Tag Archives: Al Barrow

Lifestyle: Small Footprint Sustainability

New Orleans   Ok, you’re right.  This is not a normal place to look for lifestyle tips.  And, you’re thinking, hey, I was just in California, this will be some hippy-dippy baloney.  Well, have it your way, but this was no hippy strategy but a small footprint sustainability system for living well on very limited income, and there was nothing laid back, California dreaming about it, because no small amount of it was not produced by hard work.

I stayed in Los Osos with Al Barrow, who had invited me to the Central Coast to understand and think with he and others about how to deal with a long standing water and sewer issue (see earlier blog).  Almost as interesting as all of that was seeing how Al had taken his section 8 rental unit with no yard and made a couple of square feet here and there into virtually a farm plot.

There is no soil this close to Morro Bay and the spit.  It’s all sand, so Al had to virtually build soil from compost and dirt garnered here and there.  He had built his own version of greenhouses in several spots using discarded shower stall doors found here and there and picked up along the way.   He needed to protect his tomatoes and other vegetables from the wind and weather.  Around all sides was diatomaceous earth (recognizable as a white fossilized powder) to keep the bugs at bay.  The corn in the back was already knee high by the 4th of July, and tassels were coming out.  Inside the kitchen were large plastic buckets filled with harvested wheat.  Yes, wheat!  Al told me about grinding it out by hand to make his own raw oats for his breakfast oatmeal.

I was here to deal with water and it’s hard to talk about sustainability and small plot farming in this part of California without water.   Al had rigged up a system on his washing machine outside so that he could recycle the used grey water to keep his garden growing.  Pretty amazing stuff:  low cost ingenuity.

Nothing in Al’s background would have prepared him for such small scale home-based farming.  He had lived here and there throughout the west.  Made livings as a Fred Astaire dancer and a lot of other things along a path that included going to Oregon to college and graduating about 40 years old, but what he had obviously learned along the way was how to “make do,” and that turns out to have been an invaluable set of skills and the evidence seemed to be cropping up everywhere around him.


National Crisis with Local Pain: Rebuilding Water and Sewer Infrastructure

Morro Bay / Los Osos area

Los Osos and Morro Bay       There may not be too many issues more complex, expensive, or unpleasant to discuss than the emerging national crisis involving the mixing of our drinking water and our sewage wastewater, the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to protect against pollution, and the enormous expense that such infrastructure rebuilding would attempt to assess working families in communities large and small across the country.  Los Osos and the beautiful Morro Bay area of the central coast of California is too small, too far west, and too off anyone’s radar to be ground zero for the national calamity, but their forty year struggle to come to terms with these issues put me on Highway 101 South until I arrived here in the shadow of the “rock” for the first time since I camped here for several days in 1968.

I was lured to Los Osos by Al Barrow and his one-man band Low Income Housing Coalition which has been his effort to “give back” over these several decades in the community where he has successfully built a low footprint, sustainable, and high quality life on few resources.  All afternoon Al introduced me to veterans of this long and convoluted struggle to come to grips with the current septic tank system in 60% of the unincorporated Los Osos community and persistently worked with me to understand the myriad issues involved in San Luis Obispo’s efforts to move forward to build a $200 million gravity based sewer and drainage system, currently financed by a Congressional earmark that would be repaid over 20 years at a dear price of $200 or more per month by the largely working and fixed income community and its significant tenant population.

Al Barrow and Bob Robertson, sparkplugs of the organizing

I was the guest speaker for a dozen hardy veterans and residents of these neighboring communities who sat on a beautiful afternoon on the upper slope of a swale of sorts while I spoke up the hill.  This was a campaign where there were few instances where people couldn’t cite having “been there, done that,” from successful initiative petitions, recall elections, creations of special sewer districts, lawsuits, and so forth.  Many in the meeting were not almost expert level hydrologists, engineers, and geologists having logged in months of study on environmental statements and reams of documents.  Nonetheless, as much as many hated to admit it, they were at the end of the road.  The sewer or something very much like it was coming and the window for either work or whining was closing.

In trying to find some consensus across this contentious, divided community, the issue increasingly seemed to resolve around equity and affordability.  How to shape a plan that would involve future developers – stopped for decades from new construction of more than 1500 undeveloped lots because no water permits could be issued – and the 40% of the community benefiting but exempted for various reasons to participate at some level in the cost and how to move the cost down below $100 per month so there was some chance that people would be able to pay seemed to be the most fertile places to look for consensus.

This is an issue now facing nearly a 1000 communities across the United States.  In this era of neoliberalism the government is shifting all of the costs for what used to be massive federal and state infrastructure improvements onto the citizens, and in this and many other communities there is no way to foot the bill.  There is a coalition and a campaign waiting to be built around these issues, and I’m sure I’m not alone in trying to wrap my mind and arms around the issues and how to breakthrough, but it’s a mountain to climb.

Finding a way to unite a community so long divided in these fights will be a struggle.   Many of my new friends in Los Osos had been embedded in one camp or another for so many years that it was easy to forget that to “win” here would not be a matter of who was “right” anymore, but who could muster a majority around some plan or program.

I got a crash course on the central coast which will keep my mind spinning on the long drive back to San Francisco and the longer flight home.

speaking at the tennis courts about the water and sewer issues of Los Osos

Mark Webber plays jazz guitar to start the discussion