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Great Ecology’s 3rd Quarter Conference Attendance

Great Ecology’s staff has been involved in, or attended, a variety of conferences in the third quarter of 2016. Were you at some of these conferences, too? Let us know on Facebook!

  • Senior Managing Ecologist, Randy Mandel, attended the High Altitude Vegetation Summer Field Tour in southwestern Colorado this July, with the Central Rockies chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER).
  • Randy also co-facilitated an SER pub talk in Durango, CO titled “Collaborative Watershed-Length Riparian Restoration in Four Major Tributaries of the Colorado River.”
  • In early September, Director of Ecology, Nick Buhbe, Senior Landscape Architect, Michelle Landis, Associate Ecologist, Dr. Jill McGrady, and Jessa Spainhower, Director of Operations, attended the City of San Diego 2016 Design & Construction Networking EXPO.
  • Our Founder and CEO, Dr. Mark Laska, attended the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in September.
  • Randy Mandel presented “CWCB Bioengineering Guide and Searchable Revegetation Matrix” at the Colorado Association of Floodplain and Stormwater Managers Conference in Crested Butte, CO.
  • Laska attended The Bonobo Project’s Communications Workshop: Raising the Profile of Bonobos in the US, at the San Diego Zoo.
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Landscape Architect’s Work Nominated for an Orchid Award

Great Ecology is pleased to announce that a project by Michelle Landis, one of our landscape architects, was nominated for an Orchid Award through Orchids & Onions, a project of the San Diego Architectural Foundation.

The Immaculate Conception Church is located in Old Town San Diego and is the site of the first Catholic Parish built in California. The renovated courtyard, which received the nomination, is available for public viewing 24-hours a day, and is accessible during daylight hours by the exterior gate, the Church, the rectory, and the parish hall. The courtyard includes a Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe designed in conjunction with Mexican artist Irma Poeter. In addition, it includes several simple wall seats, a decorative paving pattern, natural materials, and a variety of succulents that frame the shrine rose garden. Site constraints including accessibility and water drainage issues were addressed in the redesign.

Although this site was not picked as one of the winners, we are incredibly proud of Michelle.


The Courtyard of the Immaculate Conception


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Great Ecology Affiliate Finalist in Cleantech Competition

Imagine a world where it is possible for urban areas to efficiently, and accurately, perform integrated environmental modeling—something which is necessary for developing and implementing green action plans based on the complex system of inputs and outputs specific to that area. The data could provide not only real-time information on environmental stressors such as pollution, but could also help ensure proper urban planning that accounts for use of trails, foot traffic, and as a result can estimate the likelihood of soil compaction or erosion along a popular riverbank beach.

That world is possible.

Former Great Ecology employee, Alejandro Baladrón, recently attended the Climate Launchpad cleantech business idea European Union finals competition, which is part of Climate-kic. There, Alejandro, and his business partner, Carlos Rivero, presented a five-minute pitch of their new technology, URBANMET.

“URBANMET is an urban environmental management solution for the holistic study of urban systems for public authorities committed to making cities more sustainable and resilient to climate change…integrated algorithms [will] connect multiple air, soil, water, and biology mathematic models to efficiently track energy and matter’s journey inside cities…”

According to the concept of urban metabolism, from which the product name is derived, cities are like “superorganisms,” the result of a complex systems of inputs, outputs, and flowpaths that move matter and energy through multiple environmental layers, including soils, the water cycle, the atmosphere and the vegetation. This software would help clients better understand a city’s urban metabolism. Since it is summarized by GIS maps, clients would be able to see spatiotemporal trends that influence environmental issues in their urban areas.

URBANMET´s holistic approach to the study of urban systems empowers public authorities to decide what green management options should be implemented in the city and where. This improvement in decision-making leads to higher reductions of CO2 emissions. Estimates indicate that URBANMET can reduce more than 200,000 tons of CO2 emissions in a city like New York annually, which is the equivalent of taking 54,000 cars off the road for a year.

Alejandro and Carlos were one of six teams (out of 88!) selected to pitch at the “Urban Transitions Theme Award.” The theme awards were a separate pitch-competition from the main Climate Launchpad program. There were five categories:

  • Urban Transitions;
  • Sustainable Production Systems;
  • Decision Metrics & Finance;
  • Sustainable Land Use; and
  • Carbon Negative.

