Living in the Plate Boundary and Through the Ice Ages
Guest Speaker: Tanya Atwater
7:30pm, Thursday, Oct 16th, 2014
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

The geology and  landscapes of California are the results of a long history of plate tectonic interactions. The majestic granite walls of Yosemite, the rich agricultural soils of the Central Valley, and the wild-colored rocks of the Coast Ranges all reflect a long history of subduction. Our present beloved topography of dramatic mountains and sweet valleys reflect the evolution of the San Andreas plate boundary. In turn, all these features have been modified by sea level and climate changes during the ice ages. Using maps, landscape images and computer animations, Atwater will describe and explain all these geo-treasures.

You can read more about Atwater and her background here. In the 70s, she wrote about the origins and growth of the San Andreas fault, and contributed to our current understanding of a then nascent idea — it sometimes seems hard to believe that plate tectonics is a new idea! For a little teaser of what she has to show — see the video below…

(Notes by Joel)

John Scarpulla talked to us September 18th, 2014, about the Living Machine at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) building SF Headquarters. John is a project manager, not an engineer. Very informative.

PUC headquarters: a well built building. Safe place in a quake. Command center for emergency operations. Features: Rainwater harvesting in preschool play area made of spongey material that’s permeable. Collects the water there and uses it to irrigate street trees.

The system called the Living Machine, a million and a half gallons per year. Not a large project compared to the 65 million gallons per **day** that the SF sewage treatment plants treat, but an example, a demonstration site. And a chance to test processes, including permits and ordinances. Wastewater treatment out in the open. Integrate technology into the neighborhood providing green in tenderloin.

Building is separately “dual plumbed” for potable water from the Hetch Hetchy system and wastewater internal system.

Water flows from primary tank to flow equalization tank to wetlands to building in a 48 hour loop. Flows from 7 to 7; none at night or weekend. Wetlands are in sidewalk, lobby and then the water cycles through the basement systerms.

Primary treatment tank is called and looks like a big “hotdog” and they needed a permit for that because it goes under the sidewalk.

First, a trash chamber separates things that shouldn’t have been flushed.

Second, a settling chamber removes a lot of the settleable and floatable solids. The solids are processed elsewhere. They don’t manage solids on site because the site’s too small.

The cycle is in waves, sending batches into the system with a 3000 gallon equalization tank. Recirculating tank for water available to go back to toilets is 6000 gallons. Wastewater treatment of 5000 gallons a day.

Nature wetlands, etc. process water by slowing the flow and cleaning the water but this speeds it up while cleaning it.

One way they do that is with “tidal” action. Water fills and then goes down like a tide every 58 minutes. Process quickly because the plant roots and soils are exposed to an influx of oxygen when water is low and organic microorganisms when the water is up. Most of the solids that were suspended in the water are removed by this process. Both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria involved. Self sustaining.

Ramped up population at the beginning, two years ago: Plants got inoculated then synthetic wastewater (milk solids and ammonia) were fed to it until real nutrients came into the system when building opened. Gradually reducing synthetic wastewater as human use increased so microorganisms kept stabilized.

Off gassing of nitrogen tells what population of microorganisms is like.

Department of Public Health (DPH) required wastewater to stay six inches below topsoil, so there are overflow vents to the sewer system preventing sidewalk overflows. Four inches under there’s a mesh to keep people from digging into the wastewater. No odors because subsurface vent sucks in and odors are emitted through a rooftop carbon filter scrubber.

Reasons particular plants were picked: Marsh plants can stand water in their roots all day every day. Must be tolerant of high nutrient levels. North side gets no sun. Plants have to be able to survive those conditions.

Landscape architect new to this but experienced engineer that has done this system before.

Batch sizes depend on whether it’s raining and day of the week. People are not in the building weekends.

Golden Gate Avenue side is the tidal flow wetland. Polk is the vertical flow wetland: one pass through of the water there first to cell 2a, then down hill to cell 2b. Light tan tint to the water after going through the wetlands. The filtering is then complete so it goes into the interior lobby plants which are a different plant pallet with species that like more sun.

“Acre Café” is in the lobby area twenty feet from the treatment.

There are pumps in addition to gravity. Twenty percent of California’s electrical and 30 percent of natural gas in the state is used for water systems. Living machine uses 75 to 90 percent less power than other systems available because they all use force through a membrane and this does not.

The water gets disinfected with UV light and a little chlorine in tablet form like a pool before it goes to the toilets again. There is one building in Toronto trying something similar that decided not to do chemical treatment and the mold growth became a public health and operational concern.

