Sunday, August 21, 2016

Our Desert Community Plants the Seeds for a New Doc

Since Dan and I started blogging about our journey to a more sustainable lifestyle we have had the opportunity to come in contact with so many inspiring community groups cultivating an oasis of sustainability here in Tucson.

Emma demonstrates how to shore up a catchment basin.
Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) is reviving their cultural traditions by having tribal elders mentor youth on their native foods. Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace re-built the Mission Garden, a living museum, to demonstrate how to grow crops from pre-Columbian to those that Father Kino established in that location.  Native Seeds/SEARCH 
maintains community food traditions by preserving diverse and heritage seeds. Manzo ElementaryChangemaker High and City High tend to the next generation of desert gardeners. Through their community garden programs, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona doesn’t just feed the hungry, but teaches them to grow food for themselves. Iskashitaa Refugee Network assists refugees in becoming self-sufficient (and reduces food waste) by harvesting fruit that would otherwise go unpicked. Dunbar Springs neighborhood worked to make their street an example of an edible, urban forest irrigated by rainwater. Watershed Management Group is building a community that works together to restore Tucson’s aquifer by implementing rainwater harvesting techniques and desert landscaping in people's yards, gardens, streets and businesses. These groups (among others) are gleaning from Tucson’s rich cultural history ways to live in harmony with the desert. This is truly an exciting time to be a part of this vibrant community!

Shooting the first segment with Brad Lancaster at Dunbar Springs
I decided to make a documentary about the accomplishments of these communities with the hope that it would inspire others. So I approached activist/ documentarian Evan Grae Davis with the idea. Evan had just read Edible Baja Arizona’s article about Tucson being the first US city to be designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy for the same advancements. He was excited to tell our story!

Our last shoot was for the rainwater harvesting segment featuring Watershed Management Group. Dan and I have planted our roots into the WMG community. In addition to being members of their co-op, Dan recently got the good news that he was accepted into their docent training program!  We love being a part of a community that is working to restore our groundwater and get our rivers flowing again.

Here we are shooting in Jason and Connie Carder's yard. (See Jason working alongside of Emma in the pic above.) They had 3 roadside catchment basins (wow!) and berms installed to control the runoff after their house had been flooded during a recent storm.

Happy owner Connie Carder
Co-op members Grant and Carrie Stratton share why they volunteer
Where's Waldo...uh...Dan? 
Emma helps a co-op volunteer arrange rocks 
Two hard workers: workshop instructor Emma Stahl-Wert and my baby Dan
A little patch of purslane ignited a conversation about edible weeds. Later in the day, Dan heard someone call out, "Don't step on the purslane!" A woman after my own heart! It's so great to work alongside kindred spirits who feel as passionate as we do about getting our rivers flowing again and protecting purslane

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Are you a good weed or a bad weed?

You may have heard the saying: one person's weed is another person's wildflower. Since I began harvesting edible weeds, I've really started looking at them. Really seeing them. Some are pretty even before they bloom. They make lovely ground cover. But we've been taught to weed out any that aren't in Better Homes and Gardens. Perhaps businessmen called them weeds because they are free. They can't make money off of them, so they invented weed killer.

I guess I would call weeds unwanted, intrusive pants. Most of us call Bermuda grass a weed. It's such nuisance! But my husband Dan sees it as a desert survivor. It needs very little water, and you can't get rid of it. It's here to stay! The lawn in our neighborhood park is made up mostly of Bermuda grass. Dan also dried up some and used it (successfully!) as mulch for our gardens. It's all a matter of perspective.

We have a weed (yes! I call it a weed!) that starts off innocently enough with two sweet little leaves, and then grows into a pretty bush with fuzzy light green needles.

