The Beginning of Flood Resiliency in Suisun City

By Alex Lunine, Resilient Communities Program Manager

Over the past two years, Sustainable Solano has focused on spreading awareness of the dire need for climate resilience in Suisun City, making education regarding flooding accessible for the city’s residents. Generously funded by PG&E through the Better Together Resilient Communities, Sustainable Solano’s Resilient Neighborhoods program installed two flood-resilient gardens in Suisun, kicked off a now annual climate event in the city, led a high school internship program, taken residents on a dozen Flood Walk tours, and empowered the community to tackle flooding via the creation of a community-based action plan.

Starting in 2021, we shared information from the Adapting to Rising Tides report published by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to spread scientific literacy regarding climate change and its impacts on Suisun. We connected with hydrology and permaculture experts Anne Freiwald and Lydia Neilsen of Vital Cycles to conduct a walkaround consultation of downtown Suisun and surrounding neighborhoods. Their expertise was instrumental in our own understanding of Suisun’s baseline flood resilience and informed our educational efforts. This expert information was used to create our Flood Walk program, where we would lead groups of curious Suisun residents and others from around Solano County interested in flood risk on a tour of flood-vulnerable areas near the Suisun Marina and downtown. We furthered our outreach efforts via the flood-resilient garden workshops and installations, offering opportunities for individual resiliency actions in addition to those at the community scale. Finally, in partnership with Suisun City, we organized and started the Suisun Climate and Environmental Festival: bringing a variety of environmental organizations together to promote true citywide community resilience.

Flood Walks offered an interactive way to learn about flood risks
A demonstration garden showed how to capture rainwater during large storms

Climate and Environmental Festival Educational Talks

As awareness of flooding vulnerabilities became more commonplace, and with the city partnership, we proceeded into 2021 with the goal of assisting residents to funnel their thoughts, concerns and solutions into a unified and practical document. With a combination of hard work from our Core Team (a group of concerned Suisun residents and officials), Adam Welchel with The Nature Conservancy, and our high school interns, we hosted the first Community Resilience Building Workshop on the West Coast. During this event in June 2022, around 20 residents, government officials, and environmental experts participated in the formation of a grassroots community action plan primarily targeting climate change. The conversations that took place were then consolidated into a Summary of Findings Report, which we hope will serve as a blueprint for residents and officials when crafting flood resilience policies.

Finally, with the last stretch of the Resilient Neighborhoods program in Suisun under this grant funding, we refocused on sharing education regarding flooding in Suisun and the Summary of Findings Report. The goal was to continue to bring as many voices to bear on the decision-making process. Sustainable Solano continued leading Flood Walks, installed a second climate-resilient garden, and facilitated a climate resilience community forum with then-Mayor Pro Tem Alma Hernandez. This forum served as the spiritual continuation of the 2021 festival, and gave the 15 participants the opportunity to directly engage in flood-related conversations with their government. The forum also contained an expert panel with representation from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, UC Davis, and the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District, that was able to answer questions participants raised.

High school interns learned how to lead informative Flood Walks
A garden installation taught about drought and flood resiliency

Climate Resilience Community Forum

While we are proud of the work SuSol has done to promote flood resilience in Suisun, we know that these past few years only represent the first step in true climate change preparedness. We hope to continue to conduct educational and community-building efforts in Suisun around flooding mitigation, and promote equitable and sustainable solutions for the city.

On behalf of Sustainable Solano, I would like to offer my deepest gratitude to PG&E and the Better Together Resilient Communities team for their guidance, patience and support in our efforts to build environmental resilience in Suisun City. Through our efforts enabled by PG&E’s backing, Sustainable Solano has helped Suisun undergo the first steps necessary to create a truly environmentally resilient community.

Reflection, Gratitude and Anticipation for What Lies Ahead

A letter from incoming SuSol Board President Maggie Kolk

The past few years have been challenging in so many ways for most of us.  Sustainable Solano’s strength and resilience under the leadership of Executive Director Elena Karoulina in the face of these challenges is remarkable. Marilyn Bardet, outgoing Board of Directors president, has played no small part in supporting Elena, the team, and the board through demanding times. Marilyn will be a hard act to follow. Fortunately, she will remain a board member, and I am confident that I can rely on her future support and nurturing mentorship.

