August 31, 2016

Photo Essay: Drinking Water from the Sea

It's just plain logic.

If California's reservoir and lake levels are receding because of the drought, and the sea levels are rising because of the melting polar ice caps, then we need to figure out how to put ocean water into our taps.

At least, until our rainfall and snowpack are repleted.

But the problem is that ocean water is too salty for general use and consumption, so before it even goes into the tap—or down our throats—the salt has got to be taken out.

Hence, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant at the Encina Generating Station, the largest desal plant in the Western Hemisphere.

At its most basic level, their process isn't terribly different from that of a wastewater treatment facility.

As it stands now, water from the Pacific Ocean is currently pumped in by the neighboring natural gas-fueled power plant...

...which is soon to be decommissioned, demolished, and replaced with a far smaller and more energy-efficient facility.

Every day, a hundred million gallons of water is drawn into the pump station and transferred to the desal plant.

But only half of it is actually used. The other half contains all of the salt, minerals, and other impurities that were removed by the treatment process and is discharged back into the ocean in the form of "brine."

The half of the seawater that will be converted into drinkable water supply goes through two rounds of pretreatment.

The primary pretreatment removes the solids, which include sand, gravel, and anthracite (a type of coal).

The secondary pretreatment, called microfiltration, removes even more material—but this time, it's more of the microscopic variety.

According to our guide, when the white cylindrical filters are lined up inside the filtration machine, they look like a row of cigarettes.

After the pretreatment is completed, the water still isn't desalinated, because some salts and minerals had actually dissolved in it...

...and they weren't removed along with the solid stuff.

That's where reverse osmosis comes in.

This is the most dangerous part of the tour, when you've really got to keep your hands to yourself.

It's also the "heart" of the desalination process.

The building is full of "pressure vessels" that house semi-permeable membranes.

Water is forced through the membranes to remove all of the final remaining impurities.

But the water isn't exactly drinkable yet—because it's so pure that if you put it into the water supply, it would leach metals from the pipes. So, they treat it with limestone to get some of the natural minerality back into it.

That's also when it receives its final disinfection with the addition of chlorine, and its fluoridation (which some might say actually contaminates the water).

And maybe it's just the power of suggestion, but the desalinated water does taste a little funny when you know you're drinking it.

But clearly, they're doing something right—because unlike the rest of the State of California, they have a surplus of water.

They're constantly pumping it out to regions in San Diego County—so, if the power were to go out, there would be a tide of water coming back into the plant.

That's what the blue "surge" tanks are for.

But let's hope nothing causes that to happen. Because the polar ice caps don't stop melting during a blackout.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: West Basin Water Recycling Facility
Photo Essay: Wastewater in the Time of Drought
History in the Making

These Memories That Reek

Darlington Road, circa 2014, from Google Street View

It takes a lot to throw me for a loop these days.

But this week, I was unprepared for the rush of memories that would come with walking into an unfamiliar place with so many familiar smells.

On a recent road trip, when my friend Robert was planning our lunch stop, he turned to me and said, "You're of Germanic descent, right? You're going to love this place."

It turns out that Robert's favorite place to eat in Carlsbad, California is a German delicatessen called Tip Top Meats. I didn't think much of it at first mention, since I've ventured to places like Alpine Village and various biergartens without incident.

But as soon as I walked into that European eatery that's been there since 1967, I realized I was in trouble.

Something about the building itself—and maybe its shelves—smelled like my grandparents' house on Darlington Road in Syracuse, or maybe more like their summer camp house on the Oneida River. It's an old, musty smell of damp wood and aged newspaper.

I was still kind of OK at that point. But as I walked through the front market area to order my lunch at the counter in the back, my nose was hit with vinegar, sweet and sour (sauer), and the vague sense of overcooked vegetables and sauce-smothered meat.

It was putrid and unsettling—and I couldn't figure out why all the diners seemed to be enjoying their meals of picked beets and red cabbage, their juices bleeding into all the other foods on their plates.

Didn't the stench bother them? Couldn't they smell the fear and anguish that had gone rancid?

It was the smell of my childhood kitchen, too—the place where inevitably all hell broke loose. That's where our mother engaged in her secret eating and where she kept the wooden spoons that she broke upon our bottoms. That's where our mother would load story upon story of our misbehavior upon our father during the brief 30 minutes he had at home for dinner between the two jobs he worked to support the family.

That's where we'd gaze out of the window onto Sunnycrest Avenue, trying to catch a glimpse of the world going on outside.

The kitchen is also where I'd lie curled up in a ball on the floor every night after dinner, doubled over in pain from some unknown and never-diagnosed abdominal ailment.

You'd think that the stink of my own memories would've been enough to traumatize me, but then I tied to choose something to eat, since I grew up hating most of the German food that my mother cooked.

I nearly fell apart, looking at dishes that I'd forgotten all about eating, like rouladen and rostbraten. Seeing their names typed out on the menu above brought my mother's voice back into the insides of my ears and filled me with dread for mealtime, or for anytime I'd have to go into that kitchen.

Seeing the pictures of the food—and the actual dishes being delivered to the surrounding tables—was almost too much to bear. I ordered my black forest ham and swiss sandwich and then made a beeline to the bathroom to escape it al for just a little too long.