Being selected to pitch at the “Urban Transitions Theme Award” meant URBANMET was considered one of the best solutions for developing integrated, scalable, and replicable systemic solutions that serve as catalysts, driving the transformation towards livable, zero-carbon, and resilient cities.

Ultimately, Alejandro and Carlos did not win the final prize at the Climate Launchpad event, but Alejandro said it was an amazing experience and that he and Carlos learned many useful tools for communicating ideas to potential investors. In addition, as national finalists Alejandro and Carlos were awarded SILVER-status for the Climate-KIC Accelerator Program.

Alejandro holds a Master’s in Applied Hydrology and is currently a Great Ecology affiliate. Carlos is an expert in greenhouse gas emissions.

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What About Bonobos

Liz Clift

Bonobos. When you hear that word, what do you think of?

Maybe you’re like me and you listen to a lot of podcasts, and so the word conjures men’s clothing.

In honesty, that association has confused me since the first time I heard it. Why would a clothing company want to name itself after one of the great apes?

In the US, bonobos are the least well-known of the five great apes (humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans) despite being tied for our closest genetic relative (98.7% similar, the same as chimps). This is perhaps because bonobos live only in the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or perhaps because unlike chimps, gorillas, and orangutans, who engage in activities similar to warfare and thus can be used to justify our own violent behavior, bonobos have never been known to kill each other in the wild, or perhaps because they haven’t had their Jane Goodall moment.


This image is courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo and Dr. Jingzhi Tan via The Bonobo Project website

Bonobos are also endangered. Although accounts on exact numbers remain uncertain it’s estimated that as few as 5,000 remain in the wild and their survival is threatened by increasing economic development in DRC. It is threatened, in part, because bonobos spend a relatively long time rearing their offspring, and often go four to six years between pregnancy cycles. This slow reproductive cycle, and subsequently slow increase in population, may put bonobos at additional risk as their populations are threatened by environmental and human stressors.

Unlike other great apes, bonobos live in matriarchal societies, to such an extent that male bonobos’ position in bonobo society is granted based on his relationship with the females around him, especially his mother. In the wild, male bonobos will stay with their mother’s family for their entire life, while sexually mature female bonobos will find another bonobo group—and then focus on developing relationships with the dominant females in the group. In captivity, male bonobos who are separated from their mothers do not have a high survival rate—a fact that zoos and preserves must take into account for species breeding programs. Male bonobos are, therefore, relocated for species breeding programs along with their mothers (and sometimes also young sisters).


This image is courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo and Dr. Jingzhi Tan via The Bonobo Project website

One of the remarkable things we have learned about bonobos is that, like people, they show strong tendencies toward empathy and altruism. Bonobo research on contagious yawning behavior (the thing where if you see someone yawn, you’re likely to yawn as well) shows that bonobos will yawn even if they are watching a stranger bonobo yawn. In addition, bonobos will also voluntarily help a stranger bonobo get what they want, such as food.

There is only one sanctuary in the world for bonobos, located in the Congo. It’s called Lola ya Bonobo. Here, orphaned bonobos are raised by people in a “nursery” and are then moved into “kindergarten” at five years old, where other bonobos teach these orphaned babies to be, well, bonobos. Several years ago, Lola ya Bonobo released nine adult bonobos into the wild, which so far has proved an overall success.


This image is courtesy of Lola ya Bonobo and Dr. Jingzhi Tan via The Bonobo Project website

The bonobo presents many opportunities for conservation and preservation efforts in the DRC, and the survival of this species is critical to biodiversity in the country. The Bonobo Project, a 501(c)3 started by Ashley Stone, seeks to help people become more aware of the bonobo and coordinate activities to aid in its conservation, is a US-based organization that can help move conservation and preservation efforts in that direction.

The Bonobo Project hosts major public events designed to educate the public, network with dedicated bonobo activists, build partnerships with a network of bonobo activists and academics, and raise fund for bonobo conservation. One of their initiatives includes the Bonobo Communications Workshop, which held its first session in mid-September. Among other things, the Bonobo Communications Workshop tackled the problem of raising bonobos in America and on strategies to promote World Bonobo Day (February 14, by no coincidence, since bonobos seem to have “make love, not war” mentality).

