When the Tap Runs Dry

Sometimes your life can change with a clunk! Last spring, Donna Johnson, 72, of East Porterville, a small community at the eastern edge of the Central Valley, ran out of water. She hoped it was a problem with the pump or something a few feet of digging would fix, “it’s a hard issue to admit to yourself that your well has gone dry” Donna told me. She brought out someone to look at the well, but when the pipes went down and Donna heard that clunk, she knew the awful truth.

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A Day of Mayors - from LA River Pix

Photographing political events and photos ops are pretty strange. It is always a challenge to try to distinguish the “op” from the real, and more often than not there ain’t much real. Last Saturday I found myself down at Marsh Park along the Elysian Valley surrounded by a large fuzzy Lion, a cadre of cheerleaders, a bunch of political handlers all buzzing about along with various groups of helpful citizens there for a river clean-up.

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Sunday on the River with a Kayak - from LA River Pix

I’ve been wanting to go kayaking down the LA River since about 2008. That was the year I stood on the shore of the river along the Sepulveda Basin and watched as kayaker George Wolfe emerged from upstream and the dense foliage and shore his craft just in front of me.

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Two Faces of the LA River - from LA River Pix

If you have spent any time exploring even a bit of the LA River, you have no doubt seen its many different landscapes and incarnations, I have found and stumbled upon many of these in my journeys to photograph it. Last week I was shooting for a client who needed some printed photos of the Sepulveda Basin to display in a nearby housing development. Most of the river throughout the Basin is pretty calm and flat-watered as it runs a fairly straight course to the Dam at the southeastern end of the Recreation area.

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Ed Begley Jr's new green home - part 2

Last July I wrote about the start of construction of Ed and Rachelle Begley’s new home in their attempt to build one of the Greenest homes in North America. The steel framing had just begun and now these months later the sheathing is being laid over that frame. Recently two new water systems started to be installed that will help Ed and Rachelle save on water bills as well as recycle much needed water back to the aquifer.

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Islands and skylines - from LA River Pix

A few weeks ago I posted a picture of the river taken from Vernon with the downtown skyline in the background. This photo was taken upstream at the northern end of the Glendale Narrows and shows the skyline from the other direction. It was taken with a 200mm lens from the bike path along the river. There are several locations along the bike path where you can line up the river with the skyline and get quite a dramatic shot when the light is right. I never liked how the original looked and recently redid it to capture more of the mood I felt when looking at the river the evening I took the photo.

Glendale Narrows at the Los Angeles River with the downtown skyline

The vegetation you see in the river are islands that run along almost the whole stretch of the Glendale Narrows which is soft-bottomed. In these islands there are a good number of people who live there, at least part of the year, making their home in makeshift encampments amidst the privacy of the overgrown brush and trees. Several years ago during a FoLAR river cleanup, I stumbled upon one of these encampments and met a young and very pregnant woman who was sitting there waiting for her partner to return with food and supplies. She seemed quite comfortable living there and I think I was more taken aback with the situation than she was.

I’ve wondered what the dangers are of living on one of these islands during the rainy season. It’s one thing to feel the rain starting to come down and know the river may start rising soon, but what if the rain is much heavier further upstream and the river starts its dramatic rise before you know its coming. Just last week I saw on the news some people and their dogs being rescued from a tree they had scampered up to escape the onrushing river, so I guess the answer is you don’t ever really know when the water will rise and it is very dangerous.

New solar array at Culver City elementary school

I did double duty today as a father and photographer at my son’s elementary school when at a ribbon cutting ceremony this morning the switch was turned on at Culver City Unified School District's new photovoltaic power system. The giant solar array is located at Farragut Elementary School and spreads out over the parking lot next to Ballona Creek and the back playground on the east side of the school.

Solar power at elementary schoolSolar power at elementary schoolConstruction was started over last summer and was completed a few weeks into the school year. The Sunpower 750kw solar array is expected to provide $400,000 a year to the district’s general fund.