I used to escape the kitchen at home by going into the bathroom, too.

When I returned to our table and to the ham and cheese sandwich that had been delivered for me while I was gone, I tried to compose myself, but I was visibly shaken. I even tried to have a bite or two of the German potato salad—one of the few things I used to actually like eating—but the familiar flavor was too much.

I couldn't wait to get out of there. Isn't it bad enough that I dream about my mother and my childhood house nearly every night? That, in my dreams, I can't figure out why I'm still living there or why I'm still even talking to them, when things are so bad?

Or that even while asleep, I can't seem to figure out a way to break away—because, for some reason, I can't just walk out the door.

I may not be able to control what happens while I'm asleep, but I can try to avoid these triggers in my waking hours. The German dishes of my early life always felt like a punishment—the Fleischkuechle the knackwurst, the sauerbraten, pork and sauerkraut, and spinach and bacon. I'll be glad if I never taste or smell any of them again.

But I wonder what else I've forgotten—what else will show up uninvited and unannounced, at perhaps some inopportune time?

What else is lurking in the recesses of my mind, whittling away at my subconscious psyche, undermining me in ways I couldn't possibly comprehend now, or maybe ever?

I really would rather not find out.

So I guess I'll just have to keep trying new flavors to keep the old ones at bay.

Related Post:
Love at First Bite
Sense Memory: A Taste of London

August 29, 2016

Photo Essay: A Roadside Cactus Ranch in Reseda

[Last updated 1/12/19 PM PT]

The first thing you notice when you drive by the Cactus Ranch—also known as "California Nursery Specialties"— is the roadside dinosaurs.

Photo: California Nursery Specialties

Now, those aren't an unusual sight out in the desert or even the Inland Empire, but you may not expect to see them on a residential street in Los Angeles.

Of course, this one and a half-acre site isn't in a part of LA that most people know.

This is Reseda, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley famously name-checked in the Tom Petty song, "Free Fallin'" and in the movie The Karate Kid.

Even though it's considered the first suburb in the Valley, Reseda was known in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s for its agricultural endeavors—particularly lettuce, lima beans, and walnuts.

You can still find a few signs of Reseda's agricultural past, if you know where to look.

The California Cactus Ranch isn't the only nursery in Reseda, but it's probably the wildest.

And that's largely in thanks to "Bob's Town," a mini ghost town created by landscape designer Bob Swearingen, a friend of the nursery's owner, David Bernstein.

According to a sign posted at the entrance of Bob's Town and written by Bob's son Geoff, David had been looking for ways to draw more customers to his cactus nursery.

So, together, he and David began assembling some building materials they had lying around from old structures up north.

circa 2019

Apparently, Bob was inspired by the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a TV show that was at its peak at the time of his project, around 1995-6. 

circa 2019

The result includes a saloon, mercantile, a U.S. Marshal's office, and the "Kactus Kitchen" restaurant—all fictional, as far as I can tell.

Bob passed away the following year, making this his last project—and he ended on a high note, because as the sign says, it's a "rousing success."

You might say that it's a little bit of God's country smack dab in the middle of LA, but it's weirder than that.

And its owner, David, has had plenty of time to diversify and exoticize his collection—having started 40 years ago when he was in high school.

In fact, there are over 100,000 plants at the nursery—some bearing edible fruit and paddles, and some sprouting beautiful flowers.

Some of the spinier and spikier cacti are sought-after as plantings that will provide protection around the perimeter of a property.

And still others have healing powers.

The ranch is full of oddities and exotic plants—so much so that production designers come here looking to dress their sets for films taking place in South America, Mexico, or Africa.

Many of the desert plants here actually come from countries around the world, like Peru or South Africa.

While the proprietor encourages you to come with a camera and stay for an hour or more, this is a store...

...and nearly everything is for sale.

You could drop a couple of bucks on a tiny cutting for a houseplant...

...or you could invest a couple of grand on a really big cactus to scare off intruders...

...or on an entirely new garden devoted to succulents and cactus flowers.

They've got cacti that look like everything from brains to the jaws of an animal and the toes of a baby.

In their greenhouse "gallery," they've got jade and other ornamental garden plants...

...some hybrids, and some having grown from seed (but never dug up from their native roadside ecosystems).

And after you've worked up a thirst surrounded by all of those water-hoarding blooms, you can grab a Cactus Cooler soda to sip on (or a Pepsi).

They say that you can visit the Cactus Ranch any time of the year, and you'll see something different.

Too bad it's only open to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays, and only 'til 5 or 6 p.m.—because surely that's too early to catch a whiff of the fragrant Night-Blooming Cereus, also known as "Queen of the Night."

For more photos, especially of the "ghost town," click here. You can also check out the Photo Gallery on the official site of the Cactus Ranch.

For my "5 Great Ways to Get Your Succulent On" for KCET, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Moorten Botanical Garden, Palm Springs
Photo Essay: A Treasure Trove of Roadside Dinosaurs
Photo Essay: A Metal Menagerie of Wild Animals
Photo Essay: A Walk Among the Orchids (and Chrysanthemums and Daisies)
Window Shopping