The system is entirely operated by computer from control room or from desktop computer or smartphone. Fully automated.

Aqua Nova specializes in wetlands.

DPW (Public Works) was involved because it was a large public building being built. Permits: No regulatory rules existed for this so they had to create some. DPH and DBI (Department of Building Inspection) and PUC signed letter of agreement. Will test yearly and inspect plus send results to DPH. Choloform, Turbidity, Oxygen load, etc. In the system itself, sampling is the biggest time draw. Otherwise little for humans to do to maintain it, oh except: Maintenance is big because warmth attracts sleeping, then there’s vandalism. People steal the plants and they have to be replaced.

Inreach wasn’t done as well as they wanted. For an agency of 2300 only about a dozen people came to the one inreach meeting. Outreach was good though.

Project purpose: help ask How can we get other building designers to rethink? In large residential, about half is nonpotable. 95 % in commercial buildings.

City ordinance introduced: Now any building in SF can reuse blackwater, graywater, stormwater (hits ground), rainwater (hits roof), or groundwater.

Amended an ordinance: Buildings can now share non-potable water between them but only by contract, whether paid or free.

If you go into the sidewalk you need a “minor encroachment” permit and it street then “major encroachment” permit.

PUC’s nonpotable guidebook is available from John. Grants from PUC are available for certain sized buildings to encourage development of more such systems or similar. If you expect to offset enough per year you get the grant.Moscone and Transbay and others will use from groundwater systems on sumps. Sump water doesn’t need all the plant cycle stuff, just filter and UV.

The Bullet Center and two military systems in San Diego are using black water, otherwise most systems that exist now are sump (groundwater) or storm water.

John Todd is the inventor of the living machine and calls himself an ecological engineer.

AAA Clifornia Automobile Association building had a groundwater system but was a failure due to high iron in the water. (Different locations have different minerals in groundwater.) gave them orange toilet stains so they only operated it a month. Redid building and took the system out.

In PUC building graywater and blackwater both treated combined, so it all is called black water.

Gray water reuse for homes was allowed as of last year by state law changes. Became okay for using indoors in January 2014.

Airport has a hidden and fenced-in staff building that does the same full system for blackwater but only 475 people work there.

Solar panels produce 12 percent of the buildings energy and the wind turbines 1.5 percent so easily covers the system pumps and UV.

Spreck Rosekrans came to us August 21st, 2014 to make the case for restoring Hetch Hetchy from reservoir to valley. The dam just passed its 100th anniversary in 2013, but what was hugely controversial at that time (more than 200 newspapers opposed, and John Muir famously broken-hearted by the decision) is now something of which most San Franciscans are proud.

Spreck spent only a little of his time on the “why” of making the effort. We lost this special place, and many people regretted the choice to dam it at the time, and today we have a chance to correct that mistake and restore an iconic place. To do that would show not just values, but also show that we can make meaningful water reform (not something that seems to come easily to Californians). The arguments (which Spreck also layed out) against it are many — people feel that the water is SF’s birthright, that Hetch Hetchy was a swamp, that we are actually protecting the valley, and there’s hydro power from the dam, the cost of removing it, and that we need more storage not less.

The main thrust of the talk was on the practical question of: if we removed the dam, how would we actually supply the water coming into the pipes of the 2.4 million people? It is not a pie-in-the-sky, wishy-washy notion as one might first think. EDF hired 2 mainstream engineering firms, and one law firm to look into what it would take (this resulted in a publication called Paradise Regained — the summary on this page gives a pretty good idea of what is proposed).

The amount of water involved is not the biggest. Of 5 big water projects over the last 22 years, Hetch Hetchy would involve less water than 4 (Delta ESA work, Central Valley wetlands, Trinity River, and rivers in the Central Valley). It would mean juggling water from various sources, doing what is known as “water banking”, taking more from the Cherry reservoir. Looking at the dry years, that kind of work (with the removal of the dam) would get is to around 80%.

The last 20% would take working to be more efficient with the water we have, from farming practices, to recycling, to just plain using less. These are things that of course are not easy, but they are things that we can do — and given current state of our reservoirs maybe things we will have to do anyway. At the end of the day though, we could have our cake and eat it too.

Hetch Hetchy left alone will be with us a long time – unlike other dams, silt does not seem to be a great problem there. Choosing to restore the valley to its former glory would no doubt have its complications and difficulties, but that choice is not just a fantasy.

