Memorial Day, 2015: Remembering Dorothy Green
Environmental activist and founder of Heal the Bay is remembered for her warm spirit and tremendous contributions
In a continuing series this year of special holiday-themed commentaries, Maven’s Notebook fondly remembers the legacy of Dorothy Green.
Dorothy Green was an environmental activist and grassroots organizer extraordinaire, considered an inspiration and visionary to all who knew her. She is perhaps most remembered for being the founding president of the environmental group, Heal the Bay, but throughout her life, she accomplished much more.
“Dorothy Green was simply the most influential water quality activist in California for the last 30 years,” said Mark Gold, her protégé and seceding president of Heal the Bay in the organization’s press release upon her passing.
Born in on March 16, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Polish immigrants, Dorothy Green came to Los Angeles and enrolled at UCLA as a music major, playing cello in the school orchestra. She graduated in 1951, and in that same year, she married Jacob (Jack) Green, and would become mother to three children: Joshua, Avrom, and Herschel. Her husband was at her side as a behind-the-scenes supporter until his passing in 2005.
Dorothy Green began her career as a water quality advocate in 1972 by working on a campaign to pass Proposition 20, the ballot initiative that established the California Coastal Commission. In 1980s, she joined the fight against the peripheral canal, was coordinator of Working Alliance to Equalize Rates, and president of the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Conservation Voters.
Her discovery of untreated wastewater spilling out into Santa Monica Bay spurred her to being together concerned citizens in her Westwood living room to address the problem, an effort that would eventually lead to the founding of the group, Heal the Bay. Under her leadership, the group held beach rallies to gain new members and generate publicity, as well as testified at public hearings, successfully applying public pressure that eventually led to an agreement from the city of Los Angeles to stop dumping sewage sludge into the bay and to upgrade the Hyperion sewage treatment facility.
Dorothy Green said the group chose the name, Heal the Bay, because it communicated hope, and her approach of encouraging collaboration among those with contrasting perspectives was the hallmark of her personal style. “Heal the Bay is such a positive organization and Dorothy set the tone of all of us,” said Madelyn Glickfield, former Heal the Bay board member. “I was in a lot of meetings with Dorothy, and it wasn’t about stopping things, but always about starting things.”
Dorothy Green would lead Heal the Bay for seven years before turning it over to Mark Gold. She would go on to help establish the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council and remained its president emeriti for the rest of her life. Among her many other accomplishments, she served a term as a commissioner on the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, she was board member and founding secretary of the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), and she chaired the POWER Conference (Public Officials for Water and Environmental Reform), which continues, now in its 25th year.
Dorothy Green’s awards were many, including being featured in the 2007 Vanity Fair’s Green Issue magazine as one of the Golden State’s Eco-warriors, and recipient of the 2007 Presidential Medal of Volunteer Service.
She was considered a mentor to many current officials and leaders still active in California water issues today, including Tim Brick, former chairman of the board of Metropolitan and water activist who knew her for 35 years. “She was quite unique in our generation,” he said in the LA Times obituary. “She not only was personally a very effective advocate, but she founded a series of organizations that have been very effective in shaping policy on a variety of different issues.”
In 2007, her book, “Managing Water–Avoiding Crisis in California” was published. She dedicated it to memory of her husband, calling him her ‘best friend, lover, and husband, whose support made all things possible.’
“She was always willing to tell it like it is,” said C-WINs Carolee Krieger. “Something I remember her saying something that I thought at the time was very important (and I have remembered it many times since) is this: “Figure out your plan of action. Tell everyone about it including the other side. And then do it.”
“During her life Dorothy put words into action and created lasting legacies,” recalled Nancy Steele, Executive Director of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Watershed Council (now the Council for Watershed Health) in a press release issued upon her passing. “She left all of us with a great vision of a better Los Angeles region, with revitalized rivers and clean, abundant water for all.”
Dorothy Green had been first diagnosed with melanoma decades before her death, but in 2003, the cancer returned and spread. However, she remained committed to her causes up until her passing, even writing a commentary for the Los Angeles Times pleading for a sensible water policy which ran just a week before her death.
Dorothy Green passed away on October 13, 2008 at the age of 79.
While Dorothy will certainly be remembered for her warm spirit and countless accomplishments which benefit us all, perhaps the most visual of those is Santa Monica Bay. In the Los Angeles Times obituary, Mark Gold recalled how when the group, Heal the Bay started, there was a ‘dead zone’ in the middle of Santa Monica Bay, fish with tumors, and 10 million gallon sewage spills on bright summer days.
