A tale of three wetlands

February 22, 2012 § 18 Comments

Image: City of Los Angeles

Los Angeles proudly unveiled a new 9-acre park in South Los Angeles featuring a wetland that, I’m told, taps into the stormdrain network.  And also receives tap water augmentation (although I don’t have the figures on how much).  This is a $26 million achievement funded via the City’s Proposition O.  The park helps to remediate not just stormwater but also a long-neglected imbalance in per capita park acreage for this South LA area compared with not only other areas of Los Angeles, but also compared to the city’s own planning standards. This constructed stormwater park is being celebrated in the media, here’s a few links:  LA Times, KCET, A/N Blog.  Everyone’s psyched to see a paved parking lot (bus yard) be turned into a natural paradise.

I wholeheartedly support creating open space with stormwater benefits and habitat establishment.  But I do feel it is essential that these sites function entirely on local stormwater after an establishment period.  Our region is home to seasonal wetland and wet meadow habitat communities to draw from.  Used in design, we could create stormwater remediation and open space projects that would be ultimately more self-sustaining.

Southern California seasonal wetlands, from left to right: stream in a wet meadow (Antelope Valley), vernal pool (Santa Rosa Plateau), seasonal wetland (self-restored at Taylor Yard, before it was bulldozed for the park and its manmade wetland). Photos: Jessica Hall

We don’t need to design these sites with perennial standing tap-water inputs.  Not for the stormwater quality benefits, not for the habitat, and certainly not for the continued impact to far-away sources of water.

Because, as we all know at some level, buried deep in our highly irrigated psyche, there is wetland #2:  the former floodplain of the Colorado River, among many far-away affected wetlands.  Creekfreak will be writing more about the Lower Colorado soon, but here’s an image to ponder the effects of our continual, relentless draw on it and other sources:

Former Colorado River floodplain backwaters today. Photo: Jessica Hall

Naturally-occurring wetlands are truly precious things.  And wetlands are unique to particular topography and hydrology – you won’t find a wetland on a slope, but on flat land where water and sediment come to standstill, or groundwater seeps, or floods fill up backwater terrain.  Here’s an interesting wetland site in Torrance, at Crenshaw near 208th Street, and the under-construction Del Amo Blvd Extension.

Image: Google Earth

Bad phone camera shot of imperiled Torrance wetland. Photo: Jessica Hall

Formerly a backwater likely connected seasonally to the Dominguez Slough as the LA River flooded historically, it was paved over and put to use as a paint factory for many years.  As the site was deconstructed and remediated, wetland-forming processes also picked up where they left off (and without the benefit of LA River flooding!), resulting in a self-restoring willow- and mulefat- rich wetland site. Self-restored, self-maintaining, unlike our $26m tapwater-augmented wetland.  And also unlike our $26 million wetland park, this one is lined in razor wire and – wait for it – destined to become an asphalt slab – as parking and a transit depot for the Green Line extension.

Feeling blue about the Green Line extension.

That’s right, for $26m we created a wetland from a slab of asphalt, and for who knows how much more we will pave over a naturally-occurring one.

Enjoying this irony? It gets better, albeit as a digression from usual Creekfreak topics.

Urban designers, even the MTA, advocate strategically planning transit near development (as they’ve done along the Red and Gold Lines) – existing density provides a ready “market” of potential transit users, encourages car-free living, and can spur additional multi-story, mixed use development that contributes to a vibrant street life in a city.  But out here in the South Bay (and perhaps other areas further flung from Los Angeles proper), transit stops are more like lonely outposts, appearing to be, by design, as remote from actual habitation as possible.  As if a transit stop were an offense to single-family suburbs.  I should mention, I actually use public transit.  As a female, I find these stations to feel isolated, exposed, and unsafe, devoid of connection to street-life, and would much prefer a neighborhood-friendly transit stop walking or biking distance from my home, or at least along a route of streets lined with homes and street-level commercial activity.  Kind of like the North Berkeley BART station, for example, or the downtown bus depot in Bellingham, Washington.