Visit The Bonobo Project website to learn more. While you’re there, watch some adorable (and short) videos about bonobos! That’s the best use of five minutes of your work day I can think of!

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Great Ecology to Host Booth at WHC Conference 2016


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Randy Mandel Receives Riparian Hero Award

Great Ecology is pleased to announce that Randy Mandel, Senior Managing Ecologist, received the Riparian Hero Award from the Colorado Riparian Association during the opening banquet 2016 Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference in Avon, CO.

The conference, which took place from October 11th-13th, 2016, hosted between 250-300 attendees and represents the combined efforts of the Colorado Riparian Association, the Colorado Watershed Assembly, and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

Randy received the Riparian Hero Award for his sustained efforts on behalf of Colorado’s Riparian and Wetland Areas, as well as his work with the Society for Ecological Restoration, and the High Altitude Revegetation Workshop and Committee. He has been an active member/board member of the Colorado Riparian Association and High Altitude Revegetation Community for 24 years, and the Society for Ecological Restoration for 18 years.

This year, Randy not only received the Riparian Hero Award at the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, he also gave three presentations:

  • Emergency Watershed Protection Project Overview (panel discussion)
  • Colorado Water Conservation Board Revegetation/Restoration Matrix
  • Camp Hale Field Tour – Reference Areas/Reference Vegetation

If you missed it, but want to make next year’s, the dates are October 9th-12th, 2017.

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All the Pretty Horses

Liz Clift

This spring, I had the opportunity to listen to Marion Hourdequin, a professor at Colorado College, talk about the book she co-edited, Restoring Layered Landscapes: History, Ecology, and Culture. She focused on how ecological restoration of a landscape could happen while preserving, revitalizing, or problematizing human uses of a landscape.

A new art installation in Alberta, Canada is doing exactly this type of work. The artist, Lisa Brawn, has installed a herd of vintage, coin-operated horses “into the southern Alberta landscape.” Brawn bought and restored these horses, coating them in silver leaf so that they glisten in the sun. These horses, which reside on the prairie outside the Leighton Art Centre, are now solar powered and begin moving as visitors approach them (you can’t ride them anymore).


Before and After of the Vintage Horses


This type of art is perhaps especially poignant in a prairie environment, in a province where horses once played a major role in logging and mining operations. As those operations collapsed, many of the horses were simply released into the wild, where they became feral. As a means of controlling the population of these wild horses, Alberta is using a reversible birth control vaccine that helps prevent fertilization—a measure that the government only recently adopted as a more humane method of curbing the population.

Brawn’s heard of silver horses, which can run across the prairie without ever moving or posing a threat to other horse populations or economic interests, represents a small fraction of the complex history of horses in this part of North America.

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Some Like It Cold

Liz Clift

I’ve held a slight fascination with lobsters for years—probably because my younger self empathized with the American lobsters (Homarus americanus) in the grocery store tanks, with their bound claws (which is basically the same thing as being a kid and never being allowed to do fun things, amirite?). I remember watching them wave their antennae about and clamber over each other in search of the darkest part of the tank, and I’d pick out a favorite each time (always the one with the bluest pigmentation) and secretly wish that I lived near enough to an ocean that I could convince my parents to buy it, so we could release it.

Of course, this never happened. But when we went to visit cousins in Maine my fourth grade self, and a cousin who is about the same age, set to work trying to build ourselves a lobster pot (spoiler: we failed miserably, and broke a pair of scissors in the process, which our parents were none too pleased about). We wanted to catch a lobster that we could release into the natural swimming hole on my cousins’ property.

We wanted to see one up close that wasn’t on its way to being eaten.

Because, of course, that is the fate of so many lobsters. Even as kids, we knew that.


American Lobster

In August 2004, Gourmet Magazine published David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster.” The essay ostensibly focused on the Maine Lobster Festival (then in its 56th year), where 25,000 pounds of lobster are consumed, but interspersed within this are Wallace’s thoughts on eating a sentient creature. Toward the end of the essay, he wrote “Experiments have shown that [lobsters] can detect changes of only a degree or two in water temperature; one reason for their complex migratory cycles (which can often cover 100-plus miles a year) is to pursue the temperatures they like best.”