As we begin a new year and as I take on the role of board president, reflection, gratitude, and anticipation for what’s to come are at the forefront of my mind

Reflection and Gratitude

Sustainable Solono - Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the WholeTrue to our mission of “Nurturing Initiatives for the Good of the Whole,” SuSol continues to grow and expand countywide programs to support and sustain the Solano County community. Like any organization, the team experienced both change and growth in 2022. We welcomed new team members, said farewell to others, and look forward to bringing on additional dedicated, enthusiastic team members in 2023.  The newest member of our board of directors, Treasurer John Uselman, brings the skill and professional expertise needed as we move forward into our next phase.

The key ingredient for the continuing growth and success of SuSol is the dedication and devotion of all of the people who make up the team managing and supporting our programs — sustainable landscaping, local food, resilient communities, youth engagement, sustaining conversations, and community gardens. (I proudly share that Avant Garden on First Street in Benicia provided over 1,000 lbs of fresh organically grown produce to the Benicia community in 2022. We are over the moon grateful for our volunteers who helped in this effort!)

Wholehearted appreciation and gratitude are sent to the entire Sustainable Solano team and volunteers for their commitment and hard work. To paraphrase Proust: you are “the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

We also are lucky to have the continuous support of funders who see the value of SuSol’s work here in the county, including the Solano County Water Agency, which first helped the organization grow from Benicia to throughout the county and continues to support our Solano Sustainable Backyards program today, and Solano Public Health, which saw the value in community gardens that increased access to fresh produce into Solano communities and moved that to action by supporting our Solano Gardens program. From the big funders to the individual donors, we are grateful to have the support of the community.

Details of SuSol’s accomplishments and activities can be found on the What’s Growing? blog.

Looking Forward to 2023

While I do admit to a bit of trepidation taking on a new leadership role, my excitement for the future of Sustainable Solano mitigates any fears I have about filling those big Marilyn Bardet shoes!

The future is bright for SuSol with existing programs flourishing and new support mechanisms coming from respected valuable resources. The perfect holiday gift arrived early in December in the form of a capacity-building support grant from a Bay Area agency. This grant is just the boost SuSol needs to transform our organization in the coming years.

Brilliant team members and supportive, experienced board members are committed to thinking outside the proverbial box and bringing new innovative ideas to the table. 2023 promises to be exciting and transformative for SuSol. To quote Walt Disney, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we are curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Finally, do you ask yourself “What can I do to live a more sustainable lifestyle and reduce the effects of climate change?” With a variety of programs to choose from, I urge you to take the leap and get involved in one or more of SuSol’s important sustainability programs. What is your passion — Air Quality, Local Food, Youth Engagement, Workforce Development? Attend SuSol events, volunteer for one of our programs, and become a friend of Sustainable Solano by donating to support our mission.

Wishing all of our Sustainable Solano community the very best for a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous 2023.

Maggie Kolk
President, Board of Directors
Sustainable Solano

Growing Healthier Plants and Ecosystems Regeneratively With Biology

By Michael Wedgley, Permaculture Designer and Soil Food Web Lab Technician

We are excited to be working with Michael and Hampton Bay HOA on the designs for two pilot sites that will demonstrate how lawn in common areas can be replaced with low-water, low-maintenance sustainable landscaping that is healthy, beautiful and natural. Here, Michael shares about the importance of healthy soil biology as part of that equation.

Michael Wedgley meets with a client in a permaculture garden he designed with healthy soil biology in mind.
Photo courtesy of GMC Photography and Video

Growing with biology is a decision to strike symbiosis with the natural world and allow natural systems to support the life of your plants. We can create greener, more vibrant ecosystems that support wildlife and humans more effectively and abundantly. We eliminate the need for toxic and time-consuming applications to “feed” plants and keep disease and pests at bay. By introducing biology into systems that are lacking and nurturing their establishment we can achieve balance in a system that allows us to let go of the wheel and let nature take over. This blog is meant to give a brief introduction to the natural process in action that allow for this transition.

Learn more about the Hampton Bay HOA project and Permaculture Designer Michael Wedgley on our HOA Projects page.

Who Are the Players

Fungi – Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a group of organisms known as Fungus. There are Fungi that break down material like leaves and wood, Fungi that form beneficial relationships with plants, and Fungi that parasitize plants. Fungi is the dominant nutrient-cycler in an old growth forest.

Bacteria – There is aerobic (oxygen preferring) and anaerobic (lack of oxygen preferring) bacteria. Most beneficial soil bacteria is aerobic; most disease forming bacteria is anaerobic. Bacteria help to mine nutrients from parent material and create structure in soil.

