Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Water Brother From Another Mother

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking to a California History class in the California History Center on the De Anza College campus in Cupertino, California, the real heart of Silicon Valley and home to Apple Computer. The class is taught by my friend of many years, Anne Hickling.

Ann also lives along a riparian corridor as I do. Only she actually grew up in this family home, so, except for her college years, she has spent her entire life as a critter of a local creek.

Ann also takes great pride in her devotion to the study of history and actively sharing her journey of that quest with her students at De Anza College. Yesterday, I was invited to share my thoughts on the water development history of California and Silicon Valley. Paying homage to the screenagers in the classroom (all of us) Ann recorded a video still of the State map which showed rainfall patterns, watersheds & rivers, and engineered aqueducts. The other image in the room was not a hologram but me actually there talking.

In a classroom filled with students, some are there for credit and/or grades, on that paper chase for a degree and a better salary somewhere else. But some people in the room flip open a 'Learning Switch' and actually let some information lodge in that part of the brain where you suddenly connect it as part of your life. You must pay attention to this for your own survival and well being. One or two students did seem to reach this point during the lecture, and Ann is always excited to be learning more about her State and Valley water history and hearing an updated political review of current water management issues.

I explained why I thought the Water District should have a new governance structure that is based on watersheds. This reminded Ann of a poet and philosopher named Gary Snyder. As part of her thanks for my lecturing to her class, Ann sent me the following e-mail which included a great piece about Gary Snyder that deserves to be archived here, as today I realized Gary Snyder is truly a Water Brother From Another Mother:

Hi Pat-

Thank you for the good telling of the story today. It was very good for them to hear it from you.
And thank for the wood smoked mozzarella pizza and conversation.

I think I remember Cari having done a Gary Snyder line in calligraphy... So I send this article I found:

The Wild Mind of Gary Snyder
By Trevor Carolan

For the nineties, the celebrated Beat rebel advocates "wild mind," neighborhood values and watershed politics. "Wild mind," he says, "means elegantly self-disciplined, self-regulating. That's what wilderness is. Nobody has a management plan for it."

Asked if he grows tired of talking about ecological stewardship, digging in, and coalition-building, the poet Gary Snyder responds with candor: "Am I tired of talking about it? I'm tired of doing it!" he roars. "But hey, you've got to keep doing it. That's part of politics, and politics is more than winning and losing at the polls."

These days, there's an honest, conservative-sounding ring to the politics of the celebrated Beat rebel. Gary Snyder, though, has little in common with the right wingers who currently prevail throughout the western world.

"Conservatism has some very valid meanings," he says. "Of course, most of the people who call themselves conservative aren't that, because they're out to extract and use, to turn a profit.
Curiously, eco and artist people and those who work with dharma practice are conservatives in the best sense of the word-we're trying to save a few things!

"Care for the environment is like noblesse oblige," he maintains. "You don't do it because it has to be done. You do it because it's beautiful.
That's the bodhisattva spirit. The bodhisattva is not anxious to do good, or feels obligation or anything like that. In Jodo-shin Buddhism, which my wife was raised in, the bodhisattva just says, 'I picked up the tab for everybody. Goodnight folks...' "

Five years ago, in a prodigious collection of essays called The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder introduced a pair of distinctive ideas to our vocabulary of ecological inquiry. Grounded in a lifetime of nature and wilderness observation, Snyder offered the "etiquette of freedom" and "practice of the wild" as root prescriptions for the global crisis.

Informed by East-West poetics, land and wilderness issues, anthropology, benevolent Buddhism, and Snyder's long years of familiarity with the bush and high mountain places, these principles point to the essential and life-sustaining relationship between place and psyche.

Such ideas have been at the heart of Snyder's work for the past forty years. When Jack Kerouac wrote of a new breed of counterculture hero in The Dharma Bums, it was a thinly veiled account of his adventures with Snyder in the mid-l950's. Kerouac's effervescent reprise of a West Coast dharma-warrior's dedication to "soil conservation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, astronomy, geology, Hsuan Tsang's travels, Chinese painting theory, reforestation, Oceanic ecology and food chains" remains emblematic of the terrain Snyder has explored in the course of his life.

One of our most active and productive poets, Gary Snyder has also been one of our most visible.
Returning to California in 1969 after a decade abroad, spent mostly as a lay Zen Buddhist monk in Japan, he homesteaded in the Sierras and worked the lecture trail for sixteen years while raising a young family. By his own reckoning he has seen "practically every university in the United States."

As poet-essayist, Snyder's work has been uncannily well-timed, contributing to his reputation as a farseeing and weatherwise interpreter of cultural change.
With his current collection of essays, A Place In Space, Snyder brings welcome news of what he's been thinking about in recent years. Organized around the themes of "Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds," it opens with a discussion of Snyder's Beat Generation experience.