Now, a recent study demonstrates that lobsters might not just prefer colder temperatures, but that these temperatures may be necessary to their survival. Researchers raised 3,000 baby lobsters from the time they hatched with some being reared in water that was 5 degrees warmer than the others. At this warmer temperature, baby lobster survival rates significantly decreased (although these lobsters grew faster, which can help them avoid predation).

Lobsters lay eggs, and the female lobster carries her eggs in her swimmerettes under her tail until they hatch. After a lobster’s eggs hatch, lobster larvae floats through the ocean (where they might feast on man-o-wars!) and go through several molting stages that occur within the first month. If these postalarva lobsters are lucky, they find a place to settle and become baby lobsters that can grow into adults. Often, due to ocean currents, baby lobsters are found congregated in a particular place, a “lobster nursery,” which is typically composed of cobble, or small stones, that provide shelter for these young lobsters. Babies typically remain in their nurseries for one to two years feeding on plankton and detritus that filter through the water before they venture out to forage. Typically, it takes a lobster 25 molts (over 5 to 7 years in cold water) to grow to the legal minimum catch weight (1 pound).

Maine has a variety of rules governing the capture of lobsters, many of which were implemented to help curb an overfishing problem. The first of these was passed in 1872 and is designed to protect the breeding stock. Under this rule, if a female lobster is egg-bearing, a v-shaped notch must be carved into her right tail fin before she is released. If she is captured in the future (regardless of if she has eggs on her or not), she has to be released, so she can continue to reproduce.

This works well, as long as other factors aren’t applying pressures to lobster populations. However, if fewer baby lobsters live to maturity due to rising ocean temperatures, then the lobster markets in New England could continue to go under (pun intended). This is already happening in Southern New England, where water temperatures are warmer than they’ve historically been, due to changes in the Gulf Stream.

Why should we care?

Lobsters are frequently omnivorous scavengers, which means they essentially act as vacuums of the ocean floor, by eating things that are already dead (or dying). This helps keep the ocean clean, and it’s a specific part of their niche in the ecosystems they inhabit. They’ve also made it through a lot of evolutionary history; last year scientists discovered the fossil remains of Aegirocassis benmoulai, a giant lobster-like creature (the size of a tall human at six and a half feet long) that is believed to have lived about 480 million years ago (dinosaurs, by comparison, first showed up about 230 million years ago, those newbies).

Perhaps, for many of us, the reason we should care is just because we like to eat lobster. Or at least the idea of eating lobster.

Or perhaps we care because (and this would make an environmental economics professor I had years ago so happy), we care just because the existence of lobsters is something we value (someone somewhere who engaged more in environmental economics than I did, can convincingly monetize that).

I’ll be interested to see what future studies are launched by this new research on lobster survival rates in warmer waters. Because, for now, the reality is this: warmer waters and economic pressures are combining to decrease lobster populations in their historic territories. This population decline not only produces economic impacts for towns and villages dependent on the lobster trade. It also has environmental impacts as well—many of which are not currently well understood for the American lobster (but have been more extensively studied in other lobster species).

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Great Ecology in the Great Outdoors

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” – John Muir

Being out in nature and feeling a part of the wild is something a lot of us desire. It serves as a break from the everyday hustle bustle of life and I have to agree that it does indeed wash our spirit clean, as John Muir puts it. Over the past couple of months, members of the Great Ecology team lived up to Muir’s quote and spent some time in nature. We want to share with you the beauty we captured along the way.

And I must say, these were some timely trips as the National Park Service just turned 100 in August.

Mike’s road trip, right before he started at Great Ecology, through Badlands National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Yosemite National Park.


Jackson Lake – Grand Teton National Park


10,700 Feet Up! – Grand Teton National Park


A Familiar View – Yosemite National Park


Badlands National Park


Glacier National Park

Jessa’s trip to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park


Bear! Run! – Grand Teton National Park


Not a person in sight – Grand Teton National Park


Fall Colors! – Grand Teton National Park


Grand Teton National Park


Yellowstone National Park


Yellowstone National Park

Julien’s trip to Yosemite National Park


Afternoon Sky – Yosemite National Park


Vernal Falls – Yosemite National Park


Deer in the Wild – Yosemite National Park


Yosemite National Park


Sunset on Half Dome – Yosemite National Park



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Would You Like Some Salt with That?

