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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Jul 13

The Element of Surprise

Posted on July 13, 2018 at 11:00 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Have you ever walked into your garden and found a bit of vegetation emerging that you know you didn’t plant? I am not talking about a weed. (Okay, I will give you that one since by definition any unwanted plant is a weed.) I am talking about a little greenery growing in an obscure part of the garden, or the fuzzy leaf that drives your curiosity to allow it to grow. Surely I am not the only inquisitive gardener who wants to see the results of these self-sown seeds? 

Twice this summer I’ve been enthralled by these elements of surprise. Allowing these plants to grow has led to two unexpected and polar opposite results. 

pansyWhile sweeping around the hot tub, I noted an intense purple flower off the back side of the deck. There, within the confines of the boulders beneath the deck, grew the perfect pansy. This plant is thriving on its own in the shade of a large tree and without much in the way of nutrients … at least, none that I can see or assisted with providing! Over the years, duff from the tree above apparently settled into the crevices of the native boulders, and time has turned that duff into a growing medium rich enough to support this little treasure.

The other surprise came in the form of what I assumed to be a native plant growing in front of the four-foot-tall birdbath that provides a focal point for the living room windows. The gray-green fuzzy leaves seemed demure at the beginning of spring. However, the plant was soon growing at warp speed. I felt as if I were watching a “Jack and the Beanstalk” cartoon. This mystery plant is now well over six feet tall and creating a new focal point completely blocking the view of the birdbath from the house.

mystery plantI had no clue what was growing. Even with poring over my extensive library, checking the Calscape website, and throwing out pictures to friends who know their native plants, the mystery plant remained just that—a mystery. It took a retired MMWD plant aficionado to come back with the answer. Can I stump the stars of this blog and challenge you to identify this beauty? (Hint: It is not a native after all.) Stay tuned next week for the answer.

Current gardening trends seem to encourage a freedom to mix plants up. Clovers and daisies mixed with lawn grasses are frequently found on landscape websites. Formal clipped hedges are allowed to grow freeform. Meadows, rain gardens and wildflower gardens add an element of surprise as seeds are carried to other parts of the garden by birds and the winds. This is an exercise in restraint if you are willing to allow the garden to naturalize. One major plus is less water will be needed and, depending on your tolerance, less maintenance. How many of you can rise to the challenge and let it grow? I can promise some delightful surprises … not to mention puzzles to solve!

Jul 06

July in the Garden

Posted on July 6, 2018 at 8:08 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

July can be a stressful time in the garden—for our plants, that is. The cause? Our plants are putting on more growth as well as more fruit and flowers, the sunlight hours are longer, and the evapotranspiration (ET) rate has reached its peak. This is the time when our plants typically require more water than any other time of the year. 

 plant wilted in summer sun
 Plant wilted in summer heat

 succulent leaf types
Succulent leaf types
Evapotranspiration is the water lost from exposed soil through evaporation and from plants through transpiration (people perspire, plants transpire). Plants may wilt or experience burned leaf tips if they cannot get enough moisture to compensate for the lost water. 

Water loss from soil is a relatively easy fix. When covered with a thick layer of organic mulch, the soil will retain moisture far longer than soil exposed to the sun. Mulch will also keep the roots of your plants cooler, allowing them to access more available water to keep them viable during the heat of the day. Additionally, mulch helps limit unwanted competition, as weed seeds have difficulty germinating under mulch. Weeds can and do rob your plants of needed water!

Plant transpiration is a bit more difficult to control. Choosing low-water-use plants for the hot sun exposures of the garden or native plants that go dormant during the summer are a few options to offset the amount of moisture required during July. Plants with thick succulent- or leather-type leaves retain their own reservoirs of water, and are another great choice for the sun. 

But what of existing plants that tend to wilt despite the moisture content in the soil? First of all, when planting moderate- to high-water-using plants with a lot of foliage surface (like hydrangeas), consider the exposure where they are placed in the garden. The recipe for success for these types of plants is to choose a location receiving morning sun and afternoon shade to save them from heat-wilt. Consider, too, that their large, thin and abundant leaves require a lot more water to keep them turgid. Thus their wilting doesn’t necessarily mean these types of plants are lacking water. It is only their inability to draw the water up fast enough to offset the plant from wilting. Typically, as evening approaches, the wilting plant will recover without damage or, at worst, might experience some burned leave edges. 

Another idea to help sun-exposed plants through heat spells is to provide shade cloth cover during the dog days of summer heat. Constructing a tent or lean-to to protect the thin leaves will ward off the scorching heat from the direct sunlight. You might think of that shade cloth cover as the equivalent of our sunblock lotions. Shade cloth even comes in different percentages providing different levels of protection from the sun.

Most important, while our plants are experiencing stressful days ahead, remember that we, too, must remain hydrated and plan our time in the sun accordingly.
Jul 05

I Will Always Be Grateful

Posted on July 5, 2018 at 1:17 PM by Ann Vallee

by Lubna Mulla, Tamalpais High School, MMWD 2018 Water Scholar

I moved to Mill Valley from Rander, a small town in India where we frequently didn't have drinking water for the entire day. There were only a couple of hours a day when we had access to drinkable water. My family had to go to a community tap with our containers. Some days there would be no water at all or only dirty water. Finding it was an all-consuming daily activity. Many days, we were forced to buy expensive bottled water. It continues to amaze me that people in Marin buy bottled water even when we have safe water readily available from our tap. It seems like such an unnecessary waste contributing to the plastic pollution in the ocean.

Growing up with these experiences I have a unique appreciation for clean readily available drinking water. This is not something that I would ever take for granted. I still marvel when I turn on the tap and clean water comes out. I am so appreciative to the Marin Municipal Water District for providing me with this service. I am not sure people here can fully appreciate how lucky they are. According to the World Health Organization 3 in 10 people worldwide lack safe drinking water at home. That means that 2.1 billion people don't have what we have in Marin. I doubt that most people here ever think about these statistics. Maybe if we worked harder to educate our community, we could collectively come up with more creative solutions to help solve the complex problem of worldwide safe and clean water. 

In researching the importance of clean water, I discovered that "sanitation and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of all deaths." That is a huge number of people who are impacted. It is important for our community to have clean water because many diseases come from drinking dirty water. I was surprised to learn that “less than 1% of water on the earth can be used by people." The rest is either salt water, groundwater or frozen.

In Marin, we are more ecologically responsible than in many communities but we still have work to do to educate our community members. In school I can only remember one time in the last four years that a discussion of water was part of the curriculum. That was in my Economics class where we studied policies enforced by the U.S. Government for saving water. Our schools should be teaching about water conservation and what each of us should be doing at home. As our Marin population grows, this problem will only get more critical.

Within my Indian community, I realize that I could take a more active role in explaining water conservation to the new immigrants. I have heard my neighbor's shower run for at least thirty minutes. I am thinking of putting up signs in English and Gujarati explaining the importance of conservation and what each family can do to help. Simple solutions like shorter showers, repairing leaks, not letting the water run, and watering the plants in the morning could help make a difference. Immigrants coming from countries where they were not taught water conservation might not be familiar with the customs here. That would have been the case with my family. We have relatives who were already here and they helped us understand how water distribution and management is different here. We didn't know that we could drink out of the tap. That had never been our experience.

People tend to only think about water when there is a drought and we are forced to conserve. On the MMWD website, I read that compared to 55 inches of rain at this time last year, we only have 18 inches of rain this year. Because of the Marin reservoir system, we have the ability to store water during the good times. Looking at your website, I noticed that the current reservoir levels are above 90 percent. I am afraid that this might lead people to not focus on the importance of saving water every year. We couldn't survive without clean water. According to the Global Health and Education Foundation "each person on Earth requires at least 20 to 50 liters of clean, safe water a day for drinking, cooking, and simply keeping themselves clean." I am curious what the statistics for individual water consumption are for Marin. Water is fundamental to our survival. We couldn't live without it.

One of the reasons that Marin is so green and beautiful is because we are fortunate enough to have rain that runs down Mt. Tam into our reservoirs and streams. Not only does it make our environment attractive but it also replenishes our water supply and makes our lives comfortable. Other parts of the United States are dealing with more serious water crisis. Flint, Michigan has taught us what happens when a series of bad decisions leads to people not being able to turn on their tap and feel safe. Other parts of the country are dealing with severe droughts and still other places are facing massive flooding.

Foresight, planning, and public education in Marin has spared us these extremes. We are so much more aware here. I don’t think Marin would be as desirable as it is today if we didn't have readily available clean and safe drinking water. We can never assume that we have solved the problem. This will be an ongoing discussion among our community members as we face changing weather patterns in the future. For now, I am going to enjoy having the luxury of not worrying about where my next glass of water is coming from. Our community is so much luckier than so many places in the world that don't have what we have. I have come a long way, from searching for water daily and hoping to not get sick to being able to just turn on the tap and drink. For that, I will always be grateful.

Lubna MullaAbout Lubna

I am currently a senior at Tamalpais High School and from the next school year, I will be attending the Dominican University of California as a Biological Sciences major. I was born into a Sunni Muslim family in India, I moved to the United States when I was eleven. English is my third language. I also speak Gujarati, Hindi, and Spanish. I live with my parents and two elder sisters. I really love and respect my family; we support each other during our hard times and happy times. My parents encourage me to study hard and make them proud. I am really motivated to go to college because I know that without an education life is incredibly challenging. I am so grateful to be able to have big dreams, along with the ability to achieve them. This would never have been possible for a young Muslim girl in India.