More Bang for Your Duck

California’s wild storms of January-February 2017 sure made this story for Comstock’s magazine a tough one to report: lots of canceled interviews, farms getting evacuated, levees needing to be repaired (and photo shoots rescheduled). But here we go! With photos by Ken James.

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On assignment at Rue & Forsman Ranch in the Sacramento Valley (photo by Sena)

More Bang for Your Duck

After a rough few years, Sacramento Valley rice farmers are supplementing crop profits with environmental stewardship

By Sena Christian

Rice farmer Michael Bosworth can easily recognize the distinctive “kla-ha, kla-ha” call made by white-fronted geese on his property. They always sound like they’re having a good laugh. The birds’ high-pitched yelps reveal their presence before we approach a flock of them among some wintering grounds on a December morning.

“These guys will hang out ’til we drain the fields,” he says, pointing to the geese. “We get bald eagles all winter long.” Swans, great blue herons, white-faced ibis and other waterbirds swim and wade around flooded paddies. A flock flies above in a V formation, each bird catching the updraft of the one before them.

Over the past few years, Bosworth has participated in programs to increase habitat for waterbirds along the 4,000-mile Pacific Flyway. At least one billion birds, representing 300 species, travel this journey from arctic Alaska to Patagonia, at the tip of South America. While that may sound like a lot, scientists believe it’s only a fraction of historic numbers. Along the way, millions of birds spend time in the Sacramento Valley, including at Bosworth’s Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst.

Bosworth has made his land a prime spot for the birds, and not just for the feel-good eco-vibes. Providing wildlife habitat actually boosts his bottom line.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Whenever I decide to write about water, I always think it’s such a good idea. Then the real work begins — breaking down and trying to make sense of the complexity around this limited natural resource in the American West, and telling a good story. And I’ll wonder, why did I do this to myself?! Writing about water isn’t easy. I took a solution-oriented approach in this story for Comstock’s magazine. Photojournalist Sonya Doctorian took the photos and created the video.

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A rainbow over an almond orchard in California’s Central Valley. Photo by Sonya Doctorian.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Sacramento water agencies work together, adapting to drought and planning for a future of growth

By Sena Christian

Dr. Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, is the godfather of research on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When he says it took John Sutter eight days to wind his way from San Francisco Bay through the Delta to find the narrow Sacramento River in 1839, you can bet that’s the truth. Not until 1913 was the mouth of the river dredged to make it a mile wide. Grizzly bears roamed the wildness, feasting on an abundance of native fish, until they were hunted to local extinction. Today in the Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of North America, only remnants remain of the natural landscape before it was irreversibly altered at the hands of people.

The Delta is a system of canals. In places, you can stand on a man-made levee with high water on one side and sunken land on the other. For 7,000 years, sediment accumulated to form deposits of organically-rich peat soil, but the last 170 years of farming have undone this natural process. About 2,300 dump trucks worth of soil is lost per day, oxidized as carbon dioxide and all told, about half of the Delta’s soil material is now gone, says Curt Schmutte, a civil engineer who specializes in Delta issues. We named plots of land in the Delta “islands,” but scientists refer to them — the majority below sea level — as “holes.”

I’m with a tour group on a hot September afternoon, and we hold onto our hats and brace ourselves as the boat tears through the water at 40 miles per hour, past invasive water hyacinth, tules, fishermen, houseboats, farmland and cattle. The Delta accumulates water from California’s largest watershed and acts as the hub of the state’s water supply system, linking water from the north to the two biggest water projects, which play a major role in sustaining the world’s sixth largest economy and much of its industry, agriculture and 39 million people.

But the Delta exists under unrelenting pressure: from land-use change, population growth, nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants, earthquakes, agriculture, sea-level rise and more. Even with money, there’s no silver bullet to fix this ecosystem — but there are plenty of battling sides. “It’s like a game of chicken,” Lund says. “How do you break a game of chicken?”

… Read the rest of the article here …

Closing the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

I’m so happy that my piece on the adventure gap has finally found a home with Earth Island Journal! Read an excerpt below. And check out this photo taken by Sonya Doctorian during a rafting trip with cityWILD in Denver, when I totally almost died.

Only a few minutes before, I’d been pleasantly surprised at how easy I’d found rafting to be on this, my first time doing the activity in 33 years of life. I’m in the front, peering back out of the corner of my eye to Doctorian, who’s been tasked with setting our pace.

I'm on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid in the South Platte River in Denver on a rafting trip in May (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

I’m on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

We bunker our heads down as we approach the first set of rapids, Nicastro directing our maneuvers. I clench my lips tight and paddle hard, exhibiting laser-vision focus on the task at hand, when suddenly, my butt slipped. I’m sitting too close to the edge. Too late now to reposition, our raft tipping as we whirl backward. My butt slips and then slips again until nothing is underneath but dirty, city river water, probably rife with all strains of Hepatitis. My ankle hangs precariously on the raft’s edge, causing my head to sink below the water. I reach up to release my foot then grab ahold of the chicken line around the boat’s perimeter. Sonya and Elise extend their arms as I grip my paddle. They heave ho me up to safety (Sonya, later: “The classic photojournalist’s dilemma: help or photograph? Easy decision.”). I pat the top of my head, indicating to the lead guide in another raft that I’m fine; the two other rafts, filled with cityWILD kids, had paddled furiously over to provide assistance.