Liz Clift

I recently wrote about how saltwater intrusion was likely what killed the mammoth [Link to blog]. I mentioned that some coastal areas are using injection wells to pump fresh water into aquifers as a means of staving off saltwater intrusion.

Saltwater Intrusion 101

One of the easier ways to imagine saltwater intrusion is described here.  But, I think also of the various science experiments I did in high school about osmosis. As the picture below shows, if you have equal levels of water and salt water, and a semi-permeable surface, osmosis will occur until the pressure equalizes.


This happens in nature, where groundwater levels (very possibly in underground aquifers) approach sea-level. The process of saltwater intrusion ceases naturally when there are higher levels of fresh water, because the fresh water exerts enough pressure to hold back the sea water. This relationship is described by the Ghyben-Herzberg principle.

Based on the Ghyben-Herzberg principle a separation in elevation between fresh and saltwater sources needs to occur to protect fresh water supplies from intrusion. For example, if the top of the groundwater level of Aquifer A is three feet above sea level, the depth to seawater needs to be approximately 120 feet below sea-level to protect that supply. If the groundwater rises to four feet above sea level (for instance, if a drought-stricken aquifer is replenished from rains), then the depth of seawater needs to be 160 feet below sea-level.

In some coastal areas, groundwater is pumped for use as potable water and for agricultural purposes. This can decrease the height of the fresh water table and cause an imbalance in the natural system creating the condition of saltwater intrusion into the fresh water supply. This condition results in rendering the supply useless as a source of fresh water supply to support human or plant life.

What does this look like in real life though? (Un)fortunately we have examples of that.

Case Study: Los Angeles County

During the first decades of the 20th century, in the Central and West Coast Basins (CWCB) of California, the rates of freshwater extraction occurred at twice the rate of natural replenishment. This has resulted in groundwater elevation 100 feet below sea level, and has increased the extent of saltwater intrusion inland. This condition is further exacerbated by the lack of stormwater infiltration to recharge these underground natural water supplies in the region’s urbanized areas, which is caused by excessive impermeable surfaces being used in development. To address the problem, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District performed an experiment to inject potable water into a previously abandoned fresh water well to test if pressure could be built up in a confined aquifer to block the saltwater intrusion. This test was successful, so a series of fresh water injection wells were created to form fresh water barriers that create pressure ridges greater than the pressure of the intruding seawater to help protect natural, regional fresh water supplies.

Currently, much of the water pumped into the CWCB projects is purchased (imported), and costs tens of millions of dollars per year (and that says nothing of the electrical costs and maintenance costs, which are sure to increase as this type of infrastructure ages).

How Do We Change It?

One way to decrease the costs and effects of depleting local water resources is to reduce how much water is pumped from these water supplies, allowing groundwater levels to rise. For instance, industrial sites might be able to utilize recycled water on their grounds, thus reducing how much pressure they are putting on the groundwater system. Sometimes other non-potable water sources like rain capture or gray water re-use can be utilized on suitable properties. Additionally, we can all do our part to conserve water use at the corporate and personal level by installing efficient water fixtures, using regionally appropriate plant species, and installing water conserving irrigation systems when supplemental water is needed in the landscape.

Additionally, ecological design can also provide solutions. Impermeable pavement can be replaced with permeable pavement systems. For example, turf block can be used for fire lanes; permeable pavers can be used in parking and plaza areas; and permeable concrete can be used to promote infiltration. In addition, infiltration swales (“rain gardens”) can be installed in planted areas. All of these measures are designed to temporarily retain water and allow it to slowly percolate into the soil and eventually seep into the aquifer, increasing groundwater levels. Another added benefit is that as more water is absorbed into the soil, the pressure on wastewater treatment systems decreases and makes spills of untreated water into natural water systems less likely during storm events.

These solutions are critical to helping decrease dependence on imported water supplies—and are solutions that can be applied to other places facing pressures from over-drafting of fresh water supplies. We should take these design and use considerations seriously, because when we rely on importing water we do so at the expense of communities hundreds of miles away.

Great Ecology Can Help You

Great Ecology has a history of developing innovative strategies for stormwater capture and reuse, as well as expertise in native plants across the U.S., which can be strategically planted to decrease irrigation needs. We can assess your site and provide recommendation to improve water conservation, capture, reuse, and infiltration.

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