Nematodes – Nematodes are like microscopic worms. There are 3 primary groups to be aware of; bacterial feeding, fungal feeding, and root feeding. Root feeding can cause plant disease.

Protozoa – Large single celled organisms that feed on bacteria.

Nutrient Cycling

By ensuring that soil has adequate numbers of each of our microbial populations we eliminate the need for fertilizers. All soils have the necessary nutrients for plants to thrive. The biology in the soil makes those nutrients plant available through the nutrient cycle. This semi-complex interaction starts primarily with bacteria and through predation by nematodes and protozoa, excess nutrients are released into the soil.

Diversification and Disease Prevention

By ensuring that we have high and diverse populations of beneficial microbes we ensure there is no room for disease organisms to dominate and thrive. In general, just as in the human body, disease organisms in the soil and on the surface of the foliage of plants need a weak ecosystem to establish and thrive. By creating a diverse and abundant ecosystem of microbes we create a system that is impenetrable by diseases and pests.

Fungal to Bacteria Ratio and Weed Suppression

By customizing the ratio of the amount of Fungi in the soil to the amount of Bacteria in the soil, we can actually select for which plants we want to grow and eliminate weed species. To understand this, consider an old growth forest. You’ll notice that there are ferns, there are large coniferous trees, but nowhere can you find your typical garden weeds. The reason for this is the form of nitrogen released by fungi. This form of nitrogen (ammonia) is a lower ph. This is why you hear people say “blueberries prefer acidic soil.” On the other end of the spectrum (bacterially dominated) you have early succession plants like grasses. This is because the exudates created by bacteria are more alkaline. You don’t see many trees in prairies. Applying different compost preparations that have higher fungal to bacterial ratios we can begin to affect the ratio in the soil and have healthier plants and select against weed species.

Thermophilic Compost

The process in which we create compost to ensure the highest diversification of beneficial organisms and that we are able to eliminate pest organisms is through Thermophilic Composting. Using a diverse source of material, in the right balance, while maintaining aerobic conditions we are able to raise the temperature of a pile to the point that disease and pest organisms are destroyed while beneficial ones are left to thrive given the rich and diverse foods provided. We monitor the pile’s biology by assessing it under a microscope. Once the biological numbers are at our desired numbers it is ready for a number of applications.

Applications

With a microbially dominant compost that has our desired ratio we can apply the microbes through 3 primary applications.

  1. Direct compost applications – This application is recommended if the organic matter is lacking in dirt we wish to grow in. We can either till in some compost or apply to the surface of dirt.
  2. Compost extract – In this application we actually extract the microbes out of the compost and they become suspended in water. We can then apply this as a root drench to put the biology right where the plants will use it, or at areas of compaction where the bacteria can begin to loosen it up and create aerobic conditions with improved soil structure.
  3. Compost teas – Once we have an extract, we can “brew” it by adding oxygen into the water with some foods for the microbes. We let the extract bubble with aeration for roughly 24 hours while monitoring the growth under a microscope. Given time, bacteria and other microbes are able to multiply and form glues that allow them to stick to surfaces. We then spray this compost tea on the leaves of plants giving them a protective barrier from disease-causing organisms as well as allowing for nutrient exchange on the foliage of plants.

The number of applications necessary to establish a resilient and sustainable colony of beneficial microbes in the soil varies given many variables. The best way to picture what it takes is to think of settlers settling America, according to Elaine Ingham, microbiologist and researcher who created the Soil Food Web approach. Sometimes the first to arrive didn’t survive or few survived. The next ship was better prepared, or there were some settlers previously that made conditions slightly more hospitable so more were able to survive. Every subsequent ship going forward led to increasingly successful population growths until they became sustainable and reproduced and growing. It is the same with the microbes, and varies depending how hospitable or inhospitable the soil is to begin with, and how well it is protected during colonization.