These "bushes" climbed up the garden fence and over the top and dropped tiny red berries (seeds) into our garden. I spent hours pulling those bushes that lined the fence out by their deeply embedded roots. These cute little weeds are the bane of my existence.  Every morning there are new ones to pick out of our garden. On a good day, it's just a handful. But I usually fill up a medium mixing bowl. These bushes took over one quarter of our yard and threatened to take over the whole alleyway before Dan and I spent a brutal morning pulling them out. Dan has since planted another garden in that plot. (Don't ask!)

Anyone know what this is? 
One person's weed is another person's fresh greens. In fact, the Tohono O'odham called purslane and amaranth summer greens.

Last summer we discovered purslane behind the neighbor's wall.  I was determined to make sure that the patch returned. I bet Dan thought I was crazy for pulling Bermuda grass in the utility road. But I wanted to make sure people didn't use roundup on my favorite edible weed. For a long time nothing grew. Until... we had a couple of big storms. Then we had horse purslane. More rain, more purslane. Common purslane and amaranth! It grew every place I had pulled out the grass!

horse purslane

Our alleyway buffet
Nearly everyday we pick some purslane or amaranth from our backyard buffet. You can snap off common purslane (with the tear-shaped leaves) and pop them in your mouth. To me it tastes like a combination of parsley and citrus. Some people think it tastes slightly peppery. It's great raw, stems and all, for salads. It's also yummy sauteed like spinach, on meat, in soups and sauces.

If you snap off the branches where they meet the stem, you can leave the rest of the plant in the ground to grow more!

We've got tons of native horse purslane growing in our alleyway. You can identify it by it's round leaves. Unfortunately horse purslane makes my throat scratchy if eaten raw. So I saute the leaves or cook them in sauces or soups and enjoy all that omega 3.

It was a pleasant surprise when amaranth popped up next to the purslane! Our guide to native foods suggested that we eat the leaves when the plant is still small. If you pull off those on the outside and leave behind the little ones in the middle, the plant will produce more leaves to eat. 

Dan puts uncooked amaranth in his omelet, then tops it with sauteed purslane and salsa! 

Who gets to decide what's an ugly weed and what's a useful plant? It all depends on how you look at it. When I walk down the street, I don't see pesky weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. I see lunch.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rain in Tucson! A Reason to Celebrate?

Streets flooding, cars submerged in underpasses, drain pipes spouting...

Stone underpass photo by Alfonso Sahagun Casaus
This is what we call "flood control" in Tucson.

Our infrastructure was designed so rainwater is directed into the streets where it creates hazardous driving conditions until it evaporates in the hot desert sun. This makes me crazy!

A catchment basin
The other day, while waiting for my friend at a neighborhood restaurant, I noticed that water was flowing out of their parking lot and into the street. I figured they had left the hose on so I went to investigate. I followed the stream of water up the side of the parking lot where it made a hard right turn then went along until the end of the pavement, then under a cute pedestrian bridge and to a WASH. So the water collected in the wash was being directed out into the street! Arghhh!  While Dan and I couldn't wait to earn enough co-op hours to get our own catchment basin to "plant the water," precious agua was being directed into the street to evaporate!

This is Tucson recently posted the article, "Here's why those same Tucson streets flood every time it rains."  According to the article, the reason we have flooding is because it would cost $100 million to fix the 47 projects that flood every year. The attitude of the state officials is "Why bother? Just leave the water in the street and it will evaporate." But that is just the point. We need an infrastructure that directs the rain so it sinks into our depleted aquifer instead of just letting it evaporate. There is actually enough rainfall to supply water for every person in Tucson! That doesn't seem to be our representatives priority - even with Tucson suffering from a 17 year drought.

Curb cuts get rainwater off of city streets to water native plants and our aquifer.
Watershed Management Group has come up with a solution to our water woes! And the solution is in our own backyard! And front yard! They are encouraging people to irrigate desert landscaping with our abundant rainwater! By working together to "plant the rain" with cisterns, road cuts, and rainwater harvesting we can restore our ground water and get the rivers flowing again! How amazing is that!? The idea is to keep water in your yard instead of running off into the street - directing rainwater to irrigate native plants, fruit trees, and gardens while sinking it into the ground.

A while ago we made some minor adjustments in our yard to make use of the runoff to water a kitchen garden and our hummingbird trumpets.

The downspout works too well! Look at all that water!

You might recall me frantically hacking at the bricks that were trapping the water on our patio. (It wasn't a pretty sight!) Dan had suggested that if I used the right tool for the job, I could get that brick out lickety-split (actually that's my mom's word) with the brick intact.

Turns out Dan was r-r-right. Using his new pick, Dan got a row of bricks by the cactus garden out in 10 minutes. He was mostly done before I managed to get the cell phone. (But, to be fair, the bricks weren't even half as deep as mine!)

Yesterday's monsoon was the perfect time to test how well they drained.... After three hours of raining, our "wading pool" drained in a few minutes! And I have to admit, Dan's drained better!

We can use a similar technique to get water off of our city streets! By putting in curb cuts, rainwater is directed to roadside catchment basins to irrigate native trees and restore our aquifer!

See how our little Tree of Life is flourishing!

By working together we can take advantage of our abundant rainfall to make our city greener, save city water, and get rainwater out of our city streets! Making use of all that glorious rain is a great reason to celebrate!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fighting TEP for Tucson's Future and Solar Power

To be entirely sustainable here in Tucson means transitioning to solar energy. Dan and I are looking forward to getting our own solar panels on our roof. But, if Tucson Electric Power gets its way, it will become more difficult. TEP recently submitted a rate change proposal to the Arizona Corporation Commission. The net effect will be higher electric rates for all of us in Tucson (with the exception of industrial users, whose rates will go down). But the worst part is that the changes would hit customers who have installed solar panels on their homes especially hard. TEP plans to reduce the credit for surplus energy generated by solar installations by more than half. They also plan to double the service charge for being connected to the power grid from $10 per month to $20 per month. That hurts all of us, but especially those who don't use much electricity (namely people generating their own power and low income families). As if that wasn't enough, TEP proposes changing the way you are charged for your power usage, from a rate based on how much energy you use throughout the day to a charge based on your peak usage for the day. Essentially, TEP is discouraging energy conservation and, once again, sticking it to customers who have installed solar panels.

TEP even spent more on tech upgrades than solar in the past three years!
Can we trust them to serve our interests?
TEP says it needs to do all these things in order to transition to renewable energy and meet their (not very ambitious) "30 by 30" goal: having 30% of our electricity generated using renewable energy by 2030. They also claim that the current rates haven't covered the costs of the investments they've already made. These investments that have been really imbalanced: only $103 million for community-scale solar energy generation vs more than $600 million for dirty coal-fired power plants. Yet, somehow, they've still managed to be the biggest profit center in their Canadian owner's energy portfolio! It's obvious that TEP is really just trying to get rid of the competition, while only making token efforts to make our power greener in a part of the country where solar power should be a no-brainer.

Our state is at an important crossroads - dirty coal or clean energy. The Arizona Corporation Commission will be voting on the TEP rate case on August 31, 2016.  Please, let them know that this rate increase is unacceptable. Rooftop solar benefits us all. We need to be supporting those who are transitioning to solar, not penalizing them.

Please, submit your comment as soon as possible so it is included on the docket.
The details for submitting are at the Technicians for Sustainability website. Or simply sign the petition.