“None of that occurs anymore,” he said. “That’s Dorothy’s legacy, every time you look out at the bay.”
When I contacted her friend, Jovita Pajarillo, about writing this special commentary, as one of the suggestions I said, in this time of crisis, what do you think Dorothy would have to say to us now? That served as the basis for this piece by Jovita, an imagined conversation with Dorothy Green. I hope you will enjoy this special remembrance of her, and I thank Jovita Pajarillo for writing it especially for Maven’s Notebook.
Jovita Pajarillo: An Imagined Conversation with Dorothy Green about California’s Megadrought
Jovita Pajarillo, friend and “Sancho Panza” to Dorothy Green on her many environmental quests, imagined having this conversation with her about California’s unrelenting drought.
Jovita Pajarillo (JP): So what do you think? Is this another “fake drought?”
Dorothy Green (DG): (laughter) You know, I used to think that whenever the hydraulic brotherhood demanded from Sacramento the Peripheral Canal or more surface water storage projects, they would fabricate a drought just because they wanted more water for urban and agricultural uses. No one was there demanding as vociferously for more water for environmental needs or for protections for fish and wildlife. I think we should find a way to assign water rights to fish, in-stream flows, and habitat restoration. Global warming has certainly made this the worse ever drought. If the Governor mandates a 25% cut in water consumption and statewide water rationing for cities for the first time ever, then this is no hoax. It is our fourth year of drought and community wells are drying up, as are our rivers. And my dear friend, Felicia Marcus, as chair of the State Water Board, will see to it that everyone rises to the occasion.
JP: You have stated that LA is a microcosm for the whole state for how it went from wasteful water practices to being more efficient. The media has recently reported that residential water use, which accounts for 12% of the total use in the state, tends to be heaviest in Southern California, where the climate is hot and dry, as well as in wealthier neighborhoods. What can be done to improve this picture?
DG: Los Angeles has been successful in reducing water consumption especially given its population growth since the last drought. But yes, we can do better. I applaud Mayor Garcetti (of LA) for his leadership and vision by announcing steps to deal with “a new normal” by reducing the amount of water purchased by 50% over the next decade through aggressive use of wastewater and conservation. Highly treated wastewater is a resource and a veritable river that should be tapped into for irrigation and possibly other uses. I am appalled by the photos I see of urban/suburban waste on vanity landscapes especially in more affluent communities. If the water district penalties don’t faze some of these people then perhaps methods of public humiliation or penalties calculated based on income would be more effective in stopping this willful and flagrant waste of a precious resource. And why aren’t more golf courses using purple piping? This is another example of amoral attitudes and arrogance.
JP: California agriculture accounts for 80% of the water used. There’s a lot of talk of the “great almond rush” and now most people can rattle off exactly how much water it takes to grow an almond, produce beef, grow alfalfa, etc. Do you think agriculture is sharing its burden for conservation?
DG: I love almonds just as much as anyone. What a great healthy snack! Seriously, I’ve always been supportive of a healthy and thriving environment along with a vibrant and robust ag economy. But the environment is being hit hard by this drought–salmon are a food too. And, I am concerned about the impacts of production agriculture especially in areas where there shouldn’t be irrigated lands which leach out certain chemicals like selenium and salt. I am troubled over the emphasis on almonds and other nut trees, bee colony collapse, and depleted aquifers. Why are more almond trees being planted during this drought? Where is the water to irrigate? We should all read and heed the meditations on farming from my good friend and writer, Mas Masumoto. Peaches are more than a snack—they are an heirloom and inspiration! But you know, we too, have cities in hot, dry regions with nice lush lawns, manicured gardens, gurgling fountains, golf courses and swimming pools. We all need to adjust, learn, change and adapt because this has to be our new way of life and we should embrace it. It all requires an educated and informed citizenry. Conservation by both urban and agriculture users is the cheapest source of water and causes the least environmental damage. I believe the portion of water saved by conservation and reuse must be reserved for the environment.
I know that farmers have had severe reductions in their water supplies and that 400,000 acres have been fallowed which this year will increase to 600,000. The farmers, their workers and communities are hit very hard by this drought. I am also aware that many farmers are very water efficient and use the latest irrigation technology. It’s very complicated and I don’t have the best comprehensive understanding but CA ag will be much changed after this drought. We need more funding for research centers to develop new technologies, processes, and tools to help farmers be more innovative and efficient. Maybe different crops more tolerant to drought will be grown, such as olive trees. Another healthy snack I adore, especially with wine! Farmers are known innovators.
