The Russian River watershed, just north of San Francisco, is surely one of the more progressive and resource-conscious areas of the country. I was staying in Guerneville on the river for a few days, about midway between Santa Rosa and the coast, and I got into a conversation with a local couple about the river and related water issues. They were in their sixties. They had lived in Guerneville over 30 years, raised their kids there and remained involved in the community.

When the topic of water use came up, the man spoke with deep resentment. I’ll paraphrase:

Santa Rosa just keeps dumping on us. Literally! This has been going on for decades. They take the water out of the river for development, always more development. The more water they use, the more waste they’ll wind up flushing downstream.

Once we proposed that they put their own intake pipes downstream from their effluent, so they’d need to use the same water we do. They looked at us like we were crazy. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they asked.

I asked him if there was any solution that might work. He smiled.

Well, we had a farmer around here who once drove up to Santa Rosa City Hall and dumped a truckload of manure on the steps. I think that got their attention.

His wife added that another step, at least as effective, had been the construction of a pipeline that ships treated wastewater to the Gysers steam fields – over 10 million gallons per day – where it helps produce enough electricity to power all of San Francisco.

Since then I’ve been intrigued by the question of water use along the Russian River. One important pitfall which that conversation highlighted: the temptation to frame a resource crisis as a conflict between two opposing groups, in this case the city upstream and the town downstream. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, and some big questions that remain unanswered.

Competing Interests:

  • Downstream Residents: the river provides most of their water supply; sufficient water quality and flow is also needed for tourism and recreation (swimming, canoeing, fishing) which is vital to the local economy
  • Fish: Endangered species such as the Coho and Chinook salmon need unpolluted rivers for spawning with sufficient forest cover to provide shade and erosion control along the riverbank. However, apparently they also require LOW overall flow rates on the lower river near the estuary.
  • Agriculture: Sonoma county vineyards and other agriculture use the lion’s share of water. But extractive industries, including logging and gravel mining, also require water for their operations.
  • Urban Residents and Development: Earlier this year, water contractors representing Santa Rosa water users successfully fought a proposed 30% increase in water rates. Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Water Agency continues to try to increase the amount of water it draws from the river from 76,000 to 101,000 Acre Feet/Year (over 30 billion gallons).

Of course there are many more groups and subsets of groups at work, and agencies that represent different interests and mandates. Brenda Adelman at the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee has been reporting on these issue now for some time: see


Are there any solutions on the table that would balance the needs of all the impacted groups fairly> Could pricing water use in accordance with its scarcity and high environmental impact not only curb unsustainable development in urban/suburban areas like Santa Rosa (by reducing the economic incentives for developers) but also reduce waste discharges downstream. Less water used equals less wastewater discharged.

My biggest question is this: if Guerneville and Santa Rosa can’t make peace over the Russian River, what are the chances for India and Pakistan over the Indus?

(Photo Credit: brian-m under a Creative Commons Attribution License

Cocoa Bucks

February 17th, 2009

Endangered Species Belgian Chocolate Bars - Chimpanzee Smooth Dark Chocolate

Endangered Species Belgian Chocolate Bars - Chimpanzee Smooth Dark Chocolate

Like many people I’ve been paying more attention to prices at the grocery store and to what’s on sale. So when I noticed a row of organic chocolate bars on sale at Rainbow Market, I decided to go for that instead of the pricier choice. Never mind that the best choice all around would have been: no chocolate.

Standing at the checkout line, I looked at my selection. It was Endangered Species Chocolate: specifically, the bar with the Endangered Belgian Chimpanzee on it. Or maybe it was just the chocolate that was Belgian. I wondered why I had never tried it before. Even now, about to buy it on account of the dollar discount, it just wasn’t…. appetizing.

I care about endangered species. I appreciate that this company donates 10% of their profits to wildlife conservation. I will even generally pay a little more to support fair trade imports. So why my resistance to this product?

I think it’s the juxtaposition of the endangered chimpanzee (or bat or butterfly) on the wrapper versus the chocolate bar inside. I’m used to packaging doing one of two things:

  1. the more usual scenario, showing us an appetizing or stylized vision of what we’re about to eat.
  2. the more visceral strategy of luring us with a picture of some celebrity or model — and the implied promise that by eating this food, we will become more like they are. I think this is related to some mythic impulse to ingest our deities and heroes — without the mess of actually eating, say, Lance Armstrong.

There may be other categories, like the cartoon monsters on cereal boxes that little kids eat, but anyway — the point is, when I’m craving chocolate, I’m rarely also in the mood to either eat or become an endangered chimpanzee.

“The chimpanzee isn’t in the chocolate, silly,” my friend said as we sat outside finishing our lunch and eying desert. She had bought fruit.

“I know, but instead of helping the chimpanzee, I feel like I’m eating him.”

“What you’re eating is your paycheck,” she pointed out.

“Well, if they had a picture of my paycheck on the wrapper, I probably wouldn’t have bought it now would I?”

She did not argue with this logic. But it reminded me of something even more remarkable. Chocolate used to be money.

I told her about the presentation on sustainable economics at the Green Festival. The speaker was Daniel Pinchbeck and he was talking about Ithaca Hours, a local currency in Ithaca NY which encourages people to spend their earnings within their community. Afterwards someone asked what happens when this currency pools — when one business is stuck holding alot of the Ithaca dollars but needs to pay suppliers that don’t participate in the program. After looking at different mechanisms for dealing with this scenario, Pinchbeck took a longer view of the issue.

Our current economic system encourages investments that will yield the highest short-term return regardless of the long-term consequences. But what if we could measure and reward investments according their ability to sustain community? Currency only has value as long as it’s in play. Pinchbeck mentioned the work of Bernard Lietaer, architect of the Euro, and alternative systems that Lietaer had proposed including currency that would depreciate over time — a kind of negative interest.

The Ancient Aztecs, Pinchbeck noted, traded in cocoa beans. The actual unit of currency decayed over time and lost value. The point was to spend and trade wisely, not hoard the wealth.

With this in mind, I let go of any impulse I might have had to hold onto that chocolate bar with the picture of the chimp on it, to use it as a hedge against an uncertain future. I broke off a small piece for my friend, and before we knew it, the whole thing was gone.