Miraloma Life Online – May 2008

  • May Backyard and Garden Tour
  • Safety Event and a Success Story
  • Sunnyside Park Plans Get Attention
  • Q & A: Installing Solar on Your Home
  • NERT News
  • Design Matters
  • Is it Something New or the Same Owld?
  • MPIC Elections
  • A New Old Tradition
  • The Breaks, Kid
  • A Tale of Two Pools in the Valley of the Moon

May Backyard and Garden Tour

by JoAnn Eastep

You are in for a treat at the upcoming Backyard and Garden Tour on Sunday, May 18 from 1- 4 PM. You probably have seen the beautiful posters advertising the Garden Tour distributed around the neighborhood. Tickets will be on sale at the MPIC clubhouse from noon until 2:30 PM. Tickets are $10 for club members and $12 for non members. Children under 6 are free. If you are not already a member of the MPIC and live in Miraloma Park you can join at the clubhouse the day of the tour and save some money and help us keep up with all the club’s activities.

Attendees at the Garden Tour will be able to visit mature gardens, newly installed gardens, a shaded area garden, gardens on both uphill and downhill areas and gain some great ideas for using space you might never have dreamed of as a garden site. In addition to the private gardens there will be two gardens where the neighbors banned together to use non habitable space to start and maintain a public garden. You will be provided a map and a short description of the gardens when you purchase your tickets.

After the tour, attendees will be welcome at the clubhouse to enjoy a wine and cheese reception. You will have the opportunity to meet the owners again and sometimes the designers of their gardens. If you are considering re-doing your garden or if you are just interested in gardens in general, the hosts are very knowledgeable about the rules and regulations for installing decks, ponds, paths, etc. This will enable you to avoid the many pitfalls having to do with setbacks for decks and the other hundreds of details that can derail your plans. So if you haven’t figured out what to give your mother for Mother’s Day, a card with the promise of the tour the following Sunday would make a lovely gift for an afternoon together.

Safety Event and a Success Story

by Karen Wood

The MPIC Safety Committee thanks everyone who made our April 6 Safety Event a terrific success—our speakers Sgt. Jim Miller of Ingleside Station, Jon Shepherd of SFSafe, and Jed Lane, our NERT Coordinator; the 65 or so Miraloma Park residents who came to the Clubhouse, Mollie Stone for contributing wines, and Safety Committee members Robert Gee—who created a gorgeous buffet—Pamela Dickey, Jim Ilardo, Jed Lane, and Mike Naughton, who managed the event.

Our goal was to build community, because there is no surer means of promoting neighborhood safety than neighbors knowing each other. We also created an email tree for ready communication regarding safety issues, and our three specialist speakers presented proactive strategies for keeping Miraloma Park one of the safest neighborhoods in the City.

Sgt. Miller expressed the importance of communicating effectively with emergency dispatch (553-0123 to report suspicious activity, or 911 if a crime is in progress), reminding us to provide the most complete description possible of suspicious persons and vehicles, including license plates. Common preludes to burglary include people sitting in cars with no clear purpose, or individuals going from house to house ringing doorbells. Be sure to insist that the suspicious activity in question is unusual and needs to be checked out by police. If you are placed on hold, stay on the line and complete the request for service.

Mr. Shepard encouraged everyone to take advantage of the free SF Safe home security assessment (415 553-1984) to provide practical ways of optimizing home security to make your home a deterrent, not an invitation, to burglars.

Jed Lane covered how to become a trained Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) member and to learn basic disaster preparedness and response skills (utilities management, fire control, emergency medicine, search and rescue, for example).

In the course of the discussion with Sgt. Miller, a group of neighbors raised the serious issue of a drug house on their block. MPIC had learned of this problem house late in February and had notified Captain O’Leary of the activities there.

Captain O’Leary, in turn, initiated an investigation, and a narcotics bureau raid occurred early in April. As MPIC has done in the past, we worked closely with City agencies—SFPD and the City Attorney’s Office—whose speedy and effective action resulted in the abatement of this problem: the tenant has moved out. The MPIC thanks Captain O’Leary, Sergeant Miller and City Attorney Frank Brass for their dedication to solving this issue.

Two other drug houses have been closed in the past as the result MPIC’s work with City agencies, and we are proud of these successes. We encourage all neighbors to become well acquainted with one another so that if any suspicious activity does occur, it can be immediately identified and addressed. Please contact the MPIC should you suspect such activity.

