporting on the new cuts next week.


Regular riders aware by now that several AC Transit lines underwent tweaks to schedules and routes at the end of March, most notably the split of the 51 line to “51A” and “51B” lines that terminate at the RockRidge BART station. Regular riders are also aware that public transit in the Bay Area has seen fare increases across the board in the past year. However, what many riders may not know is that most transit agencies only receive a fraction of their operating costs from cash fares. AC Transit for example, recoups less than 20 percent of its budget from cash fares. So, while it is true that fare rates have seen increases while services have declined, they do not even begin to touch the transit giant’s bottom line.

AC Transit’s pared down route system that went into effect at the end of March this year is just one manifestation of structural changes and deep cuts within the system. The statewide budget crisis has resulted in the loss of significant funding, mainly from State Transit Assistance (STA) grants. AC Transit’s baseline budget for FY 08/09 clocked in at $327 million and was on course to increase; Due to restructuring the FY 09/10 budget will be stripped back to $313.9 million and FY 10/11 is budgeted for $308.9 million.

In any very large organization there must be fat to be cut, and efficiency gains to be had. But why the withdrawal of millions of dollars of funding for public transit at a time when many are forced to scale back economically and possibly even give up their cars? AC Transit- and public transportation in the Bay Area in general- are not alone; major spending cuts for transit can be seen all across the country.

While giving up a car may be great for the planet, it can be a major liability for folks trying to stay mobile in areas of poor transit connectivity. Further, with extended wait times, curtailed hours and pared down routes, public transit may not win many converts-even among those who would like an alternative to driving. It was reported in the San Jose Mercury News that Bay Area public transit lost an estimated seven percent of its ridership within the past year, and the nation is not far behind with a six percent overall drop in public transit usage. This is the classic chicken and egg scenario: if ridership is down as the economy stagnates, funding will be down; If funding is down, service will be down; If service is down, ridership will be down, and so on. How we will restructure this ailing system remains to be seen.

Nina Maritz


This post is part of our series exploring the ways people and communities reuse, recycle and dispose of waste around the world.

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I saw a presentation by Nina Maritz in San Francisco in 2006, and I have continued to think about her approach periodically over the years.

Nina Maritz is a Namibian architect whose work reflects local building strategies and is built with local labor.

One project that showcases her work is the Habitat Research and Development Center in Windhoek, Namibia. Among many goals and activities listed for the center are “promote sustainable and environmentally appropriate housing” and “develop local skills in sustainable housing construction methods.” The completed project is site appropriate, made from local materials, and uses a number of passive cooling methods to keep the occupants comfortable. Each design decision addresses a number of design challenges (for example, by using poles from invasive species, she could abstain from using rare local hardwood).

What I found particularly striking about Nina Maritz’s work, and what I keep returning to, is the careful reuse of materials throughout the project.

(Photos on Flickr and in ArchitectureWeek)

Wherever possible, it seems, the architect worked with local workers and artisans to reuse materials such as corrugated metal, storage drums, cans, and tires, in both functional and decorative ways. While this approach is difficult in many places because of stringent building code and the expense of labor, it evokes an entirely different way of looking at the world, where every object holds potential not just for its intended use but also for future uses.