"It was simply a different time in the American economy," he explained when I spoke to him recently in Seattle. "It used to be that you came into a strange town, picked up work, found an apartment, stayed a while, then moved on. Effortless. All you had to have was a few basic skills and be willing to work. That's the kind of mobility you see celebrated by Kerouac in On The Road. For most Americans, it was taken for granted. It gave that insouciant quality to the young working men of North America who didn't have to go
to college if they wanted to get a job.

"I know this because in 1952 I was able to hitch-hike into San Francisco, stay at a friend's, and get a job within three days through the employment agency. With an entry level job, on an entry level wage, I found an apartment on Telegraph Hill that I could afford and I lived in the city for a year. Imagine trying to live in San Francisco or New York-any major city-on an entry level wage now? You can't do it. Furthermore, the jobs aren't that easy to get."

The freedom and openness of the post-war economy made it possible for people such as Snyder, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lew Welch and others to disaffiliate from mainstream American dreams of respectability. And as Snyder writes, these "proletarian bohemians" chose even further disaffiliation, refusing to write "the sort of thing that middle-class Communist intellectuals think proletarian literature ought to be."

"In making choices like that, we were able to choose and learn other tricks for not being totally engaged with consumer culture," he says. "We learned how to live simply and were very good at it in my generation. That was what probably helped shape our sense of community. We not only knew each other, we depended on each other. We shared with each other. "And there is a new simple-living movement coming back now, I understand," he notes, "where people are getting together, comparing notes about how to live on less money, how to share, living simply."

When Gary Snyder points something out, it generally warrants attention: his thinking has consistently been ahead of the cultural learning curve. Nowhere is his prescience more obvious than in "A Virus Runs Through It," an unpublished review of William Burroughs' 1962 The Ticket That Exploded.
Snyder regarded Burroughs' portrait of a society obsessed with addiction and consumerism, "whipped up by advertising," as an omen. He concluded that Burroughs' "evocation of the politics of addiction, mass madness, and virus panic, is all too prophetic."

"We were very aware of heroin addiction at that time," Snyder explains. "Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Holmes and their circle in New York became fascinated with the metaphor of addiction in the light of heroin, smack. Marijuana was not an issue, but the intense addictive quality of heroin, and the good people who were getting drawn into it, and the romance some people had for it, was a useful framework for thinking about the nature of capitalist society and the addiction to fossil fuels in the industrial sector. It was obvious."

Many of Snyder's original arguments addressing pollution and our addiction to consumption have by now become mainstream: reduced fossil fuel dependence, recycling, responsible resource harvesting. Others remain works-in-progress: effective soil conservation, economics as a "small subbranch of ecology," learning to "break the habit of acquiring unnecessary possessions," division by natural and cultural boundaries rather than arbitrary political boundaries.

As an ecological philosopher, Snyder's role has been to point out first the problems, and then the hard medicine that must be swallowed. Snyder has become synonymous with integrity-a good beginning place if your wilderness poetics honor "clean-running rivers; the presence of pelican and osprey and gray whale in our lives; salmon and trout in our streams; unmuddied language and good dreams."

"My sense of the West Coast," he says, "is that it runs from somewhere about the Big Sur River-the southern-most river that salmon run in-from there north to the Straits of Georgia and beyond, to Glacier Bay in southern Alaska. It is one territory in my mind. People all relate to each other across it; we share a lot of the same concerns and text and a lot of the same trees and birds."

Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder grew up close to the anthropomorphic richness of the local Native American mythology, the rainforest totems of eagle, bear, raven and killer whale that continue to appear in school and community insignias as important elements of regional consciousness. It is unsurprising that they-and roustabout cousins like Coyote-have long been found at the core of Snyder's expansive vision.

Literal-minded rationalists have had difficulty with Snyder's Buddhist-oriented eco-philosophy and poetics. His embrace of Native Indian lore only further ruffled orthodox literary imagination, and in the past his poetry was criticized as being thin, loose or scattered.

As Snyder readers know, the corrective to such interpretations of his work is more fresh air and exercise. Regarding Buddhism, his take is offered simply and efficiently. "The marks of Buddhist teaching," he writes in A Place In Space, "are impermanence, no-self, the inevitability of suffering and connectedness, emptiness, the vastness of mind, and a way to realization."

"It seems evident," he writes, offering insight into the dynamics of his admittedly complex world view, "that there are throughout the world certain social and religious forces that have worked through history toward an ecologically and culturally enlightened state of affairs. Let these be encouraged: Gnostics, hip Marxists, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, Druids, Taoists, Biologists, Witches, Yogins, Bhikkus, Quakers, Sufis, Tibetans, Zens, Shamans, Bushmen, American Indians, Polynesians, Anarchists, Alchemists, primitive cultures, communal and ashram movements, cooperative ventures."