It will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change. Much like the many school gardens I have photographed, the new solar array will introduce these new ideas to the students by allowing them to interact with it, as tours and lectures are already being introduced into the curriculum.

Solar power at elementary schoolOn 2/4/2014, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held at Farragut Elementary School in Culver City for the switching on of the school district's new 750kw solar array built at the school. In addition to providing an expected $400,000 back to the school district, it will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change.

Solar power at elementary schoolHundreds of kids from the school attended holding up their home-made signs. Parents and teachers milled about, as did many of the town’s dignitaries. At the ribbon cutting ceremony was the mayor - Jeff Cooper, the vice mayor - Meghan Sahli-Wells, many city council members as well as school board members were present along with representatives of Sunpower and Todd Johnson, the co-chair of Culver City’s Environmental Sustainability Committee.

 The thing I love about living Culver City is that in spite of being in the middle of one of the largest urban centers in the country, it still manages to feel like a small town. It feels good to be in a place that is being proactive on many sustainability issues, where the city’s leaders are working closely with the community and schools to make our city a progressive and greener place to live.

Kayaking the mighty LA River

The LA River is a River. As obvious as that may sound, the truth is most people don’t really think of the Los Angeles River as an actual river. They are probably more familiar with the river’s movie roles such as the Governator barreling down its corridor on a motorcycle in Terminator 2 or the cast of Grease singing, dancing and racing along its flat bed and beveled sides.

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Ed Begley Jr.’s Green Home

Ed Begley Jr.. On 2/13/2013 the steel framing continues to be assembled over the foundation on the Begley's new home. Ed Begley Jr. (noted actor and environmentalist) and his wife Rachelle Carson-Begley are building their new home under LEED Platinum Certified standards in an attempt to become North America's greenest, most sustainable home. It is also being filmed for their web series "On Begley Street." Studio City, California, USA

The Science Barge

A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.

The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.

The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.

Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.

The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year  as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.

School Gardens

I recently spent a few weeks shooting gardens at some local elementary schools here in Los Angeles for a magazine article I was working on. Growing up in New York City suffice to say I wasn’t exposed to many gardens, certainly not at school. Some nice house plants maybe, but the closest thing I got to growing produce was the ever present avocado pit that my mother would stick in a jar on the kitchen window sill, hoping it would sprout into a tree one day.  I can safely say that the 20 or so pits she tried to grow did not bear fruit. I hope my son gets more of an opportunity to learn about this than I did, and with some of the school gardens I had a chance to visit, the prospects look good.

Young girls and their mother explore their school garden.

At one time LA had over 70 or so school gardens, now there are much less, school budgets probably, but hopefully they are back on the rise. I have actually been photographing a lot of gardens and gardeners  lately and I had no idea how extremely popular it is here in Los Angeles, and just about everywhere. It makes sense, with economic times being what they are, people are looking for ways to be more self sustainable, and nothing is more self sustainable than growing your own food. I saw the coverage of Michelle Obama planting an organic vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House and I think that helped send a message to folks across the country that growing your own food is both cool and sensible.

Young girl watering the strawberries.

One young mother invited me to photograph her and her two daughters at their school garden in Laurel Canyon. The girls picked up watering cans and immediately went to work, obviously comfortable with the routine and all too enthusiastic to show me the several planting beds in the school yard that were growing strawberries and a variety of greens, beans and herbs. The fact that their mother is in the Master Gardener program at UC will probably make gardening second nature to these two girls, much like growing up in a bilingual household will enable a child to have a lifelong proficiency in a second language.

Young boys collect food for the worm compost bin after their class mates eat their lunch

Underneath the intersection of the 10 and the 110 freeways is the Downtown Value School, a public charter school serving low income neighborhood schoolchildren near and around downtown Los Angeles. Over the years they have built a garden that goes around almost the entire perimeter of the school and even includes a small greenhouse. The gardens act as an outdoor classroom, and the day that I was there, three boys collected the discarded food leftover from their classmate's lunch and emptied it into the school worm composter.

