How can we improve desalination for use in Monterey Bay?

By Samantha Northcott and Connor Greenwood (edited by DocOnMontereyBay)

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A look inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s desalination plant. Photo: C. Greenwood

The Monterey Peninsula hosts millions of tourists every year who come to enjoy the sights and attractions of our beautiful ocean coastline. However, visitors have no idea Peninsula residents are facing a looming water crisis. By January 1st, 2022, the we must  replace roughly two thirds of our primary water supply from the Carmel River with alternative sources (click HERE for graph of Monterey Peninsula’s Water Supply Gap).  One solution to this dilemna is seawater desalination.

For over one hundred years, the Carmel River has served as the Monterey Peninsula’s main water supply. But as the community grew, so did our demand for water. Today, steelhead trout struggle to migrate upstream and spawn. Red-legged frogs are forced to abandon dry river beds in summer. As a result, both frogs and fish are now protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In order to restore these species to sustainable populations, the community must look elsewhere for water. By law, we have no choice.

For coastal communties like ours facing looming water scarcity in the future, tapping the ocean as a water supply certainly sees like a logical solution. However, desalintion is expensive. Initial costs to build a plant are huge. Land zoned for industrial use on the Monterey Peninsula is difficult to find and pricey. To date, the Peninsula has had to look toward Marina or Moss Landing for sites to build their plant, which means there are additional costs to pipe water ten to twenty miles back to Monterey (see details of the proposed Water Supply Project HERE).

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Moss Landing Power Plant. Photo: S. Marcos.

Removing salt from seawater is energy-intensive. Reverse osmosis (RO) is currently considered the most cost effective method. Even so, nearly half the cost of water generated by RO plants comes from electricity needed to run them (Cooley and Heberger 2013). In the future, electricity prices are expect to rise. As they do, so will the cost of water (for information on water prices from the California Public Utilities Commission, click HERE).

Despite problems of cost and energy consumption, we think seawater desalination could have a place in our water future if it could be made more efficient. Here is how reverse osmosis works. Seawater is forced at high pressure though thin membranes containing microscopic pores. Freshwater molecules are squeezed through these pores while salt is left behind as brine.  RO facilities proposed for Monterey Bay have a typical water conversion efficiency of 44%.  That means less than half of the seawater processed becomes freshwater.  The rest (56%) is left as brine. RO brine has twice the salt of natural seawater.  When discharged offshore, it can sink like syrup to the seafloor. Layers of brine above animals living on the seafloor can cause environmental problems not unlike what happened to fish and frogs in the Carmel River .

To address the biological effects of brine, Voorhees et al. (2013) measured salt toxicity thresholds for nine California marine species. Some were found to be more senstive than others to brine. In this study, red abalone, purple sea urchins, and sand dollars were the most sensitive. Because these animals live on the seafloor, they are vulnerable to the effects of sinking brine discharged seawater desalination plants.

Figure 1:  Examples of marine species sensitive to brine.

 

Aside from protecting marine animals on the seafloor, there are other reasons to rethink brine disposal. Consider this: In the 1800’s, Monterey Bay was rimmed by salt ponds contructed for the purpose of drying and selling salt to fish canneries. In fact, Monterey Salt Company, located in Moss Landing, had 200 acres of solar salt ponds before closing down in 1974 (Click HERE for more information). Today, salt prices are increasing in world markets. Thus we wondered if we could not only generate water but produce salt for sale using a better designed, more efficient desalination design for Monterey.  Below are three scenarios we considered.  Details and the value of salt they could produce a found in Table 1.

Three Desalination Scenarios and their Potential Value in Salt:

1.)  Monterey Peninsula needs 10,000 acre-feet of freshwater to replace what will soon be lost from the Carmel River. NOTE: 1 acre foot is defined as the amount of water that covers 1 acre in 1 foot of water. There are 12 million liters in 1 acre foot. To produce that much water using current RO conversion ratios, we would need to desalinate 22,700 acre feet of seawater (or 28 billion liters).

We know seawater in Monterey Bay contains 34 grams of salt per liter. Thus, 28 billion liters of seawater holds 949,310 metric tons of salt. However, this salt is concentrated in 16 billion liters (12,700 acre feet) of brine.  Currently, there is no place around the Peninsula for large evaporative solar salt ponds needed to hold this much brine. Thus, recovery of “solar” (or sea) salt becomes impractical in this scenario. But based on 2016 prices for solar salt ($90/ metric ton, USGS 2017), we would be throwing away  $85 M of salt. We believe there is strong financial incentive for improving desalination efficiency in order to recovery plant expenses with salt (click HERE for U.S. salt prices from USGS).

Table 1: Three Scenarios. Better desalination efficiency leads to profits in salt.

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* Hybrid design includes 1-Stage RO, thermal reduction of brine from excess heat generated at the Moss Landing Power Plant, and solar evaporation ponds for salt production.

2.)  Because water shortages are a global concern, research is underway to improve desalination efficiency (Morillo et al. 2014). In Japan, for example, Toray Industries developed a two stage reverse osmosis plant that runs brine through a second reverse osmosis unit in order to extract 60% of the freshwater from seawater. If Monterey used 2-Stage technology, less seawater would be needed to produce 10,000 acre-feet of freshwater. That would save electricity because less seawater would need to be processed.  The amount of brine would be smaller too, but still too large for solar ponds.  In this case, we would leave $63 M behind in discarded salt.

3.)  Today are a growing number of ways to desalinate seawater besides reverse osmosis (Morillo et al. 2013). Here, we propose a hybrid combination (2-Stage RO – thermal reduction – solar evaporation) that we believe could recover 80% of the potable water while leaving a highly concentrated brine in a much smaller volume for salt recovery. Our design relies on being located near the Moss Landing Power Plant to take advantage of excess heat energy for brine reduction. Figure 1 illustrates our idea.

As brine leaves the 2-Stage RO facility, it would be piped to the Power Plant where heat produced during electricity genration would be transferred via radiative heating to turn half of the brine into freshwater steam. This steam could be captured with simple condensation traps thus adding an extra 20% more freshwater for municipal use. Meanwhile, brine volume drops dramatically to 2,500 acre feet (see Table 1, line 3). In the Moss Landing area, we believe local evaporation rates are sufficient for solar salt ponds to recover $47 M of salt.

Figure 2:  Illustration of Hybrid Design.

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Seawater is drawn into 2-Stage reverse osmosis facility where 60% of the water is extracted. Brine is piped to the power plant where an additional 20% more water is recovered. The resulting brine is transported to solar evaporation ponds where the salt is dried, then shipped for sale.

Imagine an ocean-friendly desalination plant that produces no brine at all.  Envision efficient technology needing less energy and smaller seawater intakes. Envision a water supply that generates valuable salt to offset future costs associated with rising energy prices and plant maintenance.

There are many ways we can solve a water shortage. What are your ideas?  What would you do differently?

References:

Cooley, H and Heberger, M. 2013. Key Issues for Seawater Desalination in California: Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emission. Pacific Institute. Oakland, CA. Online document HERE.

Morillo JCA, Usero J, Rosado D, Bakouri HE, Riaza A, Bernaola F-J. Comparative study of brine management technologies for desalination plants. Desalination. 2014;336:32–49.

Voorhees JP, Phillips BM, Anderson BS, Siegler K, Katz S, Jennings L, Tjeerdema RS, Jensen J, Carpio-Obeso MDLP. Hypersalinity Toxicity Thresholds for Nine California Ocean Plan Toxicity Test Protocols. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. 2013;65(4):665–670.

USGS (United States Geological Survey). 2017. Statistics and information on the worldwide supply of, demand for, and flow of minerals and materials essential to the U.S. economy, the national security, and protection of the environment (Salt). Online document HERE.

Bridging a Generational Gap Between Pacific Tides

By Amanda Smith and Yesenia Ortiz (edited by DocOnMontereyBay)
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The Great Tide Pool at Point Pinos in Pacific Grove at sunset. Photo: A. Smith

WE are standing at the edge of the Great Tide Pool at sunset on a cool and crisp autumn day. Gusts of wind rush between us leaving hair in our eyes and the breathtaking view momentarily obscured. We watch with amusement as others struggle with hair in their faces while photographing this incredible place. But the Great Tide Pool is worth it, even in the wind. The amount of diverse biological beauty hidden among the rocks between Pacific tides is almost unfathomable. A local resident from another time once noticed this too. Ed Ricketts stood near here decades ago witnessing many of the same things we see today – although thanks to sea level rise, he may have stood a little further offshore than we can.

Ed Ricketts first came to Pacific Grove in 1927.  He made a living collecting marine specimens along the coast then selling them to universities around the country. In so doing, he gained a deep understanding of the plants and animals that lived in tide pools and other intertidal habitats. The Great Tide Pool was one of his favorites. Ed Ricketts was not a college professor. Yet in 1939 he wrote one of the best-known scientific texts on intertidal ecology titled, Between Pacific Tides. Although Ricketts notes in the Preface that his book was intended for “the person who has had little or no biological training,” it is still used today as a valuable snapshot in time of species abundance and diversity in marine organisms inhabiting the coast at a time when no one knew much at all about climate change.

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Bat Star. Photo: A. Smith

Over the last century, sea level has risen by nearly a foot. As water slowly, unperceptively crept inland, visitors to the Great Tide Pool may not have noticed their own retreat over the years by a small step or two. However, in the next century the ocean is expected to rise by as much as four feet. Many of us living today will bear witness to dramatic changes in our lifetime that most people living in the time of Ed Ricketts might have called “unbelievable” or “impossible.”

Already, global atmospheric temperature has risen by 1.4° Fahrenheit (NASA, 2017). However, by 2100 temperatures are expected to rise between 2.5° to 10° F (Click Here for facts about climate change from NASA).  Sea surface temperature will rise too, but more slowly. Nonetheless, we already know that even small increases in water temperature can impact marine species. Some will be unable to cope.

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FIGURE 1. Daily shoreline temperature at Hopkins Marine Station, 1924 – 2016. Data from HMS Marine Life Observatory.

Not far from the Great Tide Pool is Hopkins Marine Station where ocean research has been underway since 1898. In 1919, the Station began monitoring shoreline water temperature. Using their data, we plotted daily sea surface temperature (data HERE)  on a graph in Figure 1. The graph reveals a clear upward trend.

In 1931, Hopkins scientists laid out a permeant transect extending 108 yards from the beach through tide pools to the low tide mark offshore. Along that line they recorded the distribution and abundance of forty-five unique species. Sixty years later, researchers returned to repeat that study and the two data sets were compared (Barry et al. 1995).  The results revealed a sobering truth. After six decades, scientists realized that species originating in warmer waters from the south had increased in abundance around the marine station while cooler-adapted species from the north had declined. The authors concluded that this shift of southern species moving northward “falls in line with predictions of change associated with global warming.”

Evidence for climate change has been around since the early part of the last century. For instance, renowned marine biologist and environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s noted in her book, The Sea Around Us, (1951) that, “The frigid top of the world is very clearly warming up.”  Climate change is not a myth or surprise. However, not everyone agrees about its cause.

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Striped Shore Crab. Photo: A. Smith

In 2015, a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults reported that 72%  believed there is “solid evidence” for climate change. Of those, only 42% believed humans were responsible. However, when sorted by age more Millennials (ages 18-34) and Generation X (ages 35-50) believed human activities played a major role (47%) than Baby Boomers (41%). Interestingly, only 28% of people over the age of 65 believed humans played any role at all (PEW Research Center 2012; data available HERE).

Why are young and old generations divided over the cause of climate change? One answer may lie in our early education. We, as “Millennials,” remember being educated about environmental issues at a relative early age. Even today, we see school children (Generation Z) getting involved with local organizations that actively teach about greenhouse gas pollution and the actions one can take to reduce it.

We went home and discussed the generational gap with older members of our family. While everyone was very aware of climate warming, we were told they were not taught about it in school.  One remarked, “We never gave the ocean much thought back then.”  If generational differences during early education is a key to what divides our views, opinions, and disbeliefs later in life on climate change, perhaps there is something we could do now to try and change that.

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Giant Green Anemone. Photo: A. Smith

Consider this quote from Ed Ricketts’ book, Between Pacific Tides.

“There are good things to see in the tide pools and there are exciting and interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing.”

Our solution is this: share your knowledge, no matter how big or small, of a favorite outdoor place, habitat, or environment with others. If you live near Pacific Grove, we recommend a trip to the Great Tide Pool. Pick a favorite scene. Photograph what you see. Return to this place in the coming years with new friends and family members. Take more pictures. You could even start a family tradition! In time, we expect that you will be able to look back at your photos and see the effects of climate change for yourself. Give pictures to your children so they, like us, can one day stand at the water’s edge and imagine a time when things were different — the way they used to be back in 2017.

Tidepoolsafety-finalReferences:
Barry JP, Baxter CH, Sagarin RD, Gilman SE. 1995. Climate-related long-term faunal changes in a California rocky intertidal community. Science 267(5198):672-675.
Carson R. 1951. The Sea Around Us. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 288 p.
Hopkins Marine Station Marine Life Observatory.  2017. Measurement of Sea Surface temperatures outside of cottage 1919-2016.  Pacific Grove, CA. [accessed Nov 22, 2017: mlo.stanford.edu/sst.htm]
NASA. 2017. Global Climate Change: Effects. (accessed November 27, 2017).  Website link HERE.
PEW Research Center, October 15, 2012. More Say There Is Solid Evidence of Global Warming. Pew Research Center, U.S. Politics and Policy.  Online report available HERE.
PEW Research Center, July 1, 2015. Americans, Politics and Science Issues. Online report available HERE.

Storytelling Science, v. 1.0

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As night falls after a long day of hiking, storytelling around a warm fire brings people together.

We humans have a long history of telling stories. Be it folklore or fable, allegory or saga, storytelling in all its varied forms helps transfer history, culture, and invaluable life lessons from one generation to the next. Before the advent of books, libraries, or data storage in digital “clouds,” stories were the encyclopedia of facts we left to our young. Captivating narratives helped us share experiences and new ideas. Humorous details with the right touch of empathy eased the pain of death and loss. Stories warned of hazards, instilled precautions, and triggered actions that saved lives. In our ever-changing world on an always-changing planet prone to environmental fluctuations between varying extremes, our ancestors paid attention to shifts in their environment.  They catalogued information generation after generation and packaged them into stories. Our penchant for storytelling thus became a vital survival skill for humankind.

Today, we stand on the edge of another epoch of change, in a climate of political division, at a time when science is being defunded, discredited, or denied.  How can scientists share information with the public if their research is met with blind skepticism?  One approach that is gaining ground in recent years it to go back to the tried and true methods of storytelling (see Martinez-Conde and Macknik, 2017).

In the coming days, I will post two stories written by students from California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) who are taking a class titled, “Marine Science in the Community.”  The goal of our class is for students to learn ways to engage with the public over matters of marine science.  To that end, the stories featured on this blog will reflect interests and concerns about climate change and future water shortages around Monterey Bay. I encourage readers to engage our young scientists with their thoughts and comments.  Let’s see if stories can help bridge a gap between scientists and the general public so everyone can understand each other a little better.

Thanks for reading DocOnMontereyBay,

Carol Reeb

Reference:  Martinez-Conde, S. and S.L. Macknik. 2017. Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication.   Proc. Natl. Acad. 114(31): 8127-8129.  Click to read the free online text HERE.

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!  

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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

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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: Squareroots.com.

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.

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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.