“Kevin fell out too!” Sonya shouts, above the ruckus of the moving river. His head surfaces about 10 yards behind us. With Nicastro back aboard, I’m laughing inside in a delirious, adrenaline-drunk way, seeing the look of bewilderment on the faces of these kids staring at this inept woman who fell overboard on the very first rapid. I’ll never be as good at rafting as them, I think. It makes me really happy, for them, to realize that. And I’m willing to bet most of them will love rafting for the rest of their lives.

Now, here’s that excerpt:

Colorado Outfit Works to Close the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

America’s wild places need urban youth and minorities to get interested and invested in nature

By Sena Christian

Students scurry around the decrepit warehouse, pulling up the legs of their waterproof pants and zipping up splash jackets, strapping on life vests and organizing themselves into two river-rafting teams. This isn’t just a typical summer afternoon at cityWILD in Denver, Colorado. This is race day, when the kids will demonstrate their abilities on the water with speed and technical skill. They’ll have a three-mile stretch to strut their stuff, and the South Platte River is flowing abnormally high today — running at 2,320 cubic feet per second instead of the usual 800, following a week of steady rain and snowmelt.

Anticipation builds, prompting the program director Kevin Nicastro to issue reminders about sportsmanship. “We don’t normally do competitions like this. There will be people who win and people who lose today. So I want you to strategize how you want to win, and how you want to lose,” Nicastro tells the students, who don’t look like the typical whitewater rafters. Most are multi-ethnic and come from poor neighborhoods in northeast Denver where violent crime and gang-related activity are rampant. Since 1998, cityWILD has been getting these kids out of the concrete jungle and on camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowshoeing trips. The nonprofit recognizes that starting with youth is key because when kids play around in the outdoors they tend to carry this enthusiasm into adulthood.

Students with cityWILD had spent the month before their big May race learning how to raft the South Platte River, which flows through downtown Denver past homeless encampments, an REI outlet, an amusement park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Broncos play. On race day, 18-year-old Tim Smith paddles a raft confidently through rapids. He joined cityWILD as a seventh grader and by the time he was 14 years old had achieved the status of a junior raft guide, meaning he could help lead excursions. Now he’s about 6-feet tall and a high school graduate with a firm handshake, and preparing to enter the US Army National Guard.

“Before I became a student here, I had no experience (with nature),” Smith tells me. “I went walking once in awhile with my grandma, but that wasn’t really hiking. I went way out with cityWILD to places with no city lights, no cars within a mile.” The organization also paid for him to attend a month-long National Outdoor Leadership School program in Wyoming.

Youth come to the organization primarily from school referrals, outreach at community events and word-of-mouth. These youth are marginalized, whether socially, culturally or behaviorally, some with tumultuous home lives, others who have survived violence. Most have never gone on a trip with their families, says cityWILD executive director Jes Ward. Over spring break, several students camped in Moab, Utah.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Is Plant Science The Answer To Improved Food Security?

In May, I had the opportunity to participate in the Metcalf Institute for Climate Change and the News in St. Louis, Missouri. The institute coincided with the second National Adaptation Forum, and I wrote a dispatch from the forum for Earth Island Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team tasked with developing virus-resistant cassava, which is a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri (Photo by Sena Christian).

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team developing virus-resistant cassava. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (Photo by Sena Christian).

Is plant science the answer to improved food security?

In a world of climate change and growing global population, researchers believe plants are key to adaptation

By Sena Christian

Nigel Taylor spreads apart the wilted and discolored leaves of a cassava plant. He wants us to see its sickness on full display. Taylor leads a team of scientists in St. Louis attempting to genetically engineer a virus-resistant version of the plant, and is working with researchers in Uganda and Kenya, where cassava is a staple crop. Once created, this plant will be delivered to small-landholder farmers for widespread use in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Cassava is an incredibly important source of calories in the tropics,” Taylor explains to a group of journalists visiting the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri in early May. The ultimate goal of this not-for-profit center, founded in 1998, is to double production of the world’s most important crops while lowering agriculture’s environmental footprint. More than 200 employees are on the case, and for these scientists, answers lie in an obvious place: “We think plants are a wonderful solution to a lot of global challenges,” vice president of research Dr. Toni Kutchan tells us.

Among the biggest challenges is a growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, which will need to be fed without degrading more natural resources. Other challenges include regions around the world suffering from increased salinity in soil, water supplies tainted with fertilizer, declining crop yields due to plant disease, and intensifying droughts. The agricultural powerhouse of California, for instance — responsible for producing about half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts — has entered the fourth year of a historic drought with no relief in sight. Danforth scientists are developing crops to withstand these environmental stressors as we brace for the impacts of climate change.

“Human-induced climate change is here and now. It’s not just something we need to think about for our grandchildren,” says Kathy Jacobs at the second National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis, where she joined more than 800 representatives from the private and public sector in May.

… Read the rest of the article here …