Re-planting snow peas in the vertical garden at their school.

In the schoolyard they also have vertical garden with a variety of greens, beans and berries growing out of the small pouches of soil. This vertical garden was supplied by Woolly Pockets and is a great way to plant a garden in a small area; it is made up of rows of soft breathable pockets, stacked on top of each other so you literally have a wall of plants. In addition to having a very cool product, Woolly Pockets also gives back to the community through its Woolly School Garden Program, which helps schools raise donations to start these vertical gardens.

The Woolly Pockets vertical garden at the Downtown Value School

A few weeks earlier I had attended a Big Sunday Weekend event, the largest annual citywide community service event in America. A few hundred children, parents and teachers all came out to help plant and fix up the garden at the 24th street School in the West Adams District. There were kids shoveling mulch, families weeding out planting beds and people generally having a really good time. It was encouraging to see communities coming together to do service, for schools to be teaching kids about growing food, not only for the practicality of it, but for the beauty of it as well, and for parents to pass down perhaps a renewed tradition of growing your own food and eating healthier because of it. Childhood obesity is through the roof, and I can see nothing more contrary to junk food and fast food than what I saw at all these schools.

Students, parents and teachers work on the garden at the 24th Street School garden on Big Sunday.

Palmdale

I first heard of Palmdale in the Frank Zappa song “Village of the Sun” many years ago, turns out he grew up in the neighboring town of Lancaster. It is a high desert town, and although the surrounding San Gabriel Mountains and outlying desert are beautiful, the town itself is a series of strip malls and housing developments. They do have one thing going for them though, it is very windy, and the day I went there it was very, very windy.  Zappa’s lyrics say it all.

…good God I hope the Wind don't blow. It take the paint off your car And wreck your windshield too, I don't know how the people stand it, But I guess they do.

I went up there to photograph wind turbines, not the massive wind farms they have near Palm Springs, but smaller residential and business wind turbines that are a perfect energy source in this breezy desert town. You get to Palmdale on route 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway, and the first thing you see from the bluff overlooking the town is a huge 318 foot wind turbine on the edge of Lake Palmdale. There is just the one, a giant sentinel standing guard over the town, and you can easily see it is the tallest structure for miles around. It was built in 2004 to help power the district's Lake Palmdale water-treatment plant and can produce up to 950kw of electricity.

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The Walmart/Sam’s Club just recently installed a mini wind farm on their parking lot. Seventeen micro wind turbines were humming along pretty furiously the day I was there, standing at respectful distances from each other and producing 76,000 kilowatt-hours of energy annually for the store. You may not like Walmart for some of their business practices, but they are making an effort to make their stores more sustainable.  I included a video I took of it, it’s not very exciting, but it gives you an idea of just how windy it was.

I came across a few small residential wind turbines as I toured the town, but could not help but think how much more could be done to take advantage of the winds that whip pretty consistently across this high desert town. As I drove around I was listening to radio reports about the oil spill in the gulf, it was hard not to be discouraged by the lack of will to make a serious effort to get this country and the rest of the planet off our addiction to fossil fuels. It seems environmental disasters and the price of gas are the only things that get us to even start talking about alternatives. What a cliché, but it is the truth.

The travel photographer in me wanted to see if I could find any vestige of history in this town, but the only things I could find were an old schoolhouse and a motley graveyard called the Palmdale Pioneer Cemetery. No coonskin caps or stagecoach remnants I’m afraid, it wasn’t very inspiring. But passing through the town is the great California Aqueduct, bringing water from the north to Los Angeles and Southern California as it begins to wind down its journey in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. More on the aqueduct later.

Welcome to the first post of Citizen of the Planet.

I once heard David Burnett, the famous photojournalist, say that photographers get to parachute in and out of other people’s lives. I always thought that was a great way of describing what we do. My camera has always allowed me to enter places and worlds I would never have found otherwise, allowing me to learn a little bit about a lot of things, and sometimes a lot about a few things. Along the way I am usually privileged to meet some very interesting people. That is why I love what I do. What I have discovered shooting a lot of the environmental and Green stories these last few years, is that quite often those interesting places and people are in my own backyard.

Dolphins and Oil Derrick in Catalina Channel

I had been shooting mostly travel subjects for as long as I can remember and even started my own photo agency, Ambient Images, that specialized in travel photos from New York and California. But a few years ago I wanted to move in another direction, to possibly get back to the photojournalistic roots that first took hold of me and my camera some twenty five years ago. It was obvious to me that the big story of our time was what was happening to our planet. On one hand the planet was under assault from the encroaching and gluttonous needs of mankind. Species were dying, the earth was warming and the precious air and water that our lives depended on, were becoming fouler and fouler with each day.

Helicopter dropping water on Sylmar wildfire

On the other hand, there are all the people who have been awakened to the earth’s plight and who have not sat idly or blindly by as these irreversible travesties continued to blight our planet. Technology was changing at seemingly lightning speed to help us meet our energy needs from alternative sources, and battles were being waged to preserve our waters, our air and our health from further erosion. There were many who were making great and sometimes even just small sacrifices to bring attention to these things, so that the rest of us might take off our blinders long enough to see that action was going to be required on all our parts if we wanted our children to inherit something even resembling the planet and glorious natural world that we are still privileged to live in. These heroes are often just our neighbors who spend a day cleaning a beach or river, or it might be a couple of guys who sail across an ocean on a raft, or the family that spends a year living without the normal amenities of life because of their negative impact on the environment.

Heal the bay Clean up at Venice Beach

The first event I photographed was a beach clean up in Venice for Heal the Bay, a well known and longstanding organization that is dedicated to the clean up and education of all matters relating to Santa Monica Bay. I have gone on to work with FoLAR – Friends of the LA River, LA Conservation Corps, the Million Trees LA Initiative out of the Los Angles Mayors office, CBE – Communities for a Better Environment, LA Eco-Village and others.

The "Junk" raft sails from Long Beach to Hawaii

The most interesting story I have done so far was that of the “Junk” raft. Over several months I followed the preparations of Marcus Eriksen and Joel Pascal as they built and made ready to sail their Kon Tiki like raft, made from 15,000 plastic bottles and an airplane fuselage, 2100 miles from Long Beach to Hawaii to bring awareness to the North Pacific Gyre and the floating plastic soup that is permeating the Ocean and infiltrating our food supply. I was lucky enough to be on the ORV Alguita, Captain Charlie Moore's 50 foot Catamaran that towed them out to sea for four days to help them on their way for the ten week journey. We hit a gale on our third day out, an interesting experience for this born and bred New York City boy. I am proud to say that I did not get sea sick, a feat I attribute to riding the New York subways for most of my life.

Plastic Water Bottle Floating in Pacific Ocean

After that trip I would never see a plastic water bottle or  bag the same way. The theme of plastic in our rivers and oceans continues to attract my camera as well as the story of water in Los Angeles in general. Anyone who knows a bit of Los Angeles history or has seen the movie Chinatown, knows how important and critical a role water plays in the dynamic ecosystem of Southern California.

I have come to understand that our own backyards are simply microcosms of what is occurring elsewhere, and that the hard work and spirit that is happening in one neighborhood, is repeated hundreds and thousands of times over in communities in this country and around the planet.

Los Angeles River Expedition in 2008, Glendale Narrows

I hope to show show in this blog, through the use of pictures and words, what is happening in my backyard of Los Angeles and Southern California. I will do my best to make it entertaining as well as educational. I will of course be traveling and showing you the result of those exploits, and I also intend to invite guest photographers to show their work here from time to time, something I am very excited about. Please offer your comments, your critiques and your corrections. I am new at this blogging thing and your input will help me guide me and teach me. Breathe deeply and be well.