International School Of Monterey Students Win 2017 Water Award!

Water Award Trophy

On a sunny Saturday in mid March, after months of heavy winter rains, young scientists gathered at CSUMB’s University Center for the 2017 Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair. Once again, plaques, medals, and cash awards were up for grabs, including the beautiful recycled glass trophy (and $100 cash prize) for this year’s winner of the Water For Our Future Award!  


Judges: L-R  Natalie Low*, Alana Kleven*, Crystal Ng*, Carol Reeb*

Three graduate students from Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station* and CSUMB’s Watershed Institute* met me early in the morning to assist as judges. We set off into a sea of nearly 400 science posters and found 36 that met our criteria.  They ranged from computerized shower alarms to fog collectors to hydroponics with or without recirculating pumps. By the afternoon we had a list of four finalists. After much discussion, we decided on two winners.


Congratulations to RIO LAUER and MIA DOSTAL for their winning projects on Greywater Recycling and Aquaponics!

Reusing Greywater to Reduce Usage and Dependency of the Carmel River



Rio Lauer stands next to her winning project on greywater reuse.       (photo: C. Reeb)

Rio Laur begins her Introduction with a fascinating statement:  “Imagine if the Monterey Peninsula could reuse enough water [such] that there would be no need for a seawater desalination plant.”

Rio appreciates the value of greywater recycling.  After learning that daily toilet flushing uses up to 40% of a household’s water budget, she decided to focus her project on ways to reduce that impact with greywater.  She reasoned that if toilets could be flushed with greywater, not potable drinking water, then residents on the Monterey Peninsula could save significant amounts of water each year.  In doing so, they would lessen their impact on the Carmel River watershed and reduce their need for seawater desalination.

Rio learned that greywater generated in homes could be acidic.  As we learned from news stories out of Flint, Michigan last year, acidic water corrodes pipes.  It also damages o-rings and washers on toilets creating leaks. Rio set out to measure pH of greywater in her home and at two local restaurants. She found that in most cases, greywater was not acidic (pH>7).  She concluded that it would be okay for toilets.


A Carmel River tributary in early winter. (photo: C. Reeb)

Rio next presented a mathematical model to highlight the value of greywater. She assumed all households on the Monterey Peninsula would install a recycling system (for example, AQUS greywater system) and that all toilets would be flushed only with greywater from showers (third largest water use).  She discovered that the community could save 1,800 acre feet of water (586 million gallons), which is 12% of the Peninsula’s annual water budget. While this is less than 6,900 acre feet of water needed from a proposed ocean desalination plant, Rio does show how in-home greywater recycling can reduce our water demand.  In the future, greywater reuse leaves open the possibility of considering less costly alternatives to augment water supply such as purifying more wastewater and storm water instead of taking even more water to desalinate from the sea.


NOTE: Indoor grey water systems are already in use in parts of California. In fact, all new buildings on Stanford’s campus have greywater plumbing for toilets.  However, in Monterey County greywater is approved only for outdoor irrigation, not indoor reuse – for now.

Plant Growth in Aquaponic Systems


Mia Dostal stands next to her winning aquaponics farm. (photo:  C. Reeb)

Mia Dostal began her study with a futuristic thought:  “If we replaced some farms with aquaponic systems, we could save 20 times more water.”

The combination of fish farming and crop production is a very forward-thinking approach to a future with limited water. Instead of choosing between fish and farms, imagine a world where we could have both.  For her science fair project, Mia built her own aquaponic system.  She wanted to compare growth rates of food crops in soil to growth in aquaponics.  Using PVC pipe, she drilled holes to plant lettuce, chives, and broccoli. She attached a pump to recirculate water from an aquarium containing nine fish through the pipe and back.  In aquaponics, fish provide the nitrogen for plant growth so the need for fertilizer is eliminated.  Because fish use the water too, toxic pesticides cannot be used.  To limit pathogens and insects, aquaponic farms are often housed indoors.

Mia wanted to know whether plants grown with aquaponics were bigger than those potted in soil. Her results show both systems produced similar results.  However, aquaponics promoted slightly better overall growth. Mia’s work suggests that aquaponic farming could make fertilizers and pesticides a thing of the past. Her vision of a new age of indoor farming saves water, money, and benefits the environment while at the same time, produces food.