"Idealistic, these?" he says when asked about such alternative "Third Force" social movements. "In some cases the vision can be mystical; it can be Blake. It crops up historically with William Penn and the Quakers trying to make the Quaker communities in Pennsylvania a righteous place to live-treating the native peoples properly in the process. It crops up in the utopian and communal experience of Thoreau's friends in New England.

"As utopian and impractical as it might seem, it comes through history as a little dream of spiritual elegance and economic simplicity, and collaboration and cooperating communally-all of those things together. It may be that it was the early Christian vision. Certainly it was one part of the early Buddhist vision. It turns up as a reflection of the integrity of tribal culture; as a reflection of the kind of energy that would try to hold together the best lessons of tribal cultures even within the overwhelming power and dynamics of civilization."

Any paradigm for a truly healthy culture, Gary Snyder argues, must begin with surmounting narrow personal identity and finding a commitment to place. Characteristically, he finds a way of remaking the now tired concept of "sense of place" into something fresh and vital. The rural model of place, he emphasizes, is no longer the only model for the healing of our culture.

"Lately I've been noticing how many more people who tend toward counterculture thinking are turning up at readings and book signings in the cities and the suburbs," he says. "They're everywhere. What I emphasize more and more is that a bioregional consciousness is equally powerful in a city or in the suburbs. Just as a watershed flows through each of these places, it also includes them.

"One of the models I use now is how an ecosystem resembles a mandala," he explains. "A big Tibetan mandala has many small figures as well as central figures, and each of them has a key role in the picture: they're all essential. The whole thing is an educational tool for understanding-that's where the ecosystem analogy comes in. Every creature, even the little worms and insects, has value. Everything is
valuable—that's the measure of the system."

To Snyder, value also translates as responsibility. Within his approach to digging in and committing to a place is the acceptance of responsible stewardship. Snyder maintains that it is through this engaged sense of effort and practice-participating in what he salutes as "the tiresome but tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters, local politics"-that we find our real community, our real culture. "Ultimately, values go back to our real interactions with others," he says. "That's where we live, in our communities.

"You know, I want to say something else," he continues. "In the past months and years Carole my wife has been amazing. I do my teaching and my work with the Yuba Watershed Institute, but she's incredible; she puts out so much energy. One of the things that makes it possible for us and our neighbors to do all this is that the husbands and wives really are partners; they help out and trade off. They develop different areas of expertise and they help keep each other from burning out. It's a great part of being a family and having a marriage-becoming fellow warriors, side to side."

In 1968, Snyder stated flatly that, "The modern American family is the smallest and most barren family that has ever existed." Throughout the years his recommendations concerning new approaches to the idea of family and relationships have customarily had a pagan, tribal flavor. These days he calls it community.

"I'm learning, as we all do, what it takes to have an ongoing relationship with our children," he says. "I have two grown sons, two stepdaughters, a nephew who's twenty-seven, and all their friends whom I know. We're still helping each other out. There's a real cooperative spirit. There's a fatherly responsibility there, and a warm, cooperative sense of interaction, of family as extended family, one that moves imperceptibly toward community and a community-values sense.

"So I'm urging people not to get stuck with that current American catch-phrase 'family values,' and not to throw it away either, but to translate it into community values. Neighborhood values are ecosystem values, because they include all the beings.

"What I suspect may emerge in the political spectrum is a new kind of conservative, one which is socially liberal, in the specific sense that it will be free of racial or religious prejudice. The bugaboo, that one really bad flaw of the right wing, except for the Libertarians, is its racist and anti-Semitic and anti-personal-liberty tone.

"A political spectrum that has respect for traditions, and at the same time is non-racist and tolerant about different cultures, is an interesting development. I'd be willing to bet that it's in the process of emerging, similar in a way to the European Green Parties that say, 'We're neither on the left nor the right; we're in front.'

"One of the things I'm trying to do, and I believe it's the right way to work," he says, "is to be non-adversarial-to go about it as tai chi, as ju-jitsu. To go with the direction of a local community issue, say, and change it slightly. We don't have to run head-on. We can say to the other party, 'You've got a lot of nice energy; let's see if we can run this way' "

Yet as anyone involved in community activism learns, amicable resolutions are not always the result. "Sometimes you do have to go head to head on an issue," he agrees, "and that's kind of fun too. 'Showing up' is good practice."

Snyder remembers a fight some four years ago over open pit mining. "I was the lead person on this one, to get an initiative on the ballot that would ban open pit mining, or at least put a buffer zone around any open pit mine. The mining companies from out of town spent a lot of money and did some really intense, last minute, nasty style campaigning, so we lost at the polls.

"But not a single open pit mine has been tried in our county since then. We understand from our interactions with these people that we won their respect. They were smart enough to see that they may have won it at the polls, but we were ready to raise money and willing to fight. That's standing up."

With the growing importance of community coalition-building, Snyder says he is finding it increasingly useful to narrow down his ideas about bioregionalism, or his notion of a practice of the wild, to a shared neighborhood level.

"That's why I talk about watersheds," he explains. "Symbolically and literally they're the mandalas of our lives. They provide the very idea of the watershed's social enlargement, and quietly present an entry into the spiritual realm that nobody has to think of or recognize as being spiritual.

"The watershed is our only local Buddha mandala, one that gives us all, human and non-human, a territory to interact in. That is the beginning of dharma citizenship: not membership in a social or national sphere, but in a larger community citizenship. In other words, a sangha; a local dharma community. All of that is in there, like Dogen when he says, 'When you find your place, practice begins.' "

Thirteenth-century master Dogen Zenji is a classical Asian voice which Snyder has discussed frequently in recent years. "There are several levels of meaning in what Dogen says. There's the literal meaning, as in when you settle down somewhere. This means finding the right teaching, the right temple, the right village. Then you can get serious about your practice.

"Underneath, there's another level of implication: you have to understand that there are such things as places. That's where Americans have yet to get to. They don't understand that there are places. So I quote Dogen and people say, 'What do you mean, you have to find your place? Anywhere is okay for dharma practice because it's spiritual.' Well, yes, but not just any place. It has to be a place that you've found
yourself. It's never abstract, always concrete."

If embracing the responsibility of the place and the moment is his prescription, a key principle in this creative stewardship is waking up to "wild mind." He clarifies that "wild" in this context does not mean chaotic, excessive or crazy.

"It means self-organizing," he says. "It means elegantly self-disciplined, self-regulating, self-maintained. That's what wilderness is. Nobody has to do the management plan for it. So I say to people, "let's trust in the self-disciplined elegance of wild mind". Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking, brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness."

This is Gary Snyder's wild medicine. From the beginning, it has been devotion to this quality that has served as his bedrock of practice, his way of carving out a place of freedom in the wall of American culture. In his omission of the personal in favor of the path, he exemplifies the basics of the Zen tradition in which he was trained.
The influx of trained Asian teachers of the Buddhadharma to the West in recent years has raised questions about whether the first homespun blossoming of Beat-flavored Buddhism in the fifties actually included the notion of practice. As one who was there and has paid his dues East and West, Snyder's response is heartening.

"In Buddhism and Hinduism, there are two streams: the more practice-oriented and the more devotional streams," he explains. "Technically speaking, the two tendencies are called bhakta and jnana. Bhakta means devotional; jnana means wisdom/practice. Contemporary Hinduism, for example, is almost entirely devotional-the bhakta tradition.

"Catholicism is a devotional religion, too, and Jack Kerouac - s Buddhism had the flavor of a devotional Buddhism. In Buddhism the idea that anybody can do practice is strongly present. In Catholicism practice is almost entirely thought of as entering an order or as becoming a lay novitiate of an order. So that explains Jack's devotional flavor. There's nothing wrong with devotional Buddhism. It is its own creative religious approach, and it's very much there in Tibetan Buddhism too.

"Our western Buddhism has been strongly shaped by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Asian intellectuals," he notes. "D. T. Suzuki was an intellectual strongly influenced by western thought. And the same is true of other early interpreters of Buddhism to the West.

"We came as westerners to Buddhism generally with an educated background," Snyder continues. "So we have tended to over-emphasize the intellectual and spiritual sides of it, with the model at hand of Zen, without realizing that a big part of the flavor of Buddhism, traditionally and historically, is devotional.

This is not necessarily tied to doing a lot of practice, but is tied to having an altar in the house-putting flowers in front of it every day, burning incense in front of it every day, having the children bow and burn incense before it. The family may also observe certain Buddhist holy days such as the Buddha's birthday by visiting a temple together, and so forth.

"With that perspective in mind, it isn't so easy to say, 'Oh well, Jack Kerouac wasn't a real Buddhist.' He was a devotional Buddhist, and like many Asians do, he mixed up his Buddhism with several different religions. So it's okay; there's nothing wrong with that. You can be a perfectly good Buddhist without necessarily doing a lot of exercises and sitting and yoga; you can be equally a good Buddhist by keeping flowers on your altar, or in winter, dry grass or cedar twigs..

"There's a big tendency right now in western Buddhism to psychologize it-to try and take the superstition, the magic, the irrationality out of it and make it into a kind of therapy. You see that a lot," he says. "Let me say that I'm grateful for the fact that I lived in Asia for so long and hung out with Asian Buddhists. I appreciate that Buddhism is a whole practice and isn't just limited to the lecture side of it; that it has stories and superstition and ritual and goofiness like that. I love that aspect of it more and more."

Snyder says that at age sixty-five, he's "working like a demon." For the past ten years he has taught creative writing at the University of California, leading workshops and participating in the interdisciplinary "Nature and Culture" program. This year will also mark the arrival of his long-awaited sequence of forty-five poems called "Mountains and Rivers Without End," portions of which have appeared intermittently since
Jack Kerouac first dropped word of it in The Dharma Bums.

"I realized I wasn't going to live forever and that I'd started a lot of parallel projects, with lots of interesting notes to each one, so it - d be a pity not to put all that information to good use. Once 'Mountains and Rivers' is done I won't have to write anything further. Anything after that is for fun. Maybe I won't be a writer anymore. Maybe I'll clean out my barn."

Aging and health are not at issue with Snyder. He works at keeping in good condition and several months ago spent three weeks hiking in the Himalayas with a group of family and friends

"We trekked up to base camp at Everest, went over 18,000 feet three times, and were seven days above 16,000 feet," he says with obvious relish. "Everybody was in pretty good shape and I only lost four pounds in a month, so I'm not thinking a whole lot about aging."

Snyder's recent journey provided him with insights into the questions of karma and reincarnation, which eco-philosopher Joanna Macy believes may hold special relevance for North Americans. She argues that deeply ingrained American frontier values such as individualism, personal mobility, and independence may contribute to the idea that, "If this is our only one-time life, then we don't have to care about the planet."

"The concept of reincarnation in India can literally shape the way one lives in the world," Snyder notes, "and many Tibetans also believe in reincarnation quite literally. So in that frame of mind, the world becomes completely familiar. You sit down and realize that 'I've been men, women, animals; there are no forms that are alien to me.'

"That's why everyone in India looks like they're living in eternity. They walk along so relaxed, so confident, so unconcerned about their poverty or their illness, or whatever it is, even if they're beggars. It goes beyond just giving you a sense of concern for the planet; it goes so far as to say, 'Planets come and go' It's pretty powerful stuff. It's also there in classical Buddhism where people say, 'I've had enough of experience.' That's where a lot of Buddhism in India starts-'I want out of the meat wheel of existence,' as Jack Kerouac says.

"An ecosystem too, Snyder concludes, can be seen as "Just a big metabolic wheel of energies being passed around and around. You can see it as a great dance, a great ceremony. You can feel either really at home with it, or step out of the circle."

"We are all indigenous," he reminds us. So it is appropriate that in relearning the lessons of fox and bluejay, or city crows and squirrels-"all members present at the assembly"-that we are promised neither too little, nor too much for our perseverance. This poet, who for so many now reads like an old friend, invites us to make only sense. After all, in recommiting to this continent place by place, he reckons, "We may not transform reality, but we may transform ourselves. And
if we transform ourselves, we might just change the world a bit."

The Wild Mind of Gary Snyder, Trevor Carolan, Shambhala Sun, May 1996.

Read more about Gary Snyder on Wikipedia.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Water District Should Go With The Flow

The electoral process has indeed brought many people the Audacity of Hope that our new president has opened for us. This hope is not just about electing a president. The hope lies in giving us the power to be the communities that we want to be, rather than what's forced upon us by "The Powers That Be." It's true: "All politics is local." So we should put our primary political power into local politics, and reduce the major distraction of "What can our country do for me?" Even our proud mayors flew back to DC with our tin cups in hands.

A major local political opportunity is opening right now in Silicon Valley. And that is how we use democracy to manage our water and protect the watersheds that carry our water to us and the environment. The Water District Board is asking Assemblyman Joe Coto to carry a bill through the State legislature to amend the District Act as it pertains to (s)electing the Board of Directors as representatives of our community.

The Water District Act is the enabling legislation that is created in Sacramento to be applied to how this agency is run here in Santa Clara County, from Palo Alto and Milpitas, throughout San Jose and south to Gilroy and the Pajaro River. Its drainage flows to two important regional watersheds, Monterey Bay and the San Francisco Estuary. It serves sixteen land use agencies and offers services as a water wholesaler and watershed stewardship, and augments the community's earth science education component to both students and adults through their outreach programs.

Water is essential to life and the quantity and chemistry of this element is so directly related to the quality of each of our lives and the community at large. Ironically, it has been that term "at large" that has been applied historically to enable the Dilution of Democracy for the past forty years here in the Valley of St.Claire and her Silicon descendants. In 1968, a newly formed organization was created in Sacramento in order to merge the competing public agencies, all trying to manage the waters of the County. Those were in fact the County government and the four, yes four, water conservation Districts that had been created to capture local winter storm runoff and recharge the water during the rest of the year into the groundwater basins or deliver it in pipes or canals.