SFPUC HQ as a wastewater treatment system
Guest Speaker: John Scarpulla
7:30pm, Thursday, Sep 18th, 2014
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

The SFPUC built a new building very recently. John Scarpulla will tell us about how the new HQ building functions as a wastewater treatment system using an internal artificial swamp. The building is impressive in a lot of ways: consuming 32% less energy, 60% less water, and a 50% smaller carbon footprint than similarly-sized office buildings.

It is one of the first buildings in the nation with onsite treatment of gray and black water with an onsite “Living Machine” which reclaims and treats all of the building’s wastewater reducing per person water consumption from 12 gallons (normal office building) to 5 gallons.

Julian Lozos came to talk to us on July 17th, 2014 on measuring earthquakes – how they are taken and how they are used with an important distinction between measured and calculated data.

Corona Heights where our Randall sits has very visible evidence of an earthquake. Julian referred to the fault on the side of the hill as a “slip & slide”. It is very rare to be able to see one so exposed — you can see the polish from the pressure and the striations showing which way the surfaces slipped relative to one another.

After a quake, we want to know where was it? How big? Will there be aftershocks? The audience was invited to weigh in on what questions come to mind immediately after feeling a moderately small shake. It turned into a long, interesting discussion. Tsunami turn out to be a low risk in the Bay Area due to distance from faults that cause them. One at north end of the San Andreas (“triple junction” zone) can produce tsunamis but they come at an angle that diminishes them. Northern CA and Oregon north would be hit hard. In the Bay Area, only a landslide displacing lots of water would cause a tsunami. The 1906 SF quake caused a one inch tsunami.

Another way water can be a problem is seiching–water in a basin sloshing around to the point of generating dangerous waves. This would not happen on the Bay, since it’s shallow, but it might be a problem in Lake Tahoe.

Bigger quakes get named, even though the names are often not very directly related to the quake location, in order to give them media handles for discussion and easy identity.

Sections of the Hayward fault are slipping in “seismic creep” that means you can see the gradual movement (about as fast as a fingernail grows) by breaks in walls, buildings, roads. Other parts of the fault, and most of the San Andreas, lock together, building up even more stress as the creeping parts move. The locked parts only move in a rupture, which is another term for an earthquake. Hayward’s old city hall was abandoned because the fault goes right through it. Now that fault is a couple blocks away.

There are various ways earthquakes are measured: Acceleration: which is compared to the acceleration of gravity. Sometimes an earthquake can be more than or even twice the force of gravity. The biggest quakes (by energy released) don’t necessarily produce more shaking movement; it depends on surface composition and all sorts of other factors. Saturated and soft soils shake more.

During a quake, we measure shaking, but some techniques are improving that may give the ability to measure displacement as it happens. Various things are measured: P waves (Pressure; Primary) are like a sound wave in rock. They are the fastest thing emitting from the rupture and arrive first as a result moving at the speed of 6km/second. They feel like the come from below. S waves (Shear; Secondary) are the side to side waves. Love waves (named after a person) come third, more slowly, and are like a tail wagging side to side. Rayleigh waves are most destructive and shake in elliptical motion up and back then down.

P & S waves are generated mostly by the fault itself. Love & Rayleigh are mostly lensing and interference patterns caused by “sloshing” within the bedrock and the soils, waves reflecting off the earth’s mantle, other rock formations, fault surfaces, etc. The bay doesn’t effect the waves’ movement because it’s shallow. If you actually see the ground move in waves that’s probably a big quake and a Rayleigh wave.

Shaking measurement can be a crowd-sourced thing, too. Modified Mercalli Intensity is calculated from “measurements” or qualitative descriptions of many observers reporting how much they felt or damage they saw. Anyone can report in and should report — even if you don’t feel a quake that you heard about — this helps keeps the data accurate. Accelerometers in laptops and other devices (which exist to protect hard drive when dropped) can be networked to be seismographic info sources — all you have to do is download a free small application.

Since the biggest and worst earthquake damage comes last, early warning systems analyze the relationship between the P wave and S wave then try to get things in order before the later waves. This can provide a minute or two warning, depending on the distance to the epicenter — the farther, the more warning. An early warning might allow enough time to turning off gas and machinery, for example. Early warning systems in place since 1986 in Mexico (due to huge Mex City 85 quake) and Japan since 2008. This kind of technology is available now, but currently not for the general public, due to budget shortages and the complexity of psychology of how to get people to react appropriately. Currently PG&E, Google, BART and some others have access to a beta version only.

Earthquakes are located by triangulation using three or more stations. The origin is complex, because multiple places on fault can rupture at once. It might take years of computer models and analysis to determine all the sources, interactions and effects.

Shaking is a direct measurement and is not logarithmic; magnitude is a calculation and is logarithmic. A magnitude 7 has 30 times the energy released in a magnitude 6. Intensity maps created by Mod. Mercalli system have a downfall: they depend on how many people in a region report and how the regions are defined. Historical reconstructions of past quakes can use this method to calculate approximate magnitude of long ago quakes from diaries and news reports. Richter scale is used sparingly, it was designed for the LA Basin specifically and sometimes used for the quick and dirty first approximation. The numbers can change later after humans take a careful look after the original machine analysis. How long an earthquake lasts is one of the main factors in determining total magnitude (energy) released.

An aftershock is another quake, if the aftershock is bigger, than the earlier quake is re-termed a “foreshock”. Aftershocks can help determine length of rupture and depth. If they are getting father apart in time, they are aftershocks. They may or may not get smaller, though.

We can also take measurements after quakes: the offset if the quake rips the surface. A fault may be single line deep down but at surface it splays and splits, so there can be lots of offset measurements. 1906 is the first time offsets were systematically measured and the book of the report is huge. Nowadays LIDAR (portmonteau of ‘light’ and ‘radar’) is done from helicopter lasers. This sends signals to measure things on the ground and change is measure by comparing measurements to old data. InSAR measures deformation from space satellites. GPS is used for ground deformation measurements. They can track locations of fixed points and see that they are really not so fixed. There are so many new sensors that the split itself can now be measured as it happens in some places.

Contrary to popular opinion, small quakes don’t release enough energy to help prevent big ones later. You’d have to have magnitude 4 quakes every few minutes to keep the big one from occurring later. Stresses present when a fault ruptures don’t disappear, they just go and “bother” other faults bringing them closer to failure. Along the ruptured fault, the stress is reduced. At ends and bends the fault  increased stress shoots out. This explains sequences of quakes. We also can’t release stress by bombs but we can measure fault locations by echoes from explosions or ambient vibrations such as traffic. To see what’s happening inside Parkside section of San Andreas, they dug 3km through it and are now getting lots of data from deep inside. It seems magnitude ones hit every 32 hours. Even though it seems like clockwork in some ways, the overall system and larger ruptures are impossibly hard to predict.

Pushing and pulling of the crust is always going to happen on our planet. Faults don’t move except by the end extending and they don’t go away ever, unless that piece of the crust is subducted. Once it’s there, it’s a weak place in the crust and it can break more easily than surrounding areas.

Seismometers have only existed since the 1880s. Layers of soil accumulation show different offsets, and break the old surface at different depths from which years can be calculated. On Hayward fault they’ve done trenching and seven or eight prehistoric quakes show up so they know an average of one big quake every 120 years. On the Red Sea, trenching shows thousands of years of non-frequent quakes with very little deposition due to desert conditions. We can find shaking by precariously balance rocks. How long has it been there without being knocked down? We can tell by sun exposure changes — how long since it eroded into it’s current balanced shape.

Anatolian fault: calculations show that the next part set to go off (if pattern continues) is right by Istanbul. The San Andreas part that is considered highest risk is furthest south in Palm Springs. San Gregorio is “decently high risk” but in water so it’s harder to tell what it’s doing.

Dynamic modeling: more efficient than waiting to see what behaviors a fault shows. Modeling lets you get at the physics of the observations, and allows picking the problem apart into smaller manageable chunks. They can compare the model to past measurements and tell what can we possibly can expect from possible future quakes. This kind of modeling was hard to do until strong recently with ever increasing computing power. Multi-cycle simulators over time use a stress and re-stress model.

All measurements come together to create rupture maps. UCERF maps (# 3 just out last week) includes all the models and measurements. UCERF4 will include current modeling.

Hazard maps are made from the UCERF map and includes the likelihood of a rupture based on the underlying geology.

Fracking only produces small “induced” quakes and only if it’s done in an area where other faults exist and can be triggered. Southern CA for example would be a bad place to do fracking. They won’t make a fault, but any old place might have some old faults — like Oklahoma. The cause of these fracking quakes isn’t the frack but the reinjection of the water into the ground.

Quake predictions are not possible. The debate now is not: can we predict quakes with what we know; it’s, ‘Will we ever be able to know?’ These are inherently chaotic systems and may be too hard to ever predict.


  • Most powerful quake measured: Chile 1960 was magnitude 9
  • 911 was about magnitude 3
  • Hiroshima was magnitude 6
  • A 50 megaton bomb would be magnitude 7
  • The space rock that killed the dinos was mag 13!

Restore Hetch Hetchy
Guest Speaker: Spreck Rosekrans
7:30pm, Thursday, August 21st, 2014
FREE at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco, CA 

Restore Hetch Hetchy is a grassroots non-profit organization seeking to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to its original condition.

Constance Taylor on June 19th, 2014 show us that the estuary Lake Merritt — sitting in the middle of a now dense Oakland — was once much more. It’s muddy tidal flats used to extend to where three of Oakland’s theaters sit, the Paramount, the Grand Lake, and the old parkway. It’s tidal channel was huge. The edges of the estuary were thick with grasses, tule, pickle weed, willows, and oak. Salmon, grizzlies, and elk could be found there, ducks could blacken the sky. The Ohlone, hunted there.

In the 200+ years since the Spanish came, the lakes edges have been gradually swallowed up by our streets, the mud flats covered. The “lake” is still connected to the bay and is influenced by its tides, but the waters are now regulated by a flood control station, so the tidal flushing is much less than it once was. The inflows are still there, but rains and our water systems bring down everything we leave on the street, trash and more.

And yet, life still seems to thrive here. Part of this is due to the protection the lake received early on. Mayor Merritt in the 1860s had a house built nearby and (so the story goes) got fed up with hunters when a cow of his was shot. It was declared a wildlife refuge in 1870, the first of its kind (at least in the West), and became a model for protections placed on other parts of the country. Bird islands were constructed at various times to allow for nesting habitat, and the islands, and parts of the waters remain off limits to people and their boats. Recent renovations thanks to a ballot measure are working on the tidal channel, exposing more mud flats, and making the channel more channel like (most prominently reworking where water flows under streets).

A recent bioblitz species survey done by the volunteers turned up 236 species in 5.5 hours of looking. Cormorants nest there most prominently, but you can also find black crowned night herons, snowy egrets, great blue herons, brown & white pelicans, caspian terns, cooper’s hawks, red tailed hawks, hummingbirds, grebes, crows, ravens, canadian geese, and all manner of gulls, ducks, and song birds.  Some of these like pelicans, egrets, and night herons weren’t seen here 30 years ago — they’ve come back from the brink after DDT did in their numbers.

You might also find things like the white line sphinx moth, the hummingbird moth, pseudoscorpions, a species of sand hopper crustacean that only lives in a small stretch of sand in Lake Merritt and in Chile.

There’s raccoons, squirrels (brought in by homesick easterners), skunks, and feral cats. There has also been and an otter which showed up one day in 2013.

In the water (which at its deepest is 10′) holds smelt, herring, moon jellies, bat rays, and leopard sharks. Come at the right time and you’ll find brown pelicans patrolling the shores diving, or at other times white pelicans floating scooping wide swathes of water. You can watch cormorants, coots, and eared grebes swimming through the water chasing small fish with astonishing agility.

There are also our invertebrates like spaghetti worms, crabs, snails, zooplankton, tintinnids, and phytoplankton. Much of the plants around the lake have been cultivated and planted there, but in the water there grows widgeon grass (which periodically gets mowed), and pickleweed still appears around the lake (both planted and volunteered). The oak trees that are on the north side of the lake would have been there, though those too were cultivated — by the Ohlone. The Ohlone also made use of the California buckeye fruit  as a fish poison (interestingly it is also toxic to European honey bees).

There’s also plenty of fungus — death’s caps, honey mushrooms, jack o’lanterns, and lattice stinkhorns can be found in the wetter parts of the year.

There’s slime algae & diatoms, sea lettuce. Bacteria mostly harmless, but occasionally the birds are still affected by avian botulism causing limp ducks. There hasn’t been an outbreak since 1971 — perhaps because of improved tidal flushing that has been managed over the years since.

Archaea are also found in Lake Merritt once thought only to be found in extreme environments — they are also common in mudflats where there is low oxygen. They help produce the methane which is responsible for some of what you might smell near Lake Merritt.

With all these things – all these representatives of all our kingdoms of flora and fauna – Lake Merritt is a fun place to visit and look for things.

We hope that we can see even more improvements to the environment over the years — the estuary though is a popular destination for all sorts of activities. Keeping it nice and making it better is not just the responsibility of our government, but you and me. The Lake Merritt Institute (http://www.lakemerrittinstitute.org) has long been helping to make it a cleaner and better place, but there is always plenty of trash to pick up, and they have self cleaning stations around the lake. You can also explore the wild side of Oakland at the Rotary Nature Center and with Constance’s organization Wild Oakland (http://wildoakland.org).


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