Left, Bellingham bus center sits within urban fabric. Right, Artesia Transit Center in Gardena is near...nothing. (photos: Google Earth and MTA)

Proximity to transit hasn’t unleashed social pandemonium in either locale and promotes community connectivity.

But this new transit center, like the wetland it will replace, will be wedged between industry – including refineries – and a small smattering of some fairly low-density residential.  And separated by yawningly wide Crenshaw boulevard from the housing.  The bulk of Torrance’s population lies elsewhere.  On the other hand, a charming, Olmsted Bros-era shopping district runs walking/bicycling distance from the rail line further south, near Torrance High School, Wilson Park and the Southern California Regional Occupational Center (SCROC). There’s plenty of asphalt on what looks like school and/or park property in that area.

Schools, parks, warehouses, and residential line the railroad tracks. Old Torrance commercial area is a short distance away. Image: Google Earth.

The Green Line extension is likely to appeal to the more environmentally-oriented residents of Torrance, who might not want to have to drive and park; non-resident users might also appreciate being able to arrive somewhere, a destination such as Old Torrance. And vocational school attendees might be better served with accessible transit – I recall the SCROC-bound bus when I was in high school several miles away in Hawthorne.  With Old Torrance nearby, this might be good for business as well.  But situated by the refinery, hardier locals may attempt to ride their bicycle, braving Crenshaw Blvd if they are north/south-bound, or perhaps wanting to use the newly extended Del Amo Boulevard if they are traveling east-west.  Del Amo is one of the closest E-W boulevards to the future transit center, and abandoned railroad lines were recently used to convert Del Amo from a dead-end to a through-street.  But bicycle traffic is being excluded by design and policy from the street extension, even though it has a bike lane further to the west – and is one of Torrance’s more bike-friendly big boulevards!  I mean, except for through the extension.  I’m not making this up.  I called the City, got forwarded to the folks doing the street extension, and was somewhat testily informed that bikes will not be allowed.

Furthermore, when asked about the appropriateness of the wetland site for the transit center, an environmental award-winning Torrance councilman also got testy.  He abruptly cut me off midsentence, indicating that it had to be this way.

It has to be that way.

No, it doesn’t.  Just ask the people who manufactured a wetland out of an asphalt slab.

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§ 18 Responses to A tale of three wetlands

  • Shari Twidwell says:

    You have GOT to be kidding me! Torrance really wants to do this? Is there still time to change their minds and give them alternate locations for the train station? SCROC/Wilson Park would be perfect for a station, or even further down Madrona near Torrance’s Civic Center, where the parking is ample, the paved yards are plentiful, and Del Amo mall is within walking distance. WHY would they want to destroy wetlands for something so easily put elsewhere??? Do we have time to advocate for change, or is this a done deal? Thanks so much, Jessica, for such a great article!

    • Jessica Hall says:

      I dont’ know how “done” the deal is. MTA is showing this location as the likely future transit center. I’d recommend letting MTA know as well as Torrance how you feel about it. I am glad you have other alternative sites in mind as well. One of MTA’s challenges, of course, is to economize, and so they tend to focus on routes with existing rail infrastructure.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Shari, I just pulled this up:

      http://www.allbusiness.com/transportation/public-transportation-urban-transit/12798809-1.html

      $18m for the land, what they don’t use for the transit center they hope to put to other uses.

      • Charlie says:

        Does anyone know what the Ball Industrial building being torn down the street is slated to become? You bring up some excellent points about how that is a bad location but even if they want to use that location they could at least move it across the street…

        I’ve also been watching this piece of land for a while, though I don’t live in Torrance anymore. Here’s another post about it:

        http://slowwatermovement.blogspot.com/2012/02/in-darkest-places-ecosystem-in.html

        I’ve lived quite a few places in CA and now in Vermont and I’ve never lived in a place more disconnected from nature and reality than Torrance. It is as if there was and still is a conscious effort to destroy anything natural, emergent, beautiful, or connected to place… replaced by generic lawns and straight lines. The place honestly hurts my brain, and I wish everyone I love who lives there would leave so I could never set foot there again.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        Charlie, you beat me to it with your link. Thanks for that – readers, Charlie has more site photos and a description of the plants he observed on site. I also found the extremely restricted access interesting and unnecessary – unless you were trying to keep people from seeing something.

      • Charlie says:

        my guess is in addition to Torrance not wanting to be open, there are probably serious soil contamination/toxic waste issues. Which is why allowing willows and mulefat to clean the soil is the only real solution, rather than building another parking lot.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        I have a map I call “Torrance Toxics” that I’ll try to post tomorrow, I downloaded the list of contaminanted sites nominated for Superfund program and mapped them all for Torrance. It’s more a historical record than about current polluting, but very revealing of what has to be a laissez faire attitude towards pollution – or else there simply wouldn’t be SO many sites.

  • Mademoiselle Gramophone says:

    I like how you think thing through in the long term. So smart. So not based on political wind direction. Meaty. Long term. Big picture. Inclusive.

  • Mike Letteriello says:

    Thanks for the ton of info, Jessica, as usual. People need to get as upset about the disappearance and degrading of our wetlands as much as our
    signal animal species. Keep it up.

  • Joe Linton says:

    I don’t know the Torrance site… but is that paving for the rail station? or for PARKING for the rail station?

    Seattle rail was done with no new parking at stations… Metro Rail has vast parking craters at many stations. I think we’d be better off without any (and don’t get me started on why the parking is free, while the rail fares keep nudging upward.)

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Paving is for parking and for the buses that will link up. If they design it like the Artesia or El Monte transit centers, it will be vast asphalt, small zones for pedestrian movement, and very very little shade. To your other point, if it were designed central to where people lived, there’d be no need for parking, nor the need for punitive parking charges.

      • Emily Green says:

        You’re making way too much sense, Jessica. I have a lot of questions about these wetlands. One — slightly off topic, admittedly — is must the water be fenced off in these parks? It is in Hawkins too. Imagine the serpentine fenced in Hyde Park. Fine post.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        While I agree with you about that, as these are stormwater treatment facilities there are issues with providing access in manmade or mitigated wetlands. There’s the knee-jerk generic liability issue. There’s the regulatory standards issue of water needing to meet REC-1 (physical contact) water quality standards prior to discharge to Waters of the US; doesn’t make sense to allow physical contact to the treatment water if it’s not REC-1 prior to discharge to the protected waterbody. And then there’s potentially the habitat mitigation dimension, as a lot of sites that mitigate habitat somewhere else (not saying that’s the case here) are meeting a legal requirement they often fence the mitigation site off in order to ensure that they don’t have to go back and restore it.

        It’s interesting, as I read once that jurisdictions can’t be held liable for accident/injury occurring in a natural setting, i.e. a natural wetland, the ocean, etc. But it can be held liable for its public works projects, presumably even the ones that mimic nature. So by that reasoning, the county/city shouldn’t be liable for the flooding of a stream unless it helped to cause the flooding, or otherwise altered the stream. But we channelize them anyway.

      • Charlie says:

        for more on Torrance fencing stuff off for no reason, see all of the sumps in the city. I guess they are worried people will fall in and drown because unlike most areas, policymakers in Torrance are afraid of the water. They don’t seem too worried about fencing off the ocean though, even though that water is a lot more dangerous than any sump.

        I think of the Torrance city council loose here in Vermont and a mix of absurdity and horror comes to mind – imagine if they tried to fence off every Vermont lake! It’s not that Vermont doesn’t make mistakes when dealing with water, but Torrance is on a whole other level.

  • Raphael says:

    You bring up a lot of excellent points, and we need to carefully evaluate how local wetland projects fit into a regional (and even a statewide) management plan. Creating an urban wetland is far more expensive (And far less ecologically successful) than preserving a natural wetland far away, though that comparison ignores all the associated social costs and benