Monday, December 17, 2012

In Yesterday's Chronicle: Sand Dredging and Beach Erosion

This story came out yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle. I was interviewed Saturday for a quick piece on KCBS radio about the story, which I understand also ran Sunday, but I wasn't able to catch it. In any case, it's not exactly breaking news, but an interesting issue that needs some light shed on it. Comments to the piece at SFGate.com, where vitriol is often par for the course (especially on environmental stories), suggest that most readers are sympathetic to SF Baykeeper's lawsuit and the idea of managing sand mining to reduce costly impacts to coastal beaches -- and are glad to have learned about it through the story. The story includes some great photos by Michael Macor, too. See them and read the story here.

Questions Swirl Around Zoo Tax Measure

Forgot to post this in October. No longer timely (the measure lost), but still is/was an interesting local issue. I also wrote about the Oakland Zoo's controversial expansion plans here. So, for posterity's sake ....

Oakland Zoo officials contend that Measure A1, a countywide parcel tax on the November ballot, will fund "animal care needs, including food, heating, and cooling." And their ballot argument is sure to pull at the heartstrings of East Bay animal lovers. But opponents of the measure say that the official language of the measure could allow the zoo to spend at least part of the proceeds from the $114 million parcel tax on a controversial expansion in the Oakland hills. And the debate over exactly how the zoo will use the proposed $12 tax on residential parcels and $72 on commercial properties may decide the fate of Measure A1.

Keep reading...

Monday, December 3, 2012

Healthier/Greener Tribal Housing: The Best of Old and New

In my second piece for the national journal Environmental Health Perspectives, I investigate housing-related health issues plaguing many Native American reservations, and look at solutions posed by healthier, greener homes. There's a quiet but powerful movement among tribal communities nationwide -- supported by both HUD and the EPA -- toward greener, more efficient homes that are often rooted in traditional designs and materials. These homes also promise to solve many of the indoor air quality issues associated with the standardized federally funded housing that's prevalent on reservations nationwide, from Alaska to Arizona. My 2,500-word feature story, complete with beautiful historical photographs of tribal structures, illustrates the connections between housing and human health and between a wide range of traditional tribal customs and shelters and the vanguard of modern green building. Read more at Environmental Health Perspectives. It was a fascinating story to research and report, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fixing Berkeley's Watershed

The passage of Measure M and completion of Berkeley's Watershed Management Plan promise to help clean up Aquatic Park and Codornices Creek, not to mention the city's outdated stormwater system. But details are fuzzy as to how it'll actually happen. Read more in this week's Eco Watch column in the East Bay Express.

Big Bark Backup...in November's Biocycle Mag

You won't be able to read this story I wrote for the Nov. issue of BioCycle without an account, but I thought I'd post a link here anyway. The gist: Last year, China went nuts importing soft woods from the Pacific Northwest to serve its booming housing sector. It was a record year for the region. However, China only accepts debarked logs due to concerns over important bark-borne pests. As a result, massive piles of bark were left behind at ports in Washington and Oregon. My story is about how wood-product processors and retailers dealt with the surplus: primarily by slowly absorbing it into existing hog-fuel, mulch, and compost markets. Some of the bark is still likely being dealt with, and slowly decomposing as it waits. The lesson? This could happen again, and best to be prepared.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Calfornia's New Grid: Adapting to More Renewables

It's a wonky topic, but a fascinating one -- and critical if you care much about the electricity streaming through the wires in your home and office. California's aging grid is largely unprepared to handle the new challenges posed by renewables integration, both large-scale and distributed, and that could spell serious trouble: blackouts, brownouts, fried equipment, unreliable service. In order to continue adding intermittent wind and solar to our grid, we've also got to make changes to the grid -- and to the ways we consume electricity on a daily basis. A number of the state's brightest minds are working on the problem, including the UC Berkeley researchers profiled in this feature for Breakthroughs magazine, the alumni pub of Cal's College of Natural Resources.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Enhanced Geothermal Systems: Promise or Peril?

In August, I wrote about geothermal energy prospects at The Geysers -- the world's largest geothermal field located just a couple hours north of Oakland -- and across the country in a feature story for the East Bay Express. In this month's High Country News, I drill down (get it?) on the topic a bit more by addressing the promise and challenges behind enhanced geothermal systems. It's a rather fascinating energy story: on one hand you've got a proven technology that can technically be used pretty much anywhere, the potential of providing more than 100% of the nation's baseline energy needs with extremely limited GHG emissions, and minimal environmental impacts. On the other you have a struggling industry that can't get a word in edgewise against natural gas and is being overcome by wind and solar in the renewables sector, a technology that's incredible expensive upfront but affordable to operate, and a real need for remote sensing technologies that will allow geothermal developers to see miles into the earth before they drill. Read more at High Country News, in my first piece for the publication.

Friday, November 2, 2012

This Month in EHP: Newly Discovered Atmospheric Oxidant Impacts Climate, Health

My debut in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives arrives this month with a short piece on the discovery of a new atmospheric oxidant by researchers out of Colorado and Finland. The new oxidant, described only as [X] because it is not yet fully understood, has implications for both climate change and human health. [X] oxidizes sulfur dioxide to create sulfuric acid, which contributes to the formation of aerosols, which in turn lead to cloud formation and both scatter and absorb sunlight. Aerosols are also associated with particulate matter in the air, a factor in asthma and other ailments in humans. I'm excited be writing for EHP, and this piece will be followed by a longer feature in January -- which, of course, will be posted here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Via Backpacker Mag: Where to Find Solitude in Henry Coe State Park

My first clip in Backpacker mag is short but sweet: a description of my favorite overnight route in one of my favorite places to hike, Morgan Hill's Henry Coe State Park. It's Northern California's largest state park, and solitude is abundant in the back country -- but rarely so close to the park's main entrance, even on a warm, busy Spring day. This route adds a few miles for extra scenery, but can easily be tackled in less than a weekend. Check the article out here, and the GPS route here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I Want to Help

I'm a freelancer and independent journalist. I work from home much of the week. But sometimes I want to collaborate. And, as a lifelong resident, I know the Bay Area is bursting with creative and innovative journalism and research projects pertaining to the environment, energy, ecology, and other science topics that don't necessarily begin with the letter 'e'.

Perhaps one of them is yours. If you're looking for help, or just another bright mind to bounce ideas off, drop me a line. I have significant writing, editing, and research experience. I work well with teams, have lots of ideas, and always deliver clean, quality content on time. I'm interested in and well abreast of a broad range of fields, especially in the greater Bay Area and Northern California -- water, energy, food systems, public lands, materials and solid waste, urban design, transportation, sustainability, and more. For anything that's new to me, I'm a very quick study. And I'm exceedingly down-to-earth and easygoing. In sum, I could be a valuable part of your project.

If you've got something brewing or seeking help on an established project, drop me a line at nate [dot] selt @ gmail.com. I want to hear from you.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

FEMA Implicated in Delta Habitat Loss

This story came out today in the Chron, front page of the Bay Area section -- with a nice big photo just below the fold. For you internet people, that means it was visible. Speaking of the internet, here's the link ... and the first couple grafs. Enjoy; it's an interesting story (and a quick one -- just 700 words).

***

Add the federal government's flood insurance program to environmentalists' list of villains when it comes to safeguarding threatened fish populations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood insurance program encourages development in the floodplain, eliminating valuable habitat and affecting federally protected fish species, critics say. And now they've got the law behind them. ...

KQED Climate Watch blogging

In what I expect may become a regular gig, I've recently penned a couple posts for KQED's ClimateWatch blog. The first is here and the second should be up later today. I appreciate the opportunity to report on the Bay Area and California environment (my favorite subject, natch) for another regional outlet. Stay tuned for more.

Lock Up, Kids

Another story on bike parking, this time looking at Berkeley company BikeLink, which manufactures shared electronic lockers that have now been installed in all but one of the East Bay's 30 BART stations. After it came out last week, I received a note from BikeLink founder and president Steven Grover noting that secure bike parking is no new fad, and that his company's primary innovation was to allow lockers to be shared (rather than dedicated to a single person) through the use of electronic controls and the associated BikeLink debit card. True enough. He also noted that, contrary to my story's implication, the lockers are not strictly for folks with nice bikes. Also true. However, I tend to be more interested in the social context of  bike parking, which is why I focused on a) the growing availability of secure bike storage in the Bay Area; and b) where, exactly, demand for secure bike parking is coming from. Learn a bit about both in my most recent story for the Express.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Salt Pond Test

Rather than my typical synopsis, I present to you the first couple grafs of my latest Eco Watch column in the East Bay Express (published today). This story came about after I learned about the project while reporting on another story for the San Francisco Chronicle, published a couple weeks ago.

