Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I'm A Riparian Water Boy

Last month I posted a great takeoff of the Madonna hit "Material Girl" titled "Riparian Girl."

This month I want to tell a story about being a Riparian Boy, precisely, a Riparian Water Boy.

What follows is my story of coming to live along a vital riparian ecosystem in downtown San Jose.

When I arrived in San Jose in 1969, it was the "Summer of Love" and the spiritual energy level of the community of my peers was at peak and beyond for some. I was referred to San Jose State by Dr. Bill Strangio, who was an instructor at Loyola University. When I expressed to him my disillusion with working for Caltrans, he suggested I talk with Dr. Frank Agardi, the Environmental Engineering Department chair.

Dr. Agardi arranged for me to receive a fellowship stipend from the federal government. The Feds were in essence paying me to go to graduate school after relinquishing their hold on my testicles (I still had two at the time) by changing my draft board status to 4-F. So the money they saved not putting me through bootcamp was coming back to me as student support during the next year of graduate school.

My student housing was located in a 8-unit two-story apartment building near Roosevelt Middle School (now Roosevelt Park) off South 19th Street on a cul de sac named Calhoun Court. Think cheap motel, with cars parked a foot from your doors and windows. But it was cerebral time, right? This was no time for urban farming, like I like to do.

The cul de sac ended on the east bank of the Coyote River, a 100 ft. downstream of the Santa Clara Street bridge. After I graduated, and got married to my dear friend, Lexa, we moved to South 18th Street, into a duplex, with another friend Steve Matulich, moving into the front unit.

Our duplex was across the street from the homes that bordered the east bank of Coyote Creek, 100 ft. downstream of the San Antonio Street Bridge. Steve & I immediately took down a fence separating the back yard and dug in 100 gallons of fresh chicken manure from Olivera's egg ranch, still operating in the Berryessa District. After a rather wet winter, our first summer garden was incredible. We could practically see things growing. And sometimes in paisleys.

For the next two years, I worked for the Chicago-based engineering consultant business named Consoer-Townsend & Associates. I was hired after a referral from one of my SJSU graduate school colleagues, Ken Boyd. I did some work in their San Jose office, but my primary assignment was to work in San Francisco with a team of engineers from Bechtel. So I rode my bike to the Cahill Street train station and took the commuter train to San Francisco, a 90-minute commute each morning and evening. Since I was based in San Jose, I expensed my train tickets and put the travel time as OT on my time card. The extra money soon built into a small but adequate "nest egg" to actually buy a nest for Lexa and myself.

And we didn't have to go far before we found the perfect nest just a block away on Brookwood Drive, which crossed South 18th St. and turned left and followed the east bank of the Coyote Creek up to the William Street Bridge. So with 10% down, a 10% second mortgage and the rest from a real bank, we were finally settled right on the banks of Coyote Creek. Our home sits about 10 feet from the top bank of the creek, but sits 100 feet from the street. Our best topsoil is there in front, so everything but the driveway produces a great abundance of food, fuel and fragrant, festive wildflowers.

We moved into our new home with the help of our friends, Marty and Judith. Judith was a drafts-person-lady at the local engineering office. We had to psychically detach ourselves from our close neighbors, Patty & Ken MacKay and their children, Kirsty and Duff, although we were only moving about a 1000 feet away. The new house was actually a duplex, with two rental spaces already occupied as tenants of the former owner, Irene Segesvery, a lively Hungarian-born woman, who had grown tired of taking care of this amount of property.

We continued to have one tenant for many more years, but I immediately took possession of the probably-illegal third unit and made it my home office until my daughter, Chrysalis, born by my second wife Cari, in 1985. For a couple of years, our rental unit housed the Reverend Barry Verde+, a preacher at the Trinity Episcopal Church on First Street near St. James Park. Barry and his new Canadian-born bride, Trish Hardman, spent their extended honeymoon here on the creek, while working on both community and commercial TV in the early days of cable systems.

So here we were, in our home that is as close to nature as you can get in the middle of a city. I had come to San Jose to become an environmental engineer, and was just beginning to understand what that role in society actually means. From the ENGINEER perspective, it means building infrastructure that mitigates the impacts of the human community, so that natural systems continue to function unimpaired. That obviously does not always get done to the satisfaction of nature, and she takes revenge on her own terms, wiping out species and sometime threatening our own.

From the ENVIRONMENTAL perspective, it was most important for me to live as part of the natural systems as well as being a fairly typical American consumer. This helped me to continue to learn about this delicate human-natural interface that originally was enough to sustain a few humans, but now required that I help build the human-engineered systems to sustain us and our fellow million humans in the valley. What I had learned while working at Bechtel was that every city in the SF Bay area all planned for a population doubling in the next 30 years.

Starting with my studies of projected sewage volumes, I soon was thinking about water supplies for this pending doubling of population in our valley, as I would be elected to the Santa Clara Valley Water District in November of 1972, just four quick months after I had moved into my creekside habitat. Thanks to a warning letter from the Water District's attorney, my employer terminated our relationship the day after the election to avoid any conflict of interests, since the Water District had hired the consortium to do an addendum study with the intent of lessening the potential of water recycling that our original study had indicated was feasible. So considering that my expected monthly income was suddenly reduced to the two $50 per diems paid the Directors of the District at the time, I began to worry about making house payments so I could continue to live in my creekside piece of paradise.

Besides being one of the youngest elected officials in the county's history, I also became one of its youngest consultants. I named my company Water Brothers Environmental Consultants. My friend Ken, who stuck by me, despite everyone from Chicago to Bechtel's headquarters in San Francisco, wondering why he didn't see coming my radical departure from the norm of consulting engineers' everywhere. He made me a beautifully hand-carved shingle to hang at my home office.

So for the next five years, I found a various array of clients that allowed me to use my education and experience to help mitigate and enhance the quality of both humans and the environment by analyzing many engineering projects, from simple land subdivisions to 200 ft earthen dams on top of the San Andreas Fault.
My most interesting assignment was actually the first contract I executed after my departure from the mega engineering companies where I had spent the previous two years.

A new regional government had been created by the State Legislature called the Bay Area Sewerage Services Agency (BASSA) for the purpose of being able to better implement the basin plan for the entire nine counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay. The offices for this new agency were in the elegant Claremont Hotel in the Berkeley hills. I was contracted to be a planning consultant to help launch this new regional government. So I leased a new Volvo and began my consulting career with a 100 mile per day commute. BART was just about complete, but would not be available soon enough to avoid driving 500 miles a week to staff the offices until the Board could hire a manager to administer this new agency, that still needed to define itself.

BASSA was given the rare and powerful authority to sell revenue bonds without any public vote to finance the implementation of the basin plan adopted by the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board, and thereby provide financing whenever a local wastewater authority could not or would not proceed with required construction to comply with the plan. Local governments generally detested the idea of regional government usurping any local authority. Knowing that the wastewater discharges respected no county lines while the cumulative impact of all the sewage outfalls took its toll on the estuary, I could see the State's rationale for creating this regional authority.

I also knew that the federal Clean Water Act had created the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) to gradually move treatment forward until waste(d)waters were clean enough to reuse the water after the pollution was removed from the water. This aspect of the water business was my greatest passion, knowing California's Delta was going to be in jeopardy someday. This water source for much of California, would be interrupted by droughts which would come both from natural causes as well as regulatory and court decrees that would drastically reduce the amount of water currently diverted from the estuary from flows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.

All this altruism was finally dashed when the Sanitary District members on the BASSA Board Of Trustees hired one of their own managers to take charge of the agency and declare it to be "the Friendly" Regional agency (unlike the Regional Water Board that issued the regulatory decrees and even fines in addition to developing the basin plan to protect the beneficial uses of San Francisco Bay.) This basically was a signal that this agency would do nothing and the trustees would just meet to have lunch and collect their $50 per diem. A few years later, John Knox, who authored the enabling legislation, introduced legislation to eliminate the agency, knowing it had become a sham government, lobbying against state efforts to protect water rather than helping to implement progressive steps to protect the Bay.

My consultant business continued for about five years when I decided for several reasons to cease this line of work. Since college, I had written enough to fill about three file cabinets with research note, drafts and final reports. I found that I was starting to get writer's block when it was time to draft yet another report.

In 1977, the state was in the midst of a second critically dry year and the bureaucrats in Sacramento were pushing local agencies to reduce per capita consumption and to reuse water to offset the reduced diversions available from the Delta. Many clients were suddenly interested in implementing water recycling systems. While I was designing a water recycling system for a client of another spinoff company from the old Consoer-Townsend staff in San Jose, they were contacted by the City of Gilroy to build a delivery system to bring recycled water to the Bonafonte Gardens and Nursery east of town on Hecker Pass Road. Since this project would have the Santa Clara Valley Water District as a partner, I was asked to terminate my contract to avoid any perception of conflict of interest. Since I was not really an employee of this company, I did not think there really was any conflict, but no one wanted this client to send the work elsewhere, so I terminated my contract and came home to contemplate what should be my next career move.

Coincidentally, during this drought year, I had met another Consoer-Townsend mechanical engineer, Dan O'Brien, at a friend's party. Dan was looking for a place to live with his wife, Mary. There was another house for sale on Coyote Creek just six houses north of ours right on Brookwood Drive. As soon as Dan bought the house and moved in, I proposed that he and I design and build a water pumping system to use the riparian water rights that was part of our property rights in California as creek-side property owners.

California water code is a very schizophrentic set of laws. The Spanish laws that had been applied to water were a very community based approach to sharing water, leading to the concept of Pueblo Water Rights being adopted into the new water code after California statehood was achieved in 1850. This law gives ownership of all the water from the upstream watersheds flowing through the Pueblo to that Pueblo.

The English law, however, used riparian ownership as a key to stake out one's claim for the right to use the water in a stream or river. Most of the cattle barons during early statehood tied up much of the state's stream flows under this law, keeping irrigated agriculture from becoming the vital industry it is today from taking hold in the State until early in the 20th century, when massive irrigation projects were constructed under the Federal Reclamation Act of 1908. These projects relied on yet a third leg of appropriations to use surface or groundwater away from the river or overlying land holdings. First in time, first in right ruled this piece of the water code.

Although the local Water District did not impose mandatory water rationing in the County in 1977, I did not want to ever be in the position of water cop with my immediate neighbors. That was one motivation for building a creek pump to make nonpotable irrigation water available for our landscaping and riparian creek banks vegetation. My other motivation was to demonstrate that nonpotable water systems were a feasible way to reduce costs and increase reliability of the District's water supplies and also benefit the environment. A large percentage of the valley's water supply could be supplied, not with creek water, necessarily, but primarily with reclaimed waste(d) water that we were currently treating to a high degree of purity and then throwing away into San Francisco Bay.

So Dan O'Brien and I designed a pumping and irrigation system for the eight homes adjacent to the creek and after an easy sell to our neighbors, founded the Brookwood Drive Green Watering Association (BDGWA) (BudGawa, as we called it.) For about $1500, we installed a one-horsepower pump and controls, plus 1000 ft. of PVC pipe and three remote timer switches that could activate the pump for up to an hour at a time. Our only out of pocket costs for operation was the power cost for about 800 hours per year of pump operation, costing about $100 per year for the entire street, or $12.50 per household for a full eight month irrigation season.

The pump delivered about 20 gallons per minute, so 800 hours of operation consumed about 1,000,000 gallons of water, or roughly 3 ac.-ft. Agricultural rates in South County were about the only cheaper water in the county, without considering the farmers' energy cost. Wholesale treated water costs from the Water District for urban users was about $120/ac.-ft in 1977, but rose to nearly $600 by 1997, the last year of operation of our pumping system. Since the retail costs of water was at least twice the wholesale cost, our initial payback for the entire capital cost of our irrigation system was about two years, based on the water rates in effect during the first two years. In the final year of operation, we saved our system users a total of $3,600.

The pumping system was severely damaged in January, 1997, when a 6,500 cfs flood wave crested about eight feet above the elevation of the pump level, destroying the control system and spinning the power pole until the romex power cable was wound around it like a spool of thread. I did pull the pump and motor days before the flood, as the upstream reservoirs were full and spilling, the usual antecedent conditions for a major flood in downtown San Jose. Since I was now 20 years older (but only slightly wiser), I decided that I was getting too old for the annual "rights of spring" that involved immersing myself in the decomposing organic sludge on the bottom of the creek bed in order to desilt our "clear well" which consisted of an upside-down shopping cart held in place with pieces of concrete rubble.

Since we had not had a serious drought since the six-year dry spell that ended in 1993, the neighbors did not push to rebuild the pumping system. So without my partner Dan, who had moved away by then, the pump remains in my garage waiting for the day when water costs get so outrageously high or mandatory rationing threatens all our permanent landscape vegetation. Currently water rates have risen so high, my water bill in mid-summer can now cost $100 for a single month, the amount that we used to spend to power a system that irrigated 8 homesteads for a full eight-month irrigation season. My cost for using my riparian water for a month was about $1.50.

Someday, maybe my son, Nick, will again be a riparian water boy.

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