This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Local vineyards and dirty beaches: Environmental students make an impact

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mountain-vineyard-adjCan viticulture in the Santa Monica Mountains be more sustainable? Are Los Angeles-area beaches dirtier than you think? Are travelers afraid that green hotels just aren’t clean or comfortable?

UCLA environmental science majors are answering these questions in their senior projects and helping the region in the process by launching a range of studies about local conditions affecting the mountains, ocean and natural habitat around us.

Turning their attention to topics such as vineyards in the Santa Monica Mountain and post-rainfall bacteria counts in the ocean, 12 teams of graduating environmental science majors in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES) presented their results after a year of research.

“I’m constantly impressed by our students,” said Cully Nordby, the academic director of IoES. “This is really graduate-level work.”

Guided by Professor Travis Longcore, the practicum coordinator, the senior practicum pairs students with an IoES adviser and a community stakeholder, which this year included businesses like the Walt Disney company, nonprofits like TreePeople and Heal the Bay, and government agencies like the National Park Service.

“The students are doing all this incredible work that has real-life applications,” said Mark Gold, an IoES associate director. “They’re making a difference in the region and on campus.”

Two teams this year looked at vineyards in the Santa Monica Mountains, counting 38 vineyards covering 165 acres. While most are relatively small backyard “hobby” vineyards, the rugged mountains are also home to five large commercial enterprises, said one team that worked with the California State Parks to assess the potential for and risks of vineyard expansion.

Santa Monica Mountains“The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is one of the few remaining large tracts of land in the Los Angeles area that provides natural habitat for native species,” said Katie Hoeberling, a senior environmental science major. “Vineyards can significantly alter land cover and displace native vegetation.”

Oaks, California sycamores, coastal sage scrub and six other local plants are particularly threatened by sprawling, sometimes terraced vineyards, her team explained. Thirty of the 38 vineyards disturb the native vegetation. The team looked at 48,400 acres of unprotected land in the mountains. By discounting land that was zoned against vineyard development, or that was too rocky, wet, sandy or sloped, they found 30,000 acres, or 63 percent, could legally become vineyards.

A second team looked at the best management practices for vineyards in the mountains, and the threats posed by grape cultivation. Sedimentation and runoff into local streams, along with erosion and pesticide pollution were all dangers to the local habitat.

“Everything went right into the water,” said team member Nicole Grucky. The team produced an advisory document explaining what kind of damage agriculture can do to mountain habitats. Among other practices, the team recommended eschewing chemical pesticides in favor of controlling pests with natural predators like wasps.

“It’s great that they’re focusing on this,” Gold said. “Vineyards have proliferated tremendously in the Santa Monica Mountains over the last five to 10 years, and no one knows the effects. So these two projects are a great start looking at the [negative] contributions the vineyards are making, in regards to pesticides, sedimentation, erosion and so on.”

Other projects included:
  • Back to the beach: The typical recommendation after a rainstorm is to stay out of the ocean for 72 hours to let all the bacteria flowing into the coastal waters dissipate. “But 72 hours is not sufficient,” said senior Michael Bordeaux. “We had samples long after that that were above safe levels.” His team, working with the nonprofit Heal the Bay, took measurements at two beaches for five days in a row after two separate rainstorms and found fecal bacteria above safe levels — even on the fifth day in some cases. “The results aren’t surprising,” said Gold, the former director of Heal the Bay. “We can see an impact on the beach for days or even longer, especially if a storm comes after it hasn’t rained in a while.”
  • Green hotels: Do customers want green hotels? Do they trust green hotels? One student team, working with Disney hotels, set out to find the answer. In a survey of 969 people, including many UCLA students, 74 percent said they found green cleaning supplies equally or more effective than traditional cleaners, but a majority also said they did not feel well-informed about the benefits of green hotels. “People are receptive to these green practices in hotels,” said Anuraag Jhawar. “Only 5 percent of respondents said that they don’t choose eco-certified hotels because they are a lower quality.  There’s not an aversion to eco-certified hotels. It just seems that most consumers aren’t aware of them and don’t know how to find them very well.” Some amusing evidence of his final point: On a trick question in the survey that asked which of four eco-certification labels people recognized most, the second-most “recognized” logo was the one that the students made up.
  • What’s in your storm drain? Students examined what flows into L.A. storm drains, which are covered with grates designed to keep out trash larger than 5 millimeters, or about 0.2 inches. Still, they found items like chip bags, cigarette butts and lottery tickets in the catch basins. “The City of Los Angeles will be very interested to hear that,” Gold said. “The student’s research demonstrated that the grates are not working as designed, and the law requires that nothing larger than 5 millimeters gets through.”
  • Saving oaks in Thousand Oaks: Another student team worked with the National Park Service to explore Rancho Sierra Vista in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area near Thousand Oaks. For possible oak restoration plans, the students created a mathematical model identifying the best locations to plant the trees. Because oaks grow best in canyons, on north-facing slopes, on steep terrain and away from clay-loam soil, the team mapped the park and gave every area a score based on how closely it matched those requirements. The higher the score, the better an oak would grow.
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