I appreciate that we now have new legislation to work towards achieving sustainable groundwater basins in the most critical areas of overdraft. It’s always a good thing to change policy through legislation. We’ve ignored this problem for too long and while it isn’t perfect it’s on the books so let’s get it done!
JP: What are your thoughts on the Water Bond?
DG: OMG! More big, new surface water projects? In today’s context of global warming resulting in little snowpack and changing rain patterns, where is the new water going to come from to fill these big reservoirs? Our snowpack was only 5% of normal this year! These projects are a thing of the past, are not cost effective, and destructive to the environment. If they were ever built, I would suggest filling them with highly treated wastewater for reuse. Or perhaps we should look at smaller, local surface water storage projects that would more directly help a region deal with stormwater or flood flows and take the edge out of the drought and reduce imported water. I do like aspects of the Water Bond regarding watershed projects vital to ecosystem restoration and communities during this debilitating drought, water recycling and conservation, and as I said, regional water reliability, and sustainable ground water management and cleanup.
JP: The Brown Administration recently released its “California Water Action Plan Implementation Report (2014-2018)” billed as a roadmap to sustainability. Care to critique?
DG: Well, it’s long overdue! I sometimes feel that this worst drought ever is also about a shortage of political will. I am inspired that Gov. Brown showed the fortitude and leadership to address the goals of reliability, restoration and resilience for California’s sustainable water future. It’s long been a frustration of mine that so many multiple agencies are responsible for managing this treasured resource; five or more different kinds of agencies and multiples within each kind: they manage water supply, groundwater, stormwater, wastewater, and water quality. Do they talk to each other? Not really. Cooperate? It’s like pulling teeth. How efficiently do we use our water? Not efficiently enough. So it’s no wonder we have such a fractured and fragmented sense of water policy. It takes political will and a visionary governor to create change among the cabinet departments: CalEPA, Food and Ag, and Resources, to embark on a coordinated and comprehensive strategy of actions to rise to the challenges of this crisis. I salute the four-year roadmap that moves us towards long term water sustainability which includes specific legislative or administrative actions needed in the short term. It is very courageous for the Brown Administration to take this collaborative, inclusive and practical approach and I hope this action plan lives beyond the Brown Administration and continues to evolve into the future. It absolutely must not devolve to partisan politics!
JP: What about desalination? There’s a lot more talk about it now given the drought crisis and as a worthy option to respond to the demand for more potable water in major metropolitan areas. The City of Carlsbad is constructing a huge plant.
DG: I’ve never been a supporter of desalination of seawater because it is hugely destructive to marine ecosystems, the environment, requires intensive energy, and is hugely expensive with costs obviously passed onto the rate payers. Australia constructed maybe 14 desal plants during its epic drought in the 2000s and mothballed them as soon as it started to rain again. Rate payers are still on the hook to pay them off! Billions were spent and I wonder how much clean water was ever produced. I would support and promote desal for removing salt from brackish groundwater to make it more useable—it makes economic sense! We ought to use sustainable supplies first before committing to desalination, for if we didn’t, we would have failed to manage our freshwater efficiently and wisely. I think we need to ask ourselves before we go down that ol’ desal road, whether we have done enough due diligence to conserve and reuse water. I don’t believe we have. There are reports of communities not even coming close to the mandatory 25% reduction! We need to do more, be smarter, and educate the public.
JP: Any last words, advice, thoughts?
DG: I’ve always been a “glass half full” kind of person. I strongly believe that there is enough water for California’s growing population, now standing to close to 39 million, for agriculture, and restoring our ecosystems, if only we placed a greater value on and respect for water, used it more efficiently, and had the political will to make it happen. Now, ready for that dry martini, Jovita?
JP: My closing comments are that Dorothy would be excited about all the advances and changes made since she last left her footprints on this Earth. Dorothy would urge us and the next generation forward. Dorothy never surrendered. She would remind us all that water belongs as property to the people of California and that the public trust doctrine is the best tool to require that water is used in the best interests of all people of the Golden State. Her vision was for all Californians to have a sustainable water future. She left us a profound legacy.
(Jovita Pajarillo worked with Dorothy on many water issues as a staffer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco. She wrote this commentary exclusively for Maven’s Notebook.)