Talk of restoring the Bay Area's tens of thousands of acres of former salt ponds to tidal marshes tends to conjure a rather irresistible image: A bright yellow earthmover tears a massive rift in a century-old levee and returns the tides to coastal areas from which they've long been estranged. Soon native vegetation appears, then birds, and eventually the once-desolate flats become a thriving tidal wetland. The recovery is natural, wild, and absolutely inevitable. Except that it's not.

The reality is that saltworks along the perimeter of the San Francisco Bay — some of which date back to Gold Rush days — have permanently altered the landscape and its ecology. Even if all of the hundreds of levees that divide the once vast tidelands into salt ponds were to be breached, the bay's wetlands would not automatically revert to their formerly productive state.

That's why an experiment being developed by Memphis-based hunting and conservation group Ducks Unlimited at Hayward's Eden Landing Ecological Reserve is so important. ...

Betting on Steam

My latest cover story for the East Bay Express addresses the incredible promise of geothermal energy, and the significant roadblocks to achieving it. As I note in the story, there's enough heat in the ground to meet 75% or more of our nation's current energy needs with reliable, baseload electricity. The problem is getting to it. The US government is backing efforts to develop the next wave of geothermal energy, and major players including Calpine, which owns most of the plants at The Geysers in Sonoma, the world's largest complex of geothermal plants, are putting some of their best minds behind it. Even Google has invested $10 million in developing geothermal technologies to access this incredible resource. Will it work? Read on ...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Climate Change Will Unlease Buried Toxics

The saga continues. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about plans to contain a massive heap of toxic slag on the East Bay waterfront. One of the details of the project was that it would be designed to take sea-level rise into account, so that future flooding and tidal infusions would not nullify the remediation project being undertaken in the next few years. That story got me (and my editor) thinking: How many toxic sites like this around the bay are similarly at risk of sea-level rise? I used a database called EnvirStor produced by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to survey coastal toxic sites, and came up with the answer: a lot, sadly. More than 40, at least, including sites that have already been contained or capped, with no consideration given to the future effects of sea-level rise, as well as some sites still awaiting cleanup. The resulting story caught the attention of KQED and landed me a brief appearance on ClimateWatch the following morning (transcript here, related blog here).

A Pair of Chronicle Stories: Composting in the Tenderloin and Hunting Groups Restore Marshland

In the past few weeks I've written a pair of stories for the San Francisco Chronicle. The first one, which ran on July 8, outlined the efforts of a nonprofit called Community Housing Partnership to train residents of Tenderloin SROs in zero-waste practices and other environmental concepts. The second, which ran on July 23, took a look at the trend of state conservation funding going toward private hunting groups like Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association. In particular, I looked at salt-pond restoration project happening at Hayward's Eden Landing Ecological Preserve and the protection of more than 1,000 acres of wetlands in Suisun Marsh. Both projects are funded through the state but managed by private hunting groups. It begins ... "On one side of a levee at Hayward's Eden Landing Ecological Reserve is healthy pickleweed marsh. On the other is a moonscape marred by stagnant pools of crimson water and desiccated patches of pure white salt. ..."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Containing a Toxic Mess on the East Bay Shoreline

My Eco Watch article in this week's East Bay Express tells the story of the Selby Slag Site near Rodeo on the East Bay shore. It's a story of a century-long legacy of pollution and a three-decade effort now in its final stages (hopefully) to contain a cocktail of heavy metals continually leaching into the San Francisco Bay. Next time you're driving over the Carquinez Bridge, look to the west along the East Bay (Crockett side) shoreline. You'll see the huge, flat piece of land hugging the shore right around the bend about 3/4 of a mile away that looks like a big parking lot. It's actually a toxic slag pile graded and topped with asphalt. That's the Selby Slag Site. In the next few years, as my story explains, an effort will be underway to contain the site around its perimeter in order to prevent heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and arsenic from seeping into the surrounding environment, including the waters of the bay.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Association of Alternative News Media Award

Very excited and honored to have received a first-place award in the News Story (Short Form) category among newspapers in both the US and Canada with circulation below 50,000 at this year's AAN Alt-Weekly Awards, announced last Friday. I submitted three East Bay Express environmental news stories to the competition: "The Blair Park Project," "Solar Is Still Humming," and "How Organic Is Organic?" This is my first first-place national award, following on the heels of a second-place national award at the North American Agricultural Journalists contest earlier this year, which was open to US and Canada publications of all sizes. And it's my third award for environmental reporting, which I'm particularly proud of. Thanks to my editors Robert Gammon and Kathleen Richards at the Express; couldn't have done it without your help.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Islands Drowning in Rising Seas

Oakland attorney Brook Meakins is only 30 years old and fresh out of law school, but that hasn’t stopped her from emerging as a global leader in a surprising new field. Since 2010, Meakins has worked to understand the legal needs of island nations and low-lying communities facing the loss of their land, culture, and way of life due to climate change and sea level rise. She now helps develop legal resources for what she calls “climate victims,” while sounding the alarm about their plight. She has consulted with the government of the Marshall Islands; conducted fact-finding missions in the Maldives, the Phi Phi islands, the Cayman Islands, and others; and presented at climate change conferences around the world. She has also participated in United Nations negotiations regarding the fate of islands off the coasts of Thailand and Panama. I recently talked with Meakins about her work and the underlying issues, which she also blogs about at DrowningIslands.com. Continue to EarthIslandJournal.org to read an excerpt of our conversation.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Bike Rack on Every Corner, or ...

... A Captivating Treatise on the State of Bike Parking in Oakland, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bike. Read about how all your favorites -- BART! The City of Oakland! Richmond Spokes and the East Bay Bicycle Coalition! Actual Cafe and Arbor Cafe! -- are learning what a wise investment bicycle parking can be. Published in the East Bay Express Bike Issue on 5/2.

Friday, April 27, 2012

North American Agricultural Journalists Award

In March I learned that my story "How Safe Is Your Soil?" placed second in the features category in the North American Agricultural Journalists' annual awards. This was a national contest, and entries came in from magazines and newspapers of all sizes from across the country (even Canada). Judges called it "A textbook example of extraordinarily deep reporting and clear explanatory writing wrapped with a finely crafted human element. This story examines not only the problem but possible solutions as well."

Sierra magazine stories

Just realized I forgot to post these last year! Both ran in Sierra magazine in November 2011.

"A Matter of Survival" picks up some of themes first developed by my East Bay Express feature "Oakland Invades the Desert," which one first place for Feature Story of a Serious Nature (came with a nifty plaque!) at the 2011 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards. This 2,500-word feature was teased on the cover.

"The Christmas Tree Curse" takes a look at a killer pathogen related to Sudden Oak Death that infects and kills a few varieties of common farmed Christmas trees (in addition to hundreds of other species around the world). It's pretty scary, and readers certainly responded. While the pathogen is essentially incurable, there are ways to stop or at least impede its spread. This was a shorter front-of-the-book item.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

An Exclusive Report: New Altamont Wind Turbines May Be More Harmful to Bats

Dug this one up after speaking with local stakeholders and national experts, and doing a fair amount of online research. Turns out the massive new wind turbines going in at Altamont Pass in order to reduce raptor kills, the result of a lawsuit brought by environmentalist groups, could actually be more harmful to bats than the older ones. With millions of bats dying throughout North America to white nose syndrome, the fact that we know very little about turbine impacts on bats, and that new technologies are being developed without them in mind, is a big deal. Read more: "New Altamont Wind Turbines Are a Boon for Birds, But Not for Bats."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Berkeley Takes First Steps Toward Recycling Mixed Plastics

I've been covering plastics a lot these days, including here and here. Last week, I reported on how Berkeley -- which previously decried the practice -- has taken its first tentative steps toward recycling mixed plastics. A lot is still up in the air, but for folks who follow this sort of stuff, it's an interesting development. Berkeley has consistently resisted plastics recycling in favor of attacking from the other end; while other cities have jumped headlong into mixed-plastics recycling, Berkeley has fought for extended-produce responsibility, bans on specific plastics, reduced consumption, and the like. So it'll be interesting to see where this leads: "Can Berkeley Tackle Its Plastics Problem?"

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Rebirth of Breuner Marsh

I've written about Breuner Marsh before, so for the backstory I'll point you there. It's one of the East Bay's most embattled stretches of shoreline, and after purchasing it a couple years ago the East Bay Regional Park District is now embarking on an $8 million restoration process (that's $36,700 per acre, many of which are underwater) designed to help the marsh withstand up to five feet of sea-level rise. In this sense it's a pioneering project in the Bay Area, and shows what we can do, given the right conditions (namely, ample uplands to expand to), to maintain our biologically rich tidal wetlands in the face of sea-level rise over the next century. My story appeared in the April-June 2012 issue of Bay Nature. Read it here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Living Plastic-Free

Oakland resident Beth Terry is one of the nation's leading experts on living plastic-free. What she's done over the past five years is pretty damn impressive, and now she's written a book to share her story and tips. She's a local leader and a nationally recognized "activist blogger," and I think we should all take a minute to listen to what she has to say. Granted, my Express profile only scratches the surface; if you're interested in reducing your plastic use, pick up a copy of her book. It's great. And the best thing about this story? Her plastic suit that we convinced her to wear for our cover.

Counts of Desert Tortoise on Large-Scale Solar Sites Are Often Wrong

I don't think anyone else has reported this, and I'm surprised it didn't make more of a splash. In fact I'd hoped to turn this into a longer feature, but it wasn't to be. Still, I'm glad I was able to write this little piece as a sidebar to a larger sidebar in Earth Island Journal. The take-away: Biologists are consistently underestimating the number of desert tortoise likely to be impacted by large-scale solar developments in the desert, in part due to faulty methodologies endorsed by state and federal agencies. The result: projects get permitted that shouldn't, and our understanding of our impacts on endangered desert tortoise through development are inaccurate. Fortunately, there's more than one way out.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Back to the Basics: A Banner Year for Bikes

When I named Human-Powered Explorer, I had a broad environmental focus in mind. But this is the nut: sustainable, healthy, low-impact transportation and enjoyment of the outdoors. It's a quaint little vision, but it accomplishes a broad range of goals -- pollution prevention, resource and land conservation, reconnection to the environment, exercise, recreation -- and that's why it appeals to me. Embracing human-powered exploration where possible goes a long way toward improving our own quality of life and those of our neighbors, particularly in a sprawling metropolis like the Bay Area. Here's a story on Oakland's efforts in 2012 and beyond to improve its bicycle network and potentially emerge as a national leader in bike infrastructure.

"A Banner Year for Bikes"

An innovative bike lane and more than forty miles of new bikeways are in store for Oakland.

By Nate Seltenrich

In September 2010, the League of American Bicyclists recognized Oakland as a Bronze-Level Bicycle Friendly Community, along with 140 others across the country. This was all well and good, but not quite good enough. The following January, in an interview with the website Oakland North, Jason Patton, the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian program manager, announced that 2011 would be "the biggest year ever for implementing new bikeways in Oakland." Yet 2011 might turn out to be nothing compared to 2012.

...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Though There Is This One Thing ...

Big news, albeit not in print: Yesterday, StopWaste.org enacted a (partial) plastic bag ban in Alameda County. It's the Bay Area's first piece of plastic-bag reduction legislation applying to an entire county. I spoke to my sources within 30 minutes of the vote, and put the blog post up immediately thereafter.

One of our FaceBook followers reacted online: "We have more laws now than the Soviets did under Joseph Stalin." Not to put much credence in a knee-jerk comment, but I question the motives of anyone who criticizes this legislation. The intent is to protect our bay, waterways, and wildlife; reduce waste; reduce litter; and reduce petroleum use, all for the common good. In no way does the ordinance infringe upon individual freedoms (nowhere in our Bill of Rights is mentioned a right to free plastic bags), and in no way is it designed to benefit a ruling class or business interest. Thus I see it as a democratic law that protects individual rights in a way the free market couldn't.

The Delay ...

Between November and January, I took three months off from freelancing to cover as Managing Editor at the East Bay Express, where I'm typically (and once again) employed part-time. During that period, I also worked on freelance stories for Bay Nature and Earth Island Journal, which will appear here when they're out. In the meantime, find me on Twitter @nateseltenrich for links to environmental stories and to follow the minutiae of my daily life. Just kidding. Mostly.