There is an adage that you should never watch law or sausage being made, but we historically have been willing to put up with the usually compromised results from either process. But not anymore! People are much more scrutinizing of what they eat and, maybe more importantly, how their (s)elected representatives are behaving, especially when it comes to spending our money, and measuring more closely what value we receive for that money. This blog and all our other methods of connectedness are the new tools we bring to the democratic process so we can finally become a real democracy.

So I hope to begin, using my Blessed Unrest, a real dialogue within Silicon Valley to create a new water District Board of Directors that reflect today's needs and expectations for this 21st Century, very interconnected community.

The Board, first of all, should represent the very nature of the flow of water, and should be organized by watershed. This is not a new idea for the Water District. When I was first elected to the Board in 1972, there where five separate taxing zones in place, representing the major watersheds in the county: East(Coyote Creek), Central (Guadalupe/Los Gatos), North Central (Stevens Creek/Permanente) Northwest (Baron, San Francisquito) and South (Uvas/Llagas/Pajaro).

In order to keep the equal representation in place, each of these would have to again become a taxing entity for which watershed activities could be assessed per watershed and not subsidized by other zones with a "budget surplus."

The water supply function of the Santa Clara Valley Water District is operated as an enterprise, basically run as a business for the benefit of the entire county. Other water supply wholesalers also operate within the county borders, namely San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and four regional water recycling programs operated within Santa Clara County. This makes for a very complex approach for getting water to people, through their many water retailers, comprised of both municipal and private/investor-owned utilities.

Since the watersheds probably do not have equal populations, I propose that each watershed have weighted voting when they meet to manage the Water Utility Enterprise as the "Water (supply) Board."
Another benefit is that watershed boundaries cannot be gerrymandered. They are created by nature and will remain the same, regardless of changes in land use and population.

As the Water Utility Enterprise is run as a business, each watershed council represents a resident-shareholder, so each council would have a vote in proportion to its population, using the well known and accepted corporate model. This should take care of the equal representation requirement.

As these Watershed Council members come together as Water "Supply" Board, still wearing their watershed hats, if you will, they will be more apt to balance the needs of both the human inhabitants AND the in stream/riparian needs within the community. This is somewhat parallel concept to the city councils acting separately as the Redevelopment Boards while still being an elected council member.

Watershed Councils should be (s)elected in open, non-partisan, consolidated primary elections with runoffs in the next general election. Appointments to fill vacancies should be required to gather at least 10% of the registered-voters support in their electoral Districts and should do so using electronic communications appropriate to the current community standards, sort of like getting fans on Facebook, for example.

As the District is an essential service provider to the cities and the County government, these organizations should have a stronger voice in advising the Water District. A water commission currently exists that includes an elected members of each city, the County BOS and a Water Board member. This group should meet at least quarterly, and more often under drought or flood emergencies, and should be required to read and formally comment on the Water District budget before the Board takes final action to approve its annual or two-year budget.

Other advisory committees should be encouraged by the State enabling legislation but the micro-managing should stop there. Agricultural subsidies, if allowed, should go toward ALL water applied for irrigation of a food crop, not just for commercial food and fiber. Water subsidies for food crop irrigation should be passed on through retailers to consumers. Just as individual home water banks were created during the '86-'91 drought, home/food water banks can be similarly created and monitored through efficient and modern electronic means and be an essential tool for emergency drought management, during a state- or locally-declared emergency.

For the past forty years, the District board of directors has had five elected directors and two directors appointed by the Board of Supervisors, coupled with a budget approval by the BOS, after the District Board review and adoption. This system had a severely distracted Board of Supervisors giving approval to a budget they hardly ever glanced at, let alone vetted for policy compliance and economic or environmental prudence. The Dilution of Democracy, of which I speak, occurred through the appointment of a supervisor's "friend" to either of the two at large seats on the Water Board. These appointments were made by alternating north /south appointments between the members of the board of supervisors. The heavy politicking this brought forth was never pretty to watch or stomach. Last year the County finally relinquished this hold on the Water District and the District Act was amended in Sacramento to remove the two appointments and eliminate the budget approval requirement.

It is as these two vestiges of old political inertia are to end on Dec 31, 2010, that the District Board has cleverly disguised their desire to keep the number of Board members (s)elected to seven, using new yet-to-be-gerrymandered districts of equal number of eligible voters. I believe we deserve and can create a political body that has more practicality than simply preserving the number seven for the available seats on the board of directors. I am hoping that, using the communication tools we have available, we can construct a body that works as well as nature, as our politics reflects both the force and delicacy of nature and the human spirit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Navigating the Mighty Coyote Creek in San Jose

Advocates at Earthjustice today called on Congress to fix the Clean Water Act by eliminating the legislative loophole restricting the US EPA to only protect "Navigable Waters,"

Bush's Supreme Court had given his administration the legal basis to ignore water pollution at thousands of wetlands, streams and lakes and groundwater basins. A new bill has been introduced, called the Clean Water Restoration Act, which removes the word "navigable" and replaces the words "waters of the United States".

I noticed the Santa Clara Valley Water District has now begun to refer to the Coyote Creek as navigable. We are certainly witness to the flotilla of canoes launched under the smiling blessings of Admiral Spillman and her crew of trash photographers and recovery personnel. The next trash raft attack is scheduled for the weekend of March 1 if you care to join the war on creek trash.

But I have had personal knowledge that the Coyote Creek is navigable, acquired in the best possible manner, when Dan O'Brien and I ran the river at twilight one crazy evening in the winter of 1978. Dan & I were then young bucks in our early 30's, and tended to do outrageous stuff on a mere suggestion.
We were sitting on his deck at 311 Brookwood, Dan playing his guitar, watching a flood wave crest through the river as the sun was just about to set. Dan started playing "Dueling Banjos," the theme song from that infamous movie, "Deliverance". This adventure movie put running rapids into a whole new category. It also gave dam builders a slight reduction in the number of activists trying to stop dam building. Large dams usually inundate and destroy miles of rapids available for adventurous folks to challenge the river with their rafting skills.

But it didn't deter us when our testosterone-filled brains decided we needed to get to Mel Cotton's Sporting Goods store before they closed so we could purchase a six-foot inflatable raft and a couple of paddles. The good news is we made it to the store on time. The bad news was that the sun had already set by the time we got the raft home and inflated and were ready to launch our maniacal selves into the river at flood stage.

But the rain and river gods and goddesses wanted us to run the river this evening, as low clouds from the current storm hung low enough over the valley so that they effectively reflected enough street light on the creek that we could see where we were going. Beside getting the boat, our only other preparation was that we also told Dan's neighbor, Don Mathias, what we were up to and asked if he'd be willing to come get us if we were to survive this mad adventure.

So off we went down the river. The inflatable raft was sea worthy enough, although we would soon find out that only luck would keep us from getting flushed out of the creek and into San Francisco Bay. For the next two hours we paddled hard to steer the raft down the river, moving at about 10-12 feet per second, stopping again and again to portage around downed trees lying completely across the water.

The most beautiful memory of all this came as we passed one large tree growing near the bank that had about 25 white herons roosting for the night. Most of them saw us coming and took flight and flew around us as we passed their lodging and then resettled in to the tree as we floated by. Crazy humans!

Just as we were passing the Flea Market near Berryessa Road, we punctured the raft on one of the million twigs and branches we had floated by in the last three miles of the floodway, and this proved that the gods and goddesses were watching out for us during our nutty urban river rafting adventure.

We climbed out of the river soaked and covered with dirt and debris and knocked on the door of the San Jose Meat Company that was opposite the creek from the Flea Market and asked to use their phone to call Don for a ride. I think the people working that shift would not have dared to say no to these two wild men standing dripping at their door. I just hope we didn't contaminate any sanitary areas that we walked through to use the phone. (This is one more reason why cell phones were invented, so crazies don't show up at your door to ask to use the phone.)

While waiting for our ride, I walked across Berryessa Road and looked downstream at the river. Upper Penetencia Creek has its confluence with Coyote right below this bridge, and the flow downstream was greatly increased on north side of the road. But since agriculture fields still existed in this historically floodable area instead of floodable urbanscape like it is today, the street lights that had illuminated our evening rafting trip were non-existent downstream of the confluence and all I saw was white water disappearing into a black abyss.

I realized if we had rafted under that bridge, we might have been carried all the way to the bay, probably under rather than on the water. But instead, I am here on this bright and shiny Wednesday watching the sun set across the Coyote and glad I am still here to be a witness to the fact that Coyote Creek is indeed a navigable waterway, and right here in the middle of downtown San Jose.

I also hope this story brings a smile to my dear water brother Dan O'Brien, who is undergoing spinal surgery today, repairing damage done to his younger self, either playing basketball or doing crazy shit like I have just described here.

Blessed Be!

Monday, February 16, 2009

No Trash Dumping, Flows to the Creek

Some of my neighbors in the Campus Community in downtown San Jose recently posted a picture of a trash raft floating on the water surface in Mid-Coyote Creek, somewhere near the San Antonio Street bridge.

I posted a terse response to chide the comment that we should wait to see if the raft would move downstream before doing anything about it. The author was rightly miffed that I suggested her intentions might be indifference to the problem rather than waiting for a safer time to remove the raft.

After apologizing and giving a short history of the ignorance of this problem, I resolved to dedicate this blog post to pollution prevention of trash in our creeks. Consider this an extension of the work I did for my last eight years at the Water District as a contract employee running the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center.

In my own personal experience, plastic bags are the number one candidate for eliminating a serious source of creek trash. Walking along the creek one day in William Street Park, I picked up 22 plastic bags that had blown into bushes along the creek from tables, trash cans and ignorant park users. This is not a new problem. In 1995, the Pollution Prevention Center started giving seminar attendees high quality canvas tote bags silk screened Take Me Shopping.

A few months ago, I found a web site dedicated to getting the Clorox Corporation to start recycling the plastic-cased Brita brand water filters. Threatening to embarrass this major corporation for its lack of producer responsibility and product stewardship, this month Clorox set up a nationwide network to collect and recycle their filters, keeping this item from the landfills. Clorox contracted with a program called Gimme5 to collect the filters along with other # 5 plastics like is used in tooth brushes and prescription bottles. Collection kiosks are being set up in participating Whole Foods stores, which unfortunately does not include those in San Jose yet. (Call your local store and request they participate ASAP.) In the mean time, you can mail your filters and other #5 plastic directly to the recycling company.

One of the activists working on the Brita filter recycling is named Beth Terry of Oakland, CA, who has a blog called Fake Plastic Fish. In her post about the successful campaign on the Brita filter recycling, she includes this sample letter for folks to send to their local newspapers:

Plastic waste is a serious environmental problem. It is made from fossil fuels and does not biodegrade, lasting virtually forever and wreaking havoc in the natural world.

Fortunately, a new program called Gimme5 is attempting to deal responsibly with some of our plastic waste. Customers can return used #5 (polypropylene) plastic containers as well as Brita pitcher water filters and used Preserve products to select Whole Foods markets or mail them back to Preserve for recycling. Full details of the program are at

I am not personally associated with Preserve, Whole Foods, or Brita, but as an individual attempting to live responsibly on the planet, I highly recommend this program.


Read more about the successful campaign to get Brita filters recycled here. There is a great amount of information on Fake Plastic Fish regarding reduction of plastic consumption and its fugitive emission into the environment. I recommend spending some time reading Beth's posts to examine ways to reduce many types of plastic consumption.

In northern Santa Clara County, the cities, County and the Water District have formed a joint program to manage the regional storm water permit issued for the watersheds draining into South San Francisco Bay, called the Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff Pollution Prevention Program. In 1995, during the formative stages of this program, our discussions focused on the impossibility of treating all the storm water runoff generated in the South Bay watersheds, leading to the current name for the program. However, as the program has essentially failed to implement the necessary public education and local ordinances to actually PREVENT pollution, the current mandates for storm water inlet treatment devices are now the focus of the program as it relates to trash. Read more: Trash Evaluation and Management Fact Sheet (2nd Edition) With current budget shortfalls at the cities, funds to implement this approach are going to be a challenge and success is dubious.

For this reason, local action needs to re-focus on pollution prevention, which relies on attacking the source of the problem. Producer responsibility and product stewardship will be the key to reducing the flow of trash into our cityscape and the creeks. Carbon taxes or cap and trade approaches may assist this effort, but local governments are going to have to hang tough and resist the lobbying that is sure to come from the Chamber of Commerce. Activists that now are willing to endanger themselves pulling trash from the creeks must also pressure city officials to pass ordinances to reduce the flow of trash from business establishments into our streets and creeks.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Splitting Infinity or Splitting Darwin

Last November I saw a production of Splitting Infinity at the Rep in San Jose. It was a most interesting stage play regarding the human difficulty of accepting both science and religious belief in God. The play worked, in that it stirred deep emotional responses from the cast, the director and the audience. I was lucky to attend the final performance which included a 30-minute talk-back with the cast after the show. The group from the audience most offended were Christian Scientists, whose beliefs were portrayed in the script as unacceptable, by today's standards of common decency.

Today the Economist published an article on Darwin, with an interesting chart of where on earth there is belief in Evolution. The chart speaks volumes about where humans are best educated and cared for by their localities. The conclusion drawn by the author from this information is insightful: " In countries where food is plentiful, health care is universal and housing is accessible, people believe less in God than in those countries where their lives are insecure. A belief in God, and rejection of evolution, they suggest, is most valuable in those societies that are most subject to Darwinian pressures."

Now that the value of of wealth in America has been split in half as well, I would predict that Darwinian pressures are certainly going to kick up a notch or ten in the not too distant future. It will be interesting to watch and see how this theory above plays out in the actual world stage.

It's already begun in London.To celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday, London buses carried a message: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The Christians are responding with their own campaign. The sign companies are loving it, all the way to the bank.