Sunnyside Park Plans Get Attention

by Andrea O’Leary

On April 2, Commission President Larry Martin and Rec. & Park Dept. upper managers came to the neighborhood where fifty residents again expressed their desire for an open space floor plan for Sunnyside’s recreation center building renovation.

Stakeholders were adamant that there would be only one office for the Recreation Director and no “secured” rooms at both ends of the small building, as revised by the Operations Division. Recreation and Parks claimed that the community preferred plan, “Alt.3,” would exceed the budget by $127,000, forgetting to remind attendees that this second phase is possible only because of surplus dollars from the major park renovation, and not presenting a budget to support their claims.

The matter was placed on the April 17 Commission agenda where Project Manager Meghan Tiernan was not convincing that exceeding the budget was a certainty. The design budget was already spent developing a not-approved plan, and now they cannot reach into the construction budget to conform to the originally approved plans. “Alt. 3” would require a little more demolition of old walls, but the closed-in plan would have required costly glass walls and doors. A visit to the clubhouse with Capital Div. Dir. Rhoda Parhams revealed that when closed almost two years ago, it had been left in very sad condition. Nonetheless, advocates feel that anything will be an improvement and can be achieved within budget if the costs for items like new roofing are kept within reason instead of the ever-changing inflated prices.

From this experience, RP Commissioners are asking themselves if they should adopt a new Policy requiring the RPD Capital Division to bring back projects being considered for changes beyond the Commission approved conceptual designs. This would assure citizens that decisions made during the public process will be honored over the desires of RPD staff, and that requests for additional funds are warranted. Staff was asked if any citywide capital projects have come in on-budget; perhaps one, but staff could not recall which. The only project under-budget is Sunnyside. All other capital projects have exceeded budgets. In order to complete over-extended projects, requests are made of the Commission for more funds, often with no more of an explanation than “unforeseen problems.” This repeated occurrence ultimately deprives other neighborhoods of their rightful share; one reason Sunnyside did not receive its original 2000 bond allotted amount. Tax paying residents must be vigilant in following design processes and budgets in order to get the results they expect or find that, at ribbon cutting ceremonies, doors are reopened to unfamiliar results.

Q & A: Installing Solar on Your Home

As residents of San Francisco we pay some of the highest rates for electricity in the country; as residents of Miraloma Park we have more than our share of fog; and as residents of the planet we want to do our part to prevent environmental damage. To find out if a home solar installation is justifiable in our neighborhood, we asked Newton Don, a Chartered Financial Analyst, longtime energy consultant, and Miraloma Park resident to clarify the situation for us.

Let’s start with the money: What do we currently pay for electricity (cents per kilowatt-hour)? How have these rates changed, and how are they expected to change in the future?

According to PG&E, the typical residential customer uses 580 kWhr per month. For the customer paying the standard E-1 tariff, that’s a bill of $87 to $101 a month. The average price is 16.6 cents per kWhr. Although the residential price increased 11.7% from 2005 to 2006, the average annual rate has increased only about 1% a year since the mid-1990s and about 2% per year since 1980. The Energy Commission’s 2008-2018 demand forecast is based on electricity increasing at the rate of inflation, 2.5% to 3.0% a year.

Your electricity bill may increase much faster than that if you are adding appliances, plasma television, lighting, electronics, etc., that increase your use of electricity. The price of electricity is tiered, meaning that the more you use, the higher the rate. For the average residential use, electricity costs about 22.2 cents per kWhr or less. At the next tier, the price jumps to 30.5 cents per kWhr, and if you are a heavy user, the price is 35 cents per kWhr.

Summarize for us the technology:

What types of solar equipment are available for homeowners?

There are two types of solar cell technologies available: rigid crystalline photovoltaic panels and thin film panels. Both are based on semi-conductor materials that produce direct current electricity. Thin films are less efficient in converting sunlight into electricity but offer the promise of much lower cost in the future. Currently thin film installations are more expensive than rigid panels and require more roof area. However, for some roofs thin film may be the only feasible option for. A few of the largest producers of rigid panels are Sharp, Suntech, BP Solar, Kyocera and Schott. Thin film manufacturers include First Solar and United Solar Ovonics.

How long is a solar installation expected to last? What warrantees are offered by the companies?

Solar panels usually have a 20- to 25-year manufacture’s warranty. The efficiency of the panels declines slowly over time. Panels have been around for a long time, have no moving parts, and are considered to be robust. Thin film installations should be quite durable, but they don’t have the historical experience of crystalline panels. The inverter, the device that converts the direct current produced by the photovoltaic cells to alternating current, will likely need to be replaced in 15 to 20 years, perhaps sooner.

What does the home require (roof area, electrical service, etc.) in order to be able to install solar panels?

The solar installer will analyze the best placement of the solar panels. Ideally, solar panels are installed on a south-facing roof, but this is not necessary. They are elevated at an angle to optimize the capture of sunlight. The solar cells are connected in series to the inverter. The inverter will be located on the side or inside the house and will route the electricity into the house to meet demand; or if demand is less than the output of the inverter, excess electricity will be routed to the grid. The excess electricity runs the meter backward, reducing your cost.

Your electricity tariff will be switched to the time-of-use tariff, E-7. This tariff schedule separates demand into peak, part-peak and off-peak periods. Usually this change works to your advantage, particularly if your demand for electricity is less the solar system’s output during the peak period. Electricity in excess of your demand is sold back to PG&E at a higher price than on the E-1 schedule, thereby reducing your cost.

Will solar panels damage the roof? What if a new roof is needed?

Depending on the installed configuration of the panels, support for the panels may require roof penetration. For some modules, no roof penetrations are needed, so that in theory one could disconnect the panels, set them aside, and perform any re-roofing or roof repairs. If your roof is old, however, you may want to put on a new roof first. You should discuss this with your bidders. In developing a proposal the prospective installer will survey your roof to determine the amount of shading from buildings and trees. Despite the sense that the sun rarely shines during our summer, a solar installation can be feasible.

Is it practical or even possible in this neighborhood to install a system that will make a house completely independent of PG&E’s grid?

To become independent of the PG&E grid using solar, you must be able to store electricity (e.g., using batteries) when the solar system cannot provide all or any of the electricity you need, or you must provide a generator. This will greatly increase the cost of the system. If you use a generator, you will offset the reduction in green house gases from your solar system since the generator will be burning diesel or natural gas. If you remain connected to the grid so that PG&E provides power when the solar system cannot meet your needs, the solar system must automatically shutdown if the grid loses power. The reason for this is to protect the grid and the repair personnel who may be working to restore power.

Is a system practical here that will eliminate the cost of electricity over the course of a year?

It is possible to purchase a large enough system to eliminate the energy charge of electricity. Although you will be taking electricity from PG&E when the solar system cannot meet your needs, the solar system will be selling electricity in excess of your needs to PG&E during the day when the rate is high, and you will be buying electricity from PG&E in the lower rate partial-peak and off-peak periods. You can’t fully eliminate the cost of electricity. As long as you remain connected to the grid, there is a minimum cost.

How much does a system cost?

The government is encouraging the installation of rooftop solar panels through a rather confusing set of financial incentives.

What are these?

The current cost of a residential solar system is about $10 per watt; for a typical 2.5 to 3.0 kWh solar system this comes to between $25,000 and $30,000 before rebates. Prices had been falling until 2005, when large incentives in Germany drove prices higher. Today over half the installed solar capacity is in Germany, closely followed by Japan, with the U.S. a distant third. We can take advantage of financial incentives from federal, state, and city programs. The state rebate is on a sliding schedule, declining as the number of solar installations increases. Currently the rebate is about $1.90 per watt before adjustments for our climate. The federal tax credit is $2,000. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission just started a $4,000 rebate program, but this rebate may be taxable, so the net rebate needs to be reduced by your marginal income tax rate. Putting all this together, for a 2.5 to 3.0 kW system that offsets about half or more of your electricity use, your net cost will be about $15,000 to $20,000.


by Jed Lane
Miraloma Park / Mt Davison NERT Coordinator

I just took the advanced ICS training from FEMA and Home Land Security today. Very interesting but also very basic management for any experienced business manager. The entire point is to standardize the structure used in case of an emergency so that if an ambulance team is sent here from Oregon after the earthquake they can fit right in. It’s a good thing the federal government has decided to make rules so that all of can do things the same way, lessons learned from Katrina and New York. The other side of the coin is that if we are now being told that if a volunteer is not previously trained and they show up asking to be used, we can’t use them due to liability issues. This is what happened in the Cosco Busan oil spill on San Francisco Bay. Please get trained!

There are classes coming up in our neighborhood. Diamond Heights and at Lick Wilmerding on Ocean Ave. Please go to the web site http://www.sfgov.org/site/sfnert for locations and times. If you’re trained you will be less likely to be injured and you might have the honor of saving someone else’s life!

We had a very successful City wide drill with over 300 participants on April 19. I’d also like to thank all of the attendees at the Safety Social we held at our clubhouse earlier this month. Good food, wine and information, it was great to meet my neighbors outside of the open houses I’ve held. Be Safe and Be Prepared.

Contact me with any suggestions on disaster preparedness, neighborhood watch and ways to make our neighborhood better and more beautiful.

p.s. We are still working on the Bella Vista garden project and have just formed the Bella Vista Social Club to that end.

If you would like more information or to join us contact me.

Design Matters

Peter A. Zepponi, AIA – Architect

This is a monthly column addressing basic residential design and home improvement topics of interest to Miraloma Park residents. If you have a question or topic you’d like considered for a future article please send an email to: pazdesignmatters@aol.com or call 415.334.2868. http://www.zepponi-architects.com/

Q: How is the current economy affecting the remodeling market?

A: Increased competition is resulting in more realistic bidding.

There is a lot of discussion about the state of the economy and whether we are in a recession or not. Recently the Chronicle reported on foreclosure rates around the Bay Area and median home values. Only San Francisco and Marin were reported as having an increase in the median home value. San Francisco is a unique housing market because there is a very finite stock of housing since we are surrounded on three sides by water. Unlike many communities once you reach the city limits you can’t just drive another block and find another housing development. As a result, we do not have urban sprawl, because there is no land to sprawl to. The only option we have in this city is to go up vertically, and recently several high rise condos have been popping up all over South of Market to add additional housing. But these are expensive condos, and not single family homes. If you want to live the ‘American dream’ and own a single family home in San Francisco you have to select from one of our existing neighborhoods. The City’s neighborhoods are essentially built out with few lots undeveloped and demolition of existing houses frowned upon by the planning department. All of these factors contribute to a vibrant remodeling industry in San Francisco and helps to stabilize housing prices.

But this is not the case in most other Bay Area communities. Housing prices are dropping, and fewer large scale developments are starting which is creating less work around the Bay Area, and a surplus of labor looking for work in San Francisco. I have seen an increase in unsolicited marketing from out of town contractors hoping to get on my list of bidders. Local contractors are keeping busy, but do not have as much work in queue as in the past several years. The benefit of this for home owners is that for the first time in several years I am seeing realistic groupings of projects bids. Over the last decade is has been very difficult to answer the question:

“How much will it cost?”, because how much it ‘should’ cost and ‘will’ cost were very different. Many contractors were so busy they would either refuse to bid, or bid high because they didn’t really want the project. This made it almost impossible to tell a client how much a project would cost. More than once I would tell a client “this is what is should cost, but if we can’t find a contractor that’s not what it will cost’. I remember a small kitchen remodel in 2001 that should have cost about $50-70K, but received bids from $85-$175K because we couldn’t find someone who wanted to bid. In order to avoid those situations I recommend that clients interview and select contractors during Schematic Design and to get a preliminary cost estimate. That system works well for both parties: The owner because the contractor is involved in cost control from the beginning. The Contractor because they have plenty of time to work you into their schedule.

If you are in a situation where you are considering a remodel project, and have the resources available, now is a great time to look into it. For those with the ability to capitalize upon it, the current economic status has created an opportunity to obtain good value with a remodel project because contractors are competing and also spending more time putting together accurate bids.

* This column and its content are intended to be a source of general information. Applicability to your specific project should be verified.

Is it Something New or the Same Owld?

Owl Never Tell!

Normally I abhor and abjure a pun, good or bad, but this one seemed to force itself upon me quite undeniably. So sorry. You see, circumstances beyond my control, or anybody’s for that matter, have put quite literally into my lap, as I sat enjoying the last of one of our few balmy days in my back yard, a message of great urgency. It was dropped by an Owl flying low over the bushes and uttering softly but voluminously, as owls will, the word—wait for it, you know it’s coming—who. Not “why,” not “wherefore,” not “whence,” not even “whom,” as would be grammatically proper, but simply whooooooo. Now, I don’t want to steal Harry Potter’s thunder—the last thing I need is to get sued by Ms. Rowling for the use of one of her fantasies (never mind it’s been used many a time before she got a grip on it)—and I don’t really have to, because this actually happened. Having thoroughly captured my attention, to the extent that I even neglected to fend off the evening mosquitoes emerging to feast (did I ever tell you about the landlord I had who refused to buy screens because, he said, there were no bugs in San Francisco?), the Owl circled neatly, braked just above, and dropped a cleverly tied scroll into my lap, before vanishing so silently I would have doubted she’d ever come without the proof now clutched in my trembling (oh, I can be so melodramatic) fingers. And unrolled, scratching a nicely placed bite between my knuckles, to find, in a strange and powerful cursive . . . well, you read it, my friends, and let me know what you make of it.-Ed

People of Miraloma Park, I must warn you of a grave and immanent danger. Peaceably tucked in our Glen Park Canyon nest, far above the madding crowd that comes daily to point cameras at us, the milling dogs and gawking birders, I and the husband keep watch over matters germane to both you and us.

We do it for the two owlets, of course, but also because we are the night watchcreatures of this place, and what concerns us ought to concern you. In good faith, we must report that late nights from the bushes round about our little creek has come to our supersensitive ears the sound of large paws padding. Very large paws. Now, we are not liable to have confused mice, squirrels, and the like, which actually provide our dinner, with something as sizable as this. Well aware are we too that the Giant Mt. Davidson Easter Bunny has been afoot in recent months, it being the Easter Bunny time of year, but we all know that particular species, Lepus Gigantoconious, seldom ventures beyond the 40-odd (and sometimes very odd) acres of Mt. Davidson Park.
Besides, this was no bold and brazen wopper bunny thumping—no, it was stealthy, it was cunning, it was large but invisible even to our keen eyes, and, worst of all, it laughed, a particularly ominous sort of soft laugh, we might well say, a snicker. A whispery, snorting snicker, below your human hearing range, but quite within ours.

What might it be? Your legends of the Abominable Snowman leap to the ready mind, yet this footfall was fourlegged, that much we could tell. And the Abominable has never been reported to go on all fours or to frequent snowless terrain, much less to snicker. Take heed, neighbors, and be vigilant, insofar as your limited senses allow, for something is stirring in idyllic Glen Park Canyon. But we watch through the night while you sleep tight, and we’ll let you know when we do. It cannot be long now, with coming, with going, with winging high and winging low, we will know, and then you will too, whooooo.

MPIC Elections

Following is the slate of candidates for the June election as chosen by the Nominating Committee:

Standing for a 2-year term as Director: Phil Laird, Mike Naughton, Joanne Whitney, JoAnn Eastep, Gary Isaacson, Cassandra Mettling-Davis, Karen Wood, Jim O’Donnell, Robert Gee, Jim Ilardo, Jed Lane, and Pam Dickey
Standing for a 2-year term as Officer: Mike Naughton for President, Gary Noguera for Vice President, Phil Laird for Treasurer, and Joanne Whitney for Sergeant at Arms.

Nominations from the floor will be accepted from 7:30 to 8 PM on Thursday, May 15. Nominations from the floor can only be made by members (renters, homeowners, property owners, or business owners in Miraloma Park) who are in good standing at the time of the May 15 meeting (i.e., 2008 dues paid by April 15). After this, all nominations will be closed and the slate will be final. Voting will then take place on June 19 from 7:30 to 8:30 pm.

No formal program will be presented at the election, but we encourage all Miraloma Park residents to come and partake of light refreshments and conversation with the candidates and ongoing Directors and Officers. All Members (renters, homeowners, property owners, or business owners in Miraloma Park) in good standing at the June 19 meeting (i.e., dues paid by May 19), please come and submit your votes. The doors will open at 7:30 and close at 8:30.

Peter Renteria has decided not to run for re-election as Director so that he will have more time for retirement pursuits. Peter has rendered excellent service to the MPIC and to the community during his time on the Board, and we intend to keep him busy with special assignments when he is not off in Hawaii suffering in that terrible mild climate and longing for the fog of Mt. Davidson.

A New Old Tradition

Summer Creative Writing Festival
June 29 from 2-4

Come Fall in many years past, the MPIC has hosted a Creative Writing Festival to which all writers of fiction, poetry, and essays from Miraloma Park and surrounding neighborhoods were invited to read their work and (if any be published), to offer it for sale. This year, we want to renew this tradition while changing it in one respect: we’ll have it on June 29 from 2-4 PM instead of October. We give this advance notice (a reminder will appear in the June newsletter) so that writers can think about which of their works they would like to read or read from, and polish them to a fine glow over the next 2 months.

Dan Liberthson, writer and poet, will be the event coordinator. He will bring his newest book, The Pitch is on the Way: Poems About Baseball and Life, with 50 poems about the game of summer, its players, staff, and fans, as well as 21 drawings by a professional artist (see Liberthson.com for more information). Peter Magowan, the owner of the San Francisco Giants, thought so highly of this book that he wrote a glowing introduction and is featuring it in Giant’s Dugout stores.

Whether you have a published book or not, whether you are a career writer or a dabbler, whether your topic is personal or a political essay, summery or blustery, funny or sad, please don’t be shy—bring 10 to 15 minutes of your own creation to read to an audience dedicated to enjoying itself and your work on a lazy (we would say warm, but what are the chances of that in Miraloma Park in late June?) Sunday afternoon.

The Breaks, Kid

Flames spark from the heels of the Fastest Boy on Earth.
He can catch anything, shallow or deep, right or left.
Special springs in his feet jump him high.
Magic glyphs inked on his glove lure the ball.
A dragon circles the thumb, a viper crosses the web.
Supersonic, he runs and dives for a fungo to short right,
skimming the grass belly-down like that snake.

Out, out he stretches, till his glove snaps up its prey.
“Way to hustle!” Coach yells, “d’you kids see that guy?”
The Fastest Boy balloons with pride until he floats away.
Up in the sky, he has no clue he’ll never again rise so high.
Coach puts him at third next day, there to pass the season
grubbing grounders from the dirt, watching them squirt
between his legs, or throwing way wild over first base,
as if the ball sought a mate among those high flies he’d chased.

©2008, Dan Liberthson For more, see Liberthson.com

A Tale of Two Pools in the Valley of the Moon

by Geoffrey Coffey

Water paints with shifting colors the divided contours of the Valley of the Moon. Blues and greens of oak and bay forests on protected north-facing slopes complement the fire and earth tones of chaparral on the south-facing sides. Here at the southern end of the basin, riotous riparian woodlands follow snaking Stuart Creek through a steep canyon to Agua Caliente, the pepper of volcanic springs beneath the valley floor. Lowland meadows collect water in seasonal puddles, where vivid wildflowers come and go with the equinox.

On two sides of the Old Sonoma Highway, one such meadow is divided by two authorities. The southwest side of the field falls within the boundaries of Sonoma Valley Regional Park, a public 162-acre parcel near Glen Ellen; the northeast side belongs to the Bouverie Preserve, a 500-acre jewel in the private necklace of Audubon Canyon Ranch.

A former quarry beside the Bouverie visitor center (rumored to have supplied the stone for the nearby Jack London House) is today a vernal pool, a depression of hardpan that fills with water in winter and goes bone dry in summer. Smaller pools and swales sweep the adjacent meadow in a network of linked seasonal wetlands – until they are interrupted by Highway 12 – then continue as another isolated system on the other side of the road. Spring sees the transition from flood to drought in these unforgiving flats, a mere sliver of time in which a succession of highly adapted native plants take the stage and dance with the reaper for a week or two, then disappear again.

Just now in the quarry, popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys stipitatus var. micranthus) and wooly marbles (Psilocarphus brevissimus var. revissimus) are on the back side of their annual appearance. Both are called “belly flowers” because you need to get down on your belly to see them. The popcorn flower has a thin green stem and tiny white flowers; the wooly marbles look like felt, a sweep of low-growing grey-green shaggy foliage and a post-bloom seed pod like cotton balls; both species occur in sweeps at the edges of vernal pools and flats. These flowers start to fade in May, and next month they will be gone — but we can only trust that insect pollinators have done their jobs, to coax the setting of seed that will bring back the flowers next year.

Last month saw the rise and fall of the annual dwarf downingia or Downingia pusilla, a rare plant in California (though common in the vernal pools of Chile) that sprouts to a mature height of one inch. Fifty of these blossoms could fit on the face of a penny; each resembles a tiny white five-pointed star, with a three-lobed upper lip touched in gold. This year’s plants have already passed on, but their twisted seeds lie waiting in the sun-baked earth, patient for the return of the rains.

Before that it was Blennosperma nanum var. nanum, a small but showy annual with a bright yellow bloom in March, mass quantities of which light up the margins of vernal pools in golden rings. The rays of this micro-sunflower are thrown back as if in joy, thrusting up the disc flowers to the light in a gesture of enthusiasm or Eros. But it too has followed the mandate of its annual lifecycle, and won’t be seen again until next spring.

These sequential waves of dominant species coming and going are parallel to the natural patterns that occur in any ecosystem — but here the fast rate of succession renders the effect more dramatic.

Once upon a time, the native plant communities of the vernal pools enjoyed a high degree of invulnerability from competition: no other plants could live under such extreme conditions, especially in the nutrient-poor substrate that results from a centuries-long cycle of rain-fed inundation and sun-driven evaporation. But the airborne pollution of mankind has leveled the playing field: smog settles in microscopic particles upon the land, altering soil chemistry and fertility.

Studies have revealed that Bay Area smog sends “dry deposits” of nitrogen molecules into the soil of adjacent wildlands at the approximate annual rate of 20 pounds per acre, the equivalent of five large bags of concentrated industrial lawn fertilizer per acre per year via the tailpipes of our cars. Emboldened by all that nutritious nitrogen, weedy European grasses are storming the vernal swales.

Vigorous pests like ripgut, wild oats, Italian rye, and other monoculturalists have swept in from the hillsides, as they have done across the entire state; their taller habit shades out the low-growing natives and annihilates them.
The ratio of exotic to native in California is now so lopsided, we can never go back. But we can manage the infection. Better yet, we can learn from it.

On the Bouverie side of the road, ecologist Dan Gluesenkamp keeps an eye on the meadow. He mows certain patches, pulls weeds by hand, and recently introduced a grazing program with “conservation cowboy” Joe Pozzi (a fourth-generation Sonoma Co. rancher), who fenced the perimeter and introduced two dozen head of cattle. These animals prefer to eat the nitrogen-rich exotic plants, rather than the low-nitrogen natives; their occasional nibbles on native upland bunchgrasses only mimic the mouths of elk and other now-extirpated ungulates of yore. These cows are a boon for the beleaguered native plants. Many open space managers consider moderate grazing a crucial element of modern grassland management, and perhaps vernal swales should fall under this rubric as well. In a few months or so, the cattle will be moved along to avoid overgrazing.

Gluesenkamp is gathering data on the multi-level changes wrought by the grazing program upon the plant and animal populations of the vernal swales. Changing plant composition will influence the insect and annelid communities, for example, which could affect the diets of local birds. These ever-widening spheres of influence are deep and interconnected beyond measure – but Gluesenkamp gives it a try. Using smaller “exclosures” within the larger enclosure, he charts the rise and fall of exotic slugs in a system with or without cows. He also keeps similar exclosures on the margins of the upland forest to study the effects of the exploding populations of exotic wild turkeys. Ongoing plant surveys triage struggling species, monitor ongoing operations, and assess future management choices, all based on observable data.

Across the road in Sonoma Valley Regional Park, by contrast, allocations for resource observation and protection are currently negligible to nil, and the only fenced enclosure designed for animals is a one-acre off-leash dog park. Alas, the hound playground was built within the reaches of the vernal swale system, so that canine waste now surely figures in the complex seasonal wetland equation.

But plans are afoot for the regional park and the Bouverie preserve to cooperate on an important new project. The rare and endangered Blennosperma bakeri spotted here in March 2004 on the regional park side of the road will be studied and protected.

Gluesenkamp hopes for a joint effort with the park, starting with a foundation of science: measuring the levels of nitrogen deposition here from Highway 12, counting the B. bakeri plants (probably somewhere between 100 and 100,000), and determine if the population is expanding or shrinking. This information would inform the direction of a nascent (and, one hopes, ongoing) management program.

A good, easy first step would be simply to mow the exotic grasses in the swales annually, early in the season — some would question why this hasn’t already been done. Lack of funding appears to be the primary obstacle, or perhaps inertia. There’s a fine line between laissez-faire and neglect, between improvement and decline, between flowers that go dormant as reproductive strategy and species that are dead. Education and public awareness can play an important role in lobbying for change. We work for the seeds of the future, wherever they may fall.

Find more by author Geoffrey Coffey at http://www.geoffreycoffey.com/