Fertilizers, Pesticides, Salts, and Chemicals in Water

In establishing and maintaining healthy plants and healthy soil in a biological method we need to ensure the health and safety of the organisms. We must become caretakers of the invisible life that populates the soil beneath our feet and the foliage up above. A critical piece of this care is to ensure that their environment is not compromised by salts or chemicals which can completely eradicate the microbial populations. Fertilizers are a form of salts. All salts will dehydrate the cells of the microbes and cause death. Pesticides are created to destroy life. Even “targeted” pesticides have unwanted casualties and can upset the balance. Lastly chlorine and chloramine in water are designed to ensure lack of microbial growth in the pipes and therefore can do the same in your soil and on your plants. It is extremely important that we understand how fragile ecosystems can be. In general, these natural systems are extremely resilient, but when humans come in with their toxic approaches we upset the balance. Nature will always find a way back towards its attempt at turning everything into an old growth forest, but that takes time. If we want to have healthy and natural environments we have to help the biology along and make sure we don’t destroy it with our products.

Climate & Environmental Festival Reconnects Community to Create Change

By Jonathan Erwin, Resilient Neighborhoods Program Manager

Sustainable Solano hosted Suisun City’s first Climate and Environmental Festival in October. From the long slumber of in-person events through the pandemic, it was great to finally see some friendly masked faces and engage with a like-minded community in Suisun City. Over the course of the day, presentations from San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, Pathways Climate Institute and Vital Cycles provided a vision and tools for the future while an engagement fair highlighted many organizational efforts across the area as well as broader Solano County.

Amidst the hubbub of the festivities, this event made me realize the importance of connecting with each other. For the past few months, I have found it hard to stay optimistic about the future. With climate impacts happening every day, it wears on my mental state just how insurmountable the climate crisis can feel. Coupled with the pandemic, isolation and physical disconnection from our support networks can leave us feeling the brunt of unsolvable doom.

But there is light in the end. Our conversations through the event both with old and new faces, reconnected us with the larger community across Solano County working and advocating for issues around the climate crisis. We have power in numbers, and our community is energized as ever for change. From resource management, transportation and sewer districts, we have advocates for this type of work across a spectrum of organizations. And the ideas that the 120-plus attendees from the festival came up with represent broad and different strategies that we can use to advance our work at Sustainable Solano and across the efforts of Solano County.

We hope to see you out and about over the next few months to learn more about what your vision is for a more sustainable future. Have an idea now? Feel free to reach out to us at info@sustainablesolano.org

Check out some of the presentations from the day in the videos below.

2021 Suisun City Climate & Environmental Festival Educational Talks

Adapting to Rising Tides in Suisun City & Solano County
Protecting the Marsh: A New Suisun Marsh Protection Plan
Nature-Based Solutions to Address Climate Change

A Lesson from the Rain on Healthy Soil

By Alexis Koefoed, Soul Food Farm

Soul Food Farm‘s Alexis Koefoed shared these photos and thoughts during the rainstorm Oct. 24 that over the weekend brought more than 10 inches of rain to parts of Vacaville and at least 4 inches or more to other areas of Solano County. We wanted to share her insight about the importance of healthy soil in helping to address extreme weather events — a why farms like hers that use regenerative practices are so important.

Photos courtesy of Soul Food Farm

I thought today was a good opportunity to talk about the benefits of leaving living roots in the ground.

The first photo is the ranch directly across the road from Soul Food Farm. For 20 years this field was grazed by cattle and then rotational hay cropped, seeded and baled. While those old time farmers would not have called their farming practices regenerative, they knew how to take care of their land resources. Every year the soil provided grazing and hay crop.

Two years ago a new owner took over the same property and immediately began to overgraze the field with his cattle. To the point that the soil became completely pulverized.

Durning our frequent wind storms, a huge cloud of fecal dust blows over Soul Food Farm.

I’ve watched this living, thriving soil become degraded. A property I used to enviously wish was mine now is watched with worry about how its failure will impact our farm in a severe weather event. Like today.

So the first photo shows major flooding. Without soil cover, weeds, a crop, wild grasses, etc. There are no roots to hold the soil in place. And by extension no biology in the soil to convert carbon drawn from the air into food for the billions of living organism found in vibrant soils.

The next two photos are the fields on my farm. Where we have been practicing and learning to implement regenerative and no till practices for the last six years. The photo of the large field has no flooding.

The photo with some sitting water is roads and walking paths. A mini example of what happens when you have exposed dirt without a living plant on top.

Today while we celebrate the rain, but worry about such a huge moisture dump in a short period, I’m reminded of how important it is to manage our farmlands with integrity.

Extreme weather events are not going to diminish. And we have a huge opportunities as farmers, big or small, to use our soil as buffers to extreme weather conditions.

Healthy soils translate immediately into clean water ways, carbon sinks, healthy crops, thriving microbiology and productive domesticated animals.