Here's the letter Jana sent in:
Dear Arizona Corporation Commission: 
As an environmentally conscious homeowner, I look forward to the day when we can afford to install our own rooftop solar so we can stop contributing to the problem of CO2 emissions and the depletion of our limited water supply caused by coal fired power plants.  That is why it is so disturbing that TEP is setting up a rate case on rooftop solar users now – to make it financially prohibitive for middle-income families to switch to rooftop solar in the future (when the price of the units becomes more affordable.)  TEP is not serving its customers' best interests.  Instead of taking this as an opportunity to transition to clean energy, they are forcing out the competition. 
In the 22 years I’ve lived in Tucson, it has gotten increasingly hotter. If we are going to stay here, we are going to need to power our air-conditioners and have an adequate water supply.  Tucson has been in a drought for over 17 years, so it is vital to the city’s future that we conserve our depleted ground water. Coal generating stations require coal and water to run the turbines. It takes even more water to extract the coal from the ground.  The mines create poisonous tailings that seep into our streams and rivers. That is just irresponsible when there is another choice: clean, renewable solar energy. And there is one resource that Tucson has plenty of – sunlight.  This is our big opportunity to lead the way in solar energy. 
While Tucson Water recognizes the urgency in conserving our ground water and is working with our local Watershed Management Group to restore our aquifer, TEP is using this rate increase to destroy the environmentally sound choice while it continues to invest in coal-fired power plants.  On their rate proposal, TEP claims that they want rooftop customers to use their community-scale solar. But they plan to get only 1/3 of their power generated by solar. The company has invested roughly $600 million in dirty, coal fired powered plants and only $103 million on solar in the last three years.
You have an important decision to make that will have a huge impact on Tucson’s future.  Please, don’t let TEP stop individual homeowners from doing their part to make Tucson’s energy cleaner and conserve our limited water supply.
Jana K Segal

Here's the email Dan sent to the Chairman and Commissioners of the ACC:
Dear Chairman Little and Commissioners Tobin, Forese, Stump, and Burns,  
I am writing as a customer of Tucson Electric Power to express my concerns about their proposed rate case changes. Several of the proposed changes will negatively impact both lower-income utility customers and customers who have made the investment in residential solar. TEP has argued that they need to increase energy rates for residential and small and medium business owners, while lowering the rates for industrial users. Since most of the business growth in Tucson since 2008 has largely been in the small to medium business sectors, the proposed increase of $21 - $280 per month in these sectors seems likely to slow down growth. 
The proposed doubling of the residential customer charge, which is not indexed in any way to household energy usage, will disproportionately harm low-income customers. However, it affects every residential customer in Tucson at a time when income in Tucson is not keeping pace with the cost of living or national average incomes.  
Even more disturbing is TEP's plan to make residential solar installations less affordable by decreasing the net metering credit by more than 50%, while also changing the billing methodology from use-based to peak charges. This disincentivizes energy conservation and ensures nearly all customers will pay higher rates.  
TEP justifies these rate increases by saying they are necessary to increase their renewable energy portfolio to 30% by 2030. However, given their current installed capacity and their planned increases, the rate of increase in their renewable portfolio is glacial - certainly not enough to justify their exorbitant rate increase proposals. TEP has also argued that they need to stop "subsidizing" residential solar in order to install community-scale solar arrays. They even cite an MIT Future of Energy study in the FAQs on their rate increase proposal page as their justification for lowering the net metering credit, but they misquote the study. It actually states that both residential distributed and utility scale solar installations are needed and should be incentivized.  
TEP has shown they are not an honest agent in this proposal. Also, given that UNS Energy is the most profitable holding in the regulated energy business segment of Fortis, Inc., it's hard to see this rate increase proposal as anything other than a plan to further increase the profit margins of TEPs parent company, rather than a necessary increase to fund needed upgrades in our power grid.  
Please do not approve this rate case from TEP! 
Daniel P Stormont 

Don't let them get away with this! Make your voice heard. It doesn't have to be as verbose as Dan and I!

You are also invited to join us for a rally to deliver a petition to TEP headquarters on August 24:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sharing in the Bounty of Community Supported Agriculture

Our first CSA bounty!  
One aspect of sustainable living we try to incorporate into our daily routine is eating more local produce. It's good for the enviroment and so much healthier. The more recently the veggies have been harvested, the more vitamins they retain. We also like to know how they've been grown.