In-home hydroponic farm.  (photo:  C. Reeb)

Mia recommends that her system be compared to hydroponic systems next. In terms of economics, hydroponics initially costs a lot less. However, fish are food too. Growing both fish and crops with the same water could pay off in big ways for future food production.


NOTE: The judges were inspired by glimpses of future farming ideas proposed for Monterey County that use orders of magnitude less water than traditional methods. It should be noted that entrepreneurs are already investing in hydroponic farms. In fact, Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla founder) recently unveiled a high-intensity farm system housed in shipping containers in New York City. His company, Square Roots, claims to be creating the next generation of real food entrepreneurs for urban settings. You can check it out by going to:

Carmel Middle School Students Win 2016 Water Award!


Dilan Patel and Katherine Dean (Photo: C. Reeb).

This year’s Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair fell on a partly cloudy weekend in early March sandwiched between two El Nino storms. But that did not stop nearly 500 middle and high school students from gathering in the University Ballroom at California State University, Monterey Bay. Nor did it stop a team of judges from searching for this year’s winner of the “Water For Our Future” award.

This special water award is co-sponsored by Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and CSUMB’s Watershed Institute. It recognizes projects that find ways to solve a water shortage at home, at work (school), or on the farm. Of 330 posters presented at the fair, 29 were identified as “water-related.”  Of these, 11 were short-listed for our award. Among these projects were topics ranging from seawater desalination to aquaponics; from the benefits of worms to improve soil porosity to assist groundwater recharge to the use of drones to measure crop cover, which can reduce the need for irrigation. After reading through hundreds of titles and dozens of posters, one project emerged as the unanimous winner.


GOT DESAL?  Data tables, graphs, and s solar desalination device are shown (Photo: C. Reeb)

This year’s Water For Our Future award goes to 8th graders Katherine Dean and Dilan Patel from Carmel Middle School. The title of their project: GOT DESAL?

Katherine and Dilan were motivated to study seawater desalination out of concern for water shortages impacting not only California, but throughout much of the world. Because 97% of earth’s water is contained in salty seas, why not make use of seawater to meet future water demands? However, removing salt with modern methods such as reverse osmosis is costly. These students wondered if there were other alternatives.

During their literature research, Katherine and Dilan discovered how ancient civilizations desalinated seawater with virtually no cost at all. For example, ancient Greek sailors would place buckets of seawater beneath sails.  As the sun heated the buckets, fresh water would evaporate and condense as droplets on the cooler sails.  In time, the sails would drip with fresh water, which was collected for sailors to drink.  By harnessing the power of the sun, ancient seafarers obtained low-cost fresh water from the ocean.

Our students searched online for information to build a solar desalination device (check out They began with a light-colored plastic container as their seawater bucket (or reservoir). Because they knew heat energy from the sun was best absorbed by darker colors, they wondered if the solar device could be made to produce  more water if they darkened the color of the reservoir. They decided to test this idea by placing white, black, blue, and brown papers beneath the plastic reservoir.

Katherine and Dilan repeated their experiment three times for each color. I have taken the liberty to reproduce their results, with error bars, on the graph below.  The error bars outline the variability across all three trials.  Each bar represents two standard deviations of the variance, also known as the 95% confidence interval, which scientists use to support or reject hypotheses. Because the black paper consistently produced the same amount of fresh water for all three trials, there is no variability in that data for the error bars to show.

BarGraph-2016 copy.jpg

Water produced using a solar desalination device with different colored backgrounds.  Error bars outline the 95% confidence interval of the data for each color.  Redrawn from Patel and Dean, 2016.

The graph clearly shows that the black paper consistently produced the most water. The brown reservoir appears to be second best. However, look closely at the error bars.   You will notice that the brown error bars overlap with those of both white and blue. This overlap tells us that there is too much variation in the data to conclusively say brown is better at producing water than either blue or white. In fact, this experiment would need many more trials showing the same trend before we could statistically support that statement in a scientific study. Meanwhile, none of the error bars overlapped with the black bars. Therefore, we can say that the results support the hypothesis that the black paper beneath the reservoir produces significantly more water than the other colors. This is what Katherine and Dilan concluded.

Congratulations to Dilan and Katherine, their parents and teachers, and the many other students who undertook water projects at the science fair this year!

A Special Thanks To Our Judges:

The science of water is a huge, multidisciplinary field encompasses fields of study for land, sea, and atmosphere. This year, I was happy to welcome four graduate students from CSUMB’s Watershed Institute and Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station to help judge a wide variety of projects for this award. These Master’s and Ph.D. candidates volunteered their time and expertise in hydrology and ocean science. They sorted through hundreds of titles, contemplated a broad range of hypotheses, interviewed dozens of students, and thoughtfully discussed the merits of each project before deciding on a winner.

This year for the first time, I was able to mentor  these graduate student while they took on the role of mentoring our youngest scientists.  On that weekend, for the first time in a long time, the high Sierras were covered in snow.  The hills of Monterey County had turned a lush shade of green.  Even the Carmel River was flowing with a rush down the watershed to the sea, all thanks to an ocean-driven El Nino event causing atmospheric rivers of rain to rumble ashore and rejuvenate the land. And for the first time that I can recall, three generations of scientists assembled together under one roof to discuss the future of water in California while sharing their perspectives of both land and sea.



York School 9th Grader Wins Water Award At Monterey Co. Science Fair


Megan Tang stands beside her winning project. (Photo: C. Reeb)

As California enters a forth year of unrelenting drought, more students in Monterey County seem to be thinking about the importance of water in their future. This was evident at the Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair held last weekend on the campus of California State University – Monterey Bay.  Of approximately 350 projects, 63 were water-related.  A three-judge team considered 9 finalists before choosing the winner of this year’s “Water For Our Future” award.

Sponsored by CSUMB’s Watershed Institute and Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, this special award recognizes projects that seek ways to solve a water shortage at home, at school (work), or on the farm. This year’s winner was Megan Tang of York School. The title of her project was, “Effects of Windbreaks In Reducing Agricultural Water Usage.”

Megan is very interested in water conservation. During these last few years of drought, she realized conservation has become a top priority, especially in agriculture where irrigation demands in some parts of California have already exceed supply. She decided to focus her attention on ways to conserve agricultural water by managing water loss on farms.  In her project’s Introduction she writes,

“In the world, 60% of available freshwater is used for irrigation, but this water is lost mostly through evaporation by wind, the sun, and soil properties.”

Megan understood how wind and rising temperatures could increase evaporation.  She had read how windbreaks could help lower water loss in fields.  Thus, she decided to design an experiment to quantify how effective windbreaks were at conserving soil moisture, which could help reduce the use of agricultural water.


Design of Model Farm Fields.

First, she constructed two model farm fields – one with a windbreak (test plot), the other without (control). Soils for each model were equally moistened in a single tub then spread out across the two fields.  Small shrubs were used to mimic “deciduous trees,” typical of windbreaks while household fans were used to generate winds.  After preliminary runs to assess air flow and wind velocity in her experimental design, she was ready to put her question to the test: Would fields with windbreaks maintain higher soil moisture levels than those without? Fans blew across the “fields” at three different speeds (low, medium, high) for 10 hours. Temperatures and soil moistures were monitored and recorded. Experiments were then repeated.  What the judges liked most about this project was the simple, yet eloquent  use of logic in the experimenter’s design and execution, as well as the clear conclusions that followed.  Megan showed how fields with windbreaks did indeed maintain higher soil moisture.  Her study concluded that windbreaks reduced water loss by an average of 4%.  

Graphs show how wind speed varied with and without windbreaks. Interestingly, faster fan settings on fields with windbreaks (Figure 2) showed a sudden drop in velocity 2 meters behind the windbreak. Can you think of reasons why?

Graphs show how wind speed varied with and without windbreaks. Interestingly, faster fan settings on fields with windbreaks (Figure 2) showed a sudden drop in velocity 2 meters behind the windbreak. Can you think of reasons why?

The study also revealed an interesting caveat. At faster wind speeds, airflow across fields with windbreaks displayed a non-linear pattern. That is, speed rose slightly about 2 meters behind the windbreak then abruptly dropped (see Graph, Figure 2). This suggests that when winds blow strongly across a field, water loss is best minimized at a certain distance away from the windbreak, not right next to it.  Interesting! Windbreaks are nothing new. Farmers have used them for thousands of years to prevent soil erosion, optimize crop production, and even conserve water. But to see this simple, inexpensive technology on display at a science fair showing a 4% drop in water loss made me pause – I remembered a very similar result stated during a water forum last October. The forum, New Directions for U.S. Water Policy (for link, click here),” included some of our Nation’s top experts who spoke about looming water concerns.   What I remembered was this:

“A 9% reduction in agricultural water consumption would double the amount of water currently available to residential, commercial, and industrial users.”

The speaker (Robert Glennon, University of Arizona) explained the importance of this fact in a paper he co-authored with others as follows:  One acre-foot of water (about 326,000 gallons) used to grow alfalfa generates roughly $920. The same amount used to grow lettuce (in Arizona) generates $6000. But an acre-foot of water used by Intel to produce microprocessors for computers brings in $13 million.  The arithmetic, he said, was intriguing. In other words, it is not just farmers who need water. We all do. But we also need farms to produce the food we eat. Hence, water solutions in the future must include innovative ways to irrigate farms while leaving enough water behind for the many other uses that benefit our State.  Eighty percent of California’s water is used by agricultural.  Better water management and conservation practices are needed for our future. Windbreaks can save farms water. Although trees (that consume water) are often used, I hope Megan’s project inspires creative ideas in landscaping that lower wind speeds, conserve soil moisture, and reduce the need of water for irrigation.  Again, congratulations to Megan Tang and York School for winning this year’s Water For Our Future award!


Dr. Carol Reeb (Hopkins Marine Station) announces the award winner.  (Photo: B. Brown)


Graduate student Crystal Ng (Hopkins Marine Station) helped judge. (Photo: B. Brown)


CSUMB student, Mary Hernandez, also helped judge the award. (Photo: C. Reeb)

What Kind Of A Noise Annoys An Oyster?

By Carol Reeb,  23 July 2014

Signs posted around town in Point Reyes Station, CA.  Photo by C. Reeb, June 2014.

Signs posted around Point Reyes, CA. Photo by C. Reeb, June 2014.

In June, I was in Point Reyes National Seashore for a backpacking trip.  Renowned for its unique geology and diverse plant, bird, and marine life, this coastal wilderness is also flanked by a handful of small, peaceful towns built upon a history of ranching.  The day before heading out, I wandered through one of these towns, Point Reyes Station.  As I did, I couldn’t help but notice all the signs.  From homes, businesses, telephone poles, even the trunks of trees they proclaimed, “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.”  Out of curiosity, I began asking locals about the signs.  I learned that the National Park Service was planning to close an oyster farm that had been operating for 82 years on land inside the Park.

“Next thing you know,” an innkeeper warned, “they’ll be shutting down the ranches too.”  By “ranches,” he meant the dozen or so”historic” cattle and dairy farms occupying the northern section of Point Reyes National Seashore.

I stopped by the town’s visitor center.  A woman opened a map to show me where the farm was located – right in the middle of the National Park.  It occupied about 1000 acres of the estuary, which is nearly half of Drakes Estero.  Closing the farm and its cannery, she told me, would put people out of work.

“I remember in the beginning, everyone thought the park was a good idea because it stopped developers from coming in and taking over.”  It sounded like now she was having second thoughts.

I parked my car alongside the road to take a picture of a sign.  A passerby asked if I was lost.  I asked her about the sign.

“Oh.  Well, I haven’t decided what I think yet,” she admitted, “but I can see both sides.”  She told me how the controversy had divided the town. Some people were no longer on speaking terms.

I grew up on the east coast about an hour’s drive from the Chesapeake Bay where oysters (Crassostera virginica) are big business.  In grad school I  did genetic research on these oysters, which are native to the region.  Suddenly, I was curious.  What was all this noise on oysters really all about?  I decided to take a trip to the farm and find out.


Schon's Lagoon, part of Drakes Estero.

Schon’s Lagoon, part of Drakes Estero.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Driving north on Sir Frances Drake Road, I came upon a sign for the oyster farm and followed a gravel road uphill.  The road was rippled with tractor-tread ridges that rattled the frame of my car loudly.  In the rearview mirror I realized my tires were kicking up quite a bit of dust, which formed a long wake trailing behind.  I slowed down.   Framed in the passenger side window was picturesque Schon’s lagoon, one of five fingers of Drake’s Estero.  Winding around the final turn, the road opened into a parking lot filled with cars.  Rundown buildings with chipped white paint and tattered tarpaper roofs rimmed the lot.  Although it was a sunny weekend in mid June, the wind was brisk.  I grabbed a jacket from the car and walked toward an overhead banner with the words, “Welcome to Drakes Bay Oyster Company.”

The Oyster Shack.  $12 for 6 on the half-shell.  Photo: C. Reeb June 2014.

The Oyster Shack. $12 for 6 on the half-shell. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Groups of people were huddled together around picnic tables.  Kids waited with paper plates  while adults pried apart oysters with dull knives and small hammers.  An American flag posted to the side of one of the buildings flapped in the breeze.  A short line of patrons extended out the door.  This was the “Oyster Shack.”  Inside, was a chalkboard menu with prices: $2 per oyster; $12 for six on the half shell, $24 for a bag of two-dozen to be shucked yourself, tools provided.

Informational sign about oyster farming in Drakes Estero. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

I remembered an old saying from home: never eat oysters in a month without an “r”.  As it was June, this was one of those bad months when long days and warm temperatures can create the conditions for harmful algal blooms that are linked to cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning.  Reassured by an informational sign promoting the Estero as a “protected and undeveloped watershed” that provides the farm with “California’s finest shellfish water quality,” I made a decision.  Ignoring the warnings of tradition, I ordered six on the half-shell.  Tilting a shell to my mouth, I slurped the soft mollusk in.  First thought: salty, not so sweet.  These oysters were fairly small.  As such, they lacked much of the milky glycogen that would give them the sweetness I was expecting.

The worker who prepared my plate left me to hand my money over to a woman who was busy talking on the phone.  I easily overheard part of her conversation.

“Yes, we’re still open.  Seven days a week.  We’ve appealed the case.  They may shut us down anyway.  Thanks for the call.  We appreciate the support.”

When the conversation ended, she came to the counter.  As I handed her my money, I asked why the farm had to be closed.  In her answer, she identified herself as the farm manager.  Later, I realized I was talking to the owner’s sister.

“Scientists and the government are using bad science to put us out of business,” she said.  “Can you believe it?”  She went on, speaking passionately for the farm while expressing outrage at the situation the farm was in.

“Just wait,” she warned.  “One day the government will tell you what you can and cannot eat.”  She rattled off a list of injustices levied against the farm beginning with the National Park Service’s threat to close them down and rob the public of a sustainable seafood business.  She complained that the Coastal Commission unfairly denied them permits for site development, including permission to repair leaky roofs on many of the buildings.

“What’s going to happen when it rains?” she asked.

“Good thing we’re in a drought,” I joked, unsure what more I should say.

Her message was loud and clear to me: bad science, radical environmentalists, and a small number of out-of-touch government officials were conspiring with the National Park Service to force a hard-working family out of business.  As a result, jobs will be lost, the local economy will suffer, and a sustainable seafood product will be taken off the market.  She added that even U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein was trying to help save the farm.

“Listen, do you hear that?” she asked.

A motor-driven conveyor belt brings oysters from flat boat in the water to workers onshore.

A motor-driven conveyor belt brings oysters from flat boats in the water to cannery workers onshore.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

“Hear what?”  It took me a moment before I realized she was referring to the low hum of a diesel-powered engine.  It drove a conveyor belt bringing oysters from flat boats in the water to a group of workers onshore.

“That’s just it.  Bad science says that motor is bothering seal pups and disturbing people in homes two miles away.  But you can hardly hear it.” I had to agree, it was quiet enough.  However, sounds come in a variety of frequencies creating a “soundscape” that humans cannot always detect.  Meanwhile, these noises can sometimes disturb marine mammals.

“I have to tell you, I’m a marine biologist.” I say.  “I did research on oysters in grad school.”

“Oh.”  She paused.  “Then you should know bad science when you see it, right?” I should, of course.  But at the time, I had not read the environmental reviews or scientific reports about the farm to form an opinion.  I had come here with curiosity, driven by an interest in oyster biology and maybe a little hungry too.  But as she continued with accusations of “bad science”, I found myself wanting more details.  So I questioned statements found on the farm’s informational sign, which described practices as “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable.”  Unlike most oyster operations on the east coast, this one did not use artificial oyster beds.  Instead, they used “hanging culture” methods that do not disturb species living on the bottom of the Estero.  This was good.  But, I was bothered by one particular fact.