Creating Change During a Crisis

By Sustainable Solano

When there is a crisis, it often can reveal underlying flaws in the existing system as well as opportunities for change. It has become apparent to us at Sustainable Solano that the current economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic (businesses shuttered, one in four people in the workforce filing for unemployment, increased need for food and other assistance) also opens the dialogue for how to shift our economy in a way that works for more people.

In particular, we wanted to take a look at the breakdown in the nation’s industrial food system and how strengthening and growing local food systems could support regenerative approaches to agriculture, create more local jobs, stimulate the local economy and create a more robust system that would weather future downturns better than the current system. This led to our open letter to California’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery.

Sustainable Solano also has joined more than 100 organizations in calling for equity, community-driven and comprehensive solutions, and capacity building in the recovery. These organizations, representing the environmental justice, equity, natural resources, transportation and energy sectors, offered principles and recommendations to embrace systemic transformation. You can find a copy of that letter and more on the recommendations here.

We hope the problems and solutions raised in these letters will be heard by those in positions of power to shape policy and move away from business as usual to transformative change.

Read Sustainable Solano’s open letter to the task force below.

Open Letter to Tom Steyer and the Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery

As the Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery explores what steps to take to ensure a steady, stable and long-lasting economic recovery within California, we at Sustainable Solano urge you to move toward an economy that works for more people, supporting the citizens of California and the small businesses upon which so many communities rely. In large part, a recovery in California will require a transformation of agriculture and our food system to create more local, resilient and regenerative approaches that are better for those who work in the system, the environment and citizens who need access to healthy, local food while supporting a local economy.

An Economic Strategy for the Way Forward

Sustainable Solano is a nonprofit grassroots organization in Solano County. Through our work, which grew out of community gardens and sustainable, edible landscapes, we have seen the need for access to healthy, local food. In 2017, we started building a local food system that supports our local farmers and creates appreciation and demand for food grown locally. We want to see a food system that is environmentally regenerative, economically viable and socially just. Supporting a local food system with some creative thought on how to help those hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis — those who have lost jobs, communities of color, the homeless and low-income communities — can create a way forward that helps to boost those communities even while building a robust system that will weather the next downturn with less disruption. This directly addresses your task of developing a fair, green, people-centered economic strategy to help the state recover.

Replacing a Flawed System with Resilient Local Food Systems

We urge you to consider approaches informed by the New Deal as well as the Green New Deal — finding ways to support citizens, provide work and improve the resilience of communities as we strengthen the economy and better the planet. The current situation has revealed cracks in the existing system of industrial agriculture, where food is treated as a commodity exchanged between institutions rather than the foundation that supports people’s health and well-being.

Farmers often grow products that are shipped out of state and out of the country for processing or sale in a vast global supply chain. The flaws in this system are now exposed: food is flushed down drains and rots in the field while people go hungry. We encourage supporting local food systems where farmers can get a fair price for their food within a local market that in turn supports the creation of more jobs.

Supporting local farms that operate in sustainable ways and providing local markets for what they produce will support communities around the state. Access to local food reduces the carbon footprint of the food people buy, returns more of the profit to the farmers who are able to sell directly to consumers and nearby institutions, such as schools or hospitals, and has a multiplier effect for the local economy, boosting local business spending and jobs. You have the unique opportunity to encourage systemic change through the development and growth of local systems, based on successful models that already exist in the state, such as the local food system in San Diego.

Financial Support for Workers and Farmers

We envision that those who need work could find jobs within the local food system, including on farms, in restaurants, through distribution, in the production of value-add products and more. But we also suggest supporting those workers through an underlying Universal Basic Income, offering financial support to meet their basic needs, helping them pay bills and bolster the local economy even as they build the new food system. Having UBI to offset part of their salaries would also help to support smaller farms that have less capacity to increase production, allowing them to bring on additional workers at a lower price point. This again strengthens the system, and in ways that move away from food stamps and food banks, but rather support agricultural practices that pour resources back into the local economy.

A Move from Business as Usual

Now more than ever we are faced with a crisis that presents new opportunities to change from business as usual to business that supports even those who are most vulnerable in society. We urge you to reach out to community organizations like our own that are prepared to carry the vision forward. These organizations are ready to do the legwork to effect change in our current system, but we need the political will, high-level imagination and courage that comes from government and business leaders such as yourself and those represented on the task force.