But I soon discovered it's not easy to find local produce in Tucson. While doing research for my blog Food Security in the Desert, I learned that only 1% of the produce at our neighborhood grocery store, Sprouts, was grown in Arizona. It is difficult for local farmers to compete with conveniently located supermarkets that carry a wide diversity of affordable crops year around.  But there is a bigger cost to consider. Imagine the carbon foot print of transporting all that produce hundreds of miles from Mexico or California or shipping it across the ocean. Thousands of pounds of damaged produce is thrown into landfills every day while poverty stricken farm workers can't afford to eat the produce they harvest.

Woohoo! Beets!
Sadly, Dan and I have been unable to swing shopping at the weekly farmers markets (often held on the other end of town). So when we heard that Sleeping Frog Farms would be delivering fresh produce to the nearby WMG office through their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, we happily signed on. We knew we wanted to help support a local (Benson) farmer make a consistent living, but we really didn't know what to expect. We pre-paid $300 for a share of their weekly crops for a season ($25 a week.)  But we weren't sure that we would be able to use the seasonal produce.

That first Wednesday, I excitedly toted my reusable cowgirl bag to pick up our share. I was surprised that there were seven nice bunches of veggies! Curly kale, chioddia beets, carrots, burgundy colored chard, cilantro, kohlrabi (what's that?), and arugula. This was our chance to try some healthy greens (yikes!) and even some weird veggies we had never heard of.

Oh, no... Not curly kale! Dan was the only one who would eat it out of our own garden!

We were delighted to see beets included in our weekly offerings. Roasted beets are a family favorite! When we cut into them there was a cool surprise: pink stripes!

Our first CSA meal: roasted beets and carrots, steamed beet greens, and  salmon.
With rushing off to several meetings and screenings a week, how would we find the time to prepare all of these vegetables? We certainly didn't want to waste any. (One goal of sustainable living is to reduce waste...) We decided we would have to serve 2 or 3 veggies at dinner each night to get through them all. That would be some feat since we rarely manage the 3-5 vegetables the USDA recommends a day...

We didn't know what to do with all of the veggies. What is this strange alien plant kohlrabi?  But one of the benefits of being in a CSA, is that you can get cooking advice from the other members when they pick up their share. One guy suggested that we peel the kohlrabi like broccoli (you don't peal broccoli, do you?) and steam them. Dan googled kohlrabi. (Google is Dan's best friend.) It is also known as a German turnip or turnip cabbage. We're kinda roastin' fools, soooo...

 roasted kohlrabi and steamed chard
Wednesday rolled around again, so I checked to see what foods hadn't been eaten...

Argh!  Despite our best efforts all this was left in the so-called "crisper."

hmph! wilted cilantro 
Our second pickup at the CSA

mmm sage

Gonga! Leeks! 
When I bemoaned the wilted veggies from the first share, a young man suggested that we eat perishables first in a salad. I told him how there was still kale left even after Dan had a big plate of it. They suggested that we bake up some yummy kale chips.

Determined to keep those veggies from the compost pit, we decided we would eat several that night. We noticed the chard that had reseeded itself in our garden was starting to wilt too. We added it to the menu.

I also picked some fresh parsley from our garden to liven up our quinoa. We had steamed chard; quinoa with leaks, onions, and parsley; roasted carrots; and beets topped with feta. The USDA would be proud!

vegetarian dinner for two
We decided to dry the wilted cilantro...

We learned to add steamed greens to any meal. (And we liked it!) We added leeks to pasta with leftover salmon for an easy dinner. And baked up some yummy kale chips. My teen not only tried them, but tried to steal the whole bowl!

a side of colorful chard with potato leek soup
Best way to get your teen on board with the veggies - add them to potato-leek soup with fresh dill in a bread-bowl topped with lots o' cheez and green onions (also from CSA!)

"Why do I have to be in the pic?"

Having a share in Sleeping Frog Farm's CSA, encouraged us to try new foods, grow to love kale, be creative, and eat healthier.