“You know,” I began, “Pacific oysters are an introduced species.  Farming them in a National Park just seems, well, not ideal.”  I tried to sound as diplomatic as possible.  “Why don’t you farm native oysters instead?”

I was referring to Olympia oysters. Oyster farming in California began with Olympia oysters.  By the mid 1800’s however, over-exploitation and increased urbanization had degraded the oyster’s habitat causing populations to dramatically decline.  About this time, shellfish species from Asia and the east coast were introduced to keep the valuable fishery alive.  Today, efforts are underway to restore the native species.

“Yes, our oysters are not native,” she admitted.  “But there’s no way they reproduce and survive outside the farm.  Here, let me show you.”  With that, I followed her into the oyster-rearing lab behind the Oyster Shack.  She told me the farm was the only one in the area capable of producing their own larval “seed.”  That piqued my interest.  She showed me a jar of finely ground oyster shells that looked like sand.  About two weeks after hatching, free-swimming oyster larvae metamorphose and attach or “seed” onto these shells and become sedentary for the rest of their lives.  Read About Pacific Oysters and Culture Methods HERE.

“There’s no way our larvae can survive in the Estero,” she assured me.  Water temperatures there were too cold.  Proper metamorphosis could only occur within their facility.  As she spoke, I wondered in silence about the potential this species had to evolve.  In a future of climate warming, would Pacific oysters make a biological leap and one day colonize Drakes Estero?  What would that look like, ecologically?

Sorting year-old oysters by size in the rearing facility.

Sorting year-old oysters by size in the rearing facility.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

She introduced me to the farm’s marine biologist who was sorting year-old oysters through various-sized screens then placing them in mesh bags.  They keep the shell sizes uniform in the bags before placing them out in the Estero.  Suspended above the bottom, these filter-feeding bivalves feast on plankton brought in on the tides.  Four or five years later, they are harvested.

“Except right now we are harvesting everything we can,” she said, “because we don’t know how long we will last.”  I realized this probably explained the lack of sweetness in the small oysters I purchased earlier.  We headed back outside and were approached by a jovial guy sporting a campaign hat.

“Here’s something to bring you luck,” he said handing the manager a four-leaf clover pressed between layers of plastic wrap.

“Oh,” she smiled with gratitude.  “I’m going to put this up in the office!”

I listened while they compared notes on the latest residents and businesses who had joined the farm’s cause.  I shrugged helplessly when they expressed disgust over big government’s bullying of a small family farm.  All of us wondered out loud on whether the U.S. Supreme Court would hear their case in two weeks.  I thought they would, given the growing controversy between those making a living off natural resources on public lands and the conflicts  arising over financial costs of complying with laws meant to protect vulnerable species teetering on the edge of extinction.  I, too, was starting to see the difficult choices that divided both sides.  But my mind kept returning to one simple fact: Point Reyes National Seashore and Drakes Estero were set aside by Congress for public use, not commercial businesses or farming.   It was a wilderness area, which is what brought me here for backpacking in the first place.

To that, the farm manager said this, “They call this a wilderness area.”  She took a deep breath.  “Do you know 2 to 3 million people drive their cars and motorcycles into Point Reyes each year.  Kayakers harass the seals.  Hikers disturb the birds.  Can you really call this place a wilderness anymore?”

I had to admit, she had a point.  On my way to the farm I was nearly run off the road by a speeding Audi passing slower traffic, despite a double yellow line.  Certainly, there are people in the public who don’t get it.

“Sorry to interrupt!”  A young woman ran up to us, shivering.   She was in shorts.  The hood of her recently purchased Drakes Bay Oyster Company sweatshirt was tied tightly under her chin.

“Can you tell me if there is a bar, even a dive, where we can toast my friend’s birthday?  We love the oysters, but it’s just too cold here.”

“Oh, you’ve got to go to the Western Saloon in town,” the manager suggested.  “Do you know where that is?”  The tourist shook her head.  “Here, let me talk to your driver.”

With that, my conversation was over. I left Point Reyes and drove back along Sir Frances Drake Road.  En route, I saw another sign.  It read:

“Let’s Protect Both Elk and Cow.  Let’s Build Elk Fences Now.”

Tule elk are endemic to California and once roamed the Central Valley and coastal areas in large herds.  By the mid 1800’s, these herds had been displaced by ranching and decimated by hunting to the point where they were considered extinct until a small group was “discovered” in 1874.  Today, the only free-ranging herd left is the one fenced off in a reserve on the northern tip of Point Reyes.  While at the visitor center, I was told the population of elk had recently grown.  Some were now escaping the reserve to bully the cows for grazing pastures.  It was becoming a problem.

Tule elk once roamed California in large herds.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Tule elk once roamed California in large herds. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.


When I got home, I “googled” the oyster farm.  As with most controversial cases that make their way to the Supreme Court, there was a wealth of information online.  In particular, I discovered one key fact the farm manager failed to mention. In 1972, the oyster farm’s previous owner, Charlie Johnson, sold his land to the U.S. government for $79,200.  In return, the National Park Service gave him a one time, 40-year lease to continue farming oysters until 2012.  In 2004, he sold his oyster business to the Lunny family, who finalized the deal knowing the farm’s lease would soon end.  This made me stop and think.  Why would someone buy a business knowing it would be shut down within 8 years?

Arch rock, Pt. Reyes National Seashore.  Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Arch rock, Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

When Mr. Johnson sold his land to the government and Congress subsequently listed Drakes Estero as a “potential” wilderness area, the oyster farm’s fate was sealed.  Despite a 2009 provision from Senator Feinstein enabling the Interior Secretary to grant a 10-year permit renewal, federal legislators never gave the oyster farm what it really needed; a permanent lease.  Instead, they granted the Interior Secretary discretion to transition Drakes Estero from a “potential” wilderness into a full-fledged wilderness area once the farm’s lease expired.  Read the Interior Secretary’s decision HERE.

What about the accusations of bad science?  I looked that up too.  In order for the Interior Secretary to make his decision, the National Park Service was required by law (i.e. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970), to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  However, the Park Service was not required to design experiments to test the farm’s environmental impacts.  To do this would have been costly and time consuming.  Rather, the report was required to use existing data.  Sadly, after 82 years of oyster farming in Drakes Estero, little scientific data had been collected for a rigorous assessment of farm practices.  When conflict erupted, implications that the oyster farm was anything other than “environmentally friendly”  were met with strong opposition.

Young harbor seal.  Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

Young harbor seal. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

The National Academy of Sciences was called in to review the Park Services’ report.  Read The Academy’s Review HERE.  They found no evidence of “bad science,” but did find high levels of uncertainty surrounding some conclusions. One of those conclusions involved noise generated by motors and other disturbances common to farm operations.  The Academy noted that Park Service scientists had not fully characterized all components of the Drakes Estero “soundscape,”, including traffic noise.  This does not mean the farm manager was justified in her casual dismissal of the diesel motor nor does it mean the motor is harmful to a nearby harbor seal rookery.  It simply means we do not have enough data to know for sure.  To change that, more research must be done.   Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s perspective HERE.

Interestingly, restating the question of noise in the case where all motors are turned off (i.e. the farm is shut down) was found to have a low level of  uncertainty by the Academy.  In other words, scientists could be certain there were benefits to seals if farm noise was eliminated.  Perhaps somewhere between these two extremes is a scientifically acceptable scenario for oyster farms and seals.  Unfortunately, no one made an effort to find it.

In the end, science played little role in the Secretary’s decision.  Citing Congress’s direction to “steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status,” he  invoked discretion not to renew the farm’s lease (Scroll to page 7 and read the Secretary’s Conclusion HERE).  The Lunny family sued, claiming Senator Feinstein’s 2009 provision (Section 124) only allowed the Secretary to approve a lease extension, not deny it outright.  A federal court disagreed.  Since then, the farm has been allowed to stay open until all appeals were exhausted.


On Monday, June 30th, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the farm’s case (read the KQED article HERE).  Hence, Drakes Bay Oyster Company will close and Drakes Estero will transition back to the wild.  The Lunny family plans more appeals.  Meanwhile, in nearby Tomales Bay, outside the boundaries of Point Reyes National Seashore and adjacent to the Tule elk Reserve, commercial oyster farming thrives.  I suspect those oysters never noticed the noise.

A Short List of Provocative Articles On The Wilderness Act:

Dairy operation in Point Reyes National Seashore.  Photo:  C. Reeb, June 2014.

Dairy operation in Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo: C. Reeb, June 2014.

1.)  Of Mollusks and Men:  The Wilderness Act and Drakes Bay Oyster Company.  The Berkeley Blog.  J.F. Hein.  1 January 2013.

2.)  The Fall of the Wild?  Not Really.  The Wilderness Act Turns 50.  The Slate.  B. Minteer  20 July 2014.

International School of Monterey Wins 2014 Water Award!

Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How stand before their winning project.  (Photo: C. Reeb)
Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How stand before their winning project. Photo: C. Reeb.

   Over the last 4 years that  the Water For Our Future Award has been presented at the Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair, I have been impressed with the quality and complexity of our winning projects. From the effects of saltwater intrusion on plant growth to the documentation and measurement of contaminants in rivers and storm drains, these students have brought awareness to problems facing water supplies and aquatic environments in our community.  This year, our winners took a step further.  They designed a solution.

CSUMB’s Watershed Institute and Hopkins Marine Station congratulate Rohan Bhushan and Christopher How from the International School of Monterey for their project titled:

Nitrosomonas europaea:  Accelerating Bioremediation of Ammonia Using Magnesium Sulfate

Nitrosomonas europaea is a common bacterium found worldwide.  This beneficial microbe plays an important role in the global nitrogen cycle.  It is needed for the first step of a pathway that converts toxic ammonia into a form of nitrogen that can be used by plants.   Nitrosomonas has been used in biological filters, like those found in fish aquariums, to maintain water quality.  It has also become very important in wastewater recycling facilities, such as the one in Marina, CA, where wastewater is turned it into “Safe Water” for irrigation (this is the water flowing through purple pipes in farm fields).   As these students write, Nitrosomonas europaea can be used for the “bioremediation” of water sources contaminated with nitrogen-containing compounds like ammonia.  One such water source is the Salinas River and its aquifer.  They cite a UC Davis study suggesting that 90% of the ammonia in this river can be traced to fertilizers.

What Christopher and Rohan did was to show how addition of magnesium sulfate (also found in Epson Salts) enabled Nitrosomonas to increase the rate of ammonia oxidation.  Next, they cleverly designed a filtration system containing this microbe (see photo at right) that successfully removed ammonia from contaminated water.  They then suggested that a scaled-up version of this filter might one day clean up excess ammonia in the Salinas River.  Science fair judges love it when students consider the bigger picture.  As a result, this junior-level project also won first prize in Microbiology.

Microbial filter designed by Bhushun and How.  Photo: C. Reeb.

Microbial filter designed by Bhushun and How. Photo: C. Reeb.

Solutions to some of humankind’s biggest dilemmas can begin early in the minds of young people. With most of California affected by drought, this year’s fair brought a number of water-related projects to the judges for consideration, each offering solutions for the future.

Here are a few examples:

  • Comparisons between solar and thermal desalination methods
  • Tests of water-saving shower heads
  • Experiments with irrigation schedules that maximize plant growth and minimize water need
  • Varying the amounts of fertilizer to maintain plant growth, but with less water.  

Certainly, water solutions are on the minds of young people in Monterey County.  So, if you ever wonder how scientists come up with eloquent solutions to modern problems, think about visiting the Monterey County Science and Engineering Fair next year and see where it all begins.  You will walk away knowing our future is in good hands.

Check Out My New Talk on Seawater Desalination

Desal Talk, 2 Mar 2011Desalination of the Sea Around Us, v 2.0

This is a talk on seawater desalination I gave in Pacific Grove, CA on March 2nd, 2011.  It is an updated version of an earlier talk and includes a short section on two new desal technologies that may be coming in the future.  This talk does not include narration.  YOU MUST DOWNLOAD THE pdf ONTO YOUR COMPUTER THEN click on text bubbles in the upper left corner of each slide TO read about each slide.

Using Wastewater as a Resource

Turning wastewater into reusable water using reverse osmosis to further purify it is an idea quickly growing around the world. In some parts of California, namely Carmel and Orange County, it is already a reality. Wastewater is 99.9% water, yet we dispose of this valuable resource down drains, into rivers, and out to sea. Wastewater contains useful chemicals that can may also be recycled in the future.

The link below contains a video from Stanford professor, Craig Criddle describing how we can benefit from making our water a renewable natural resource.

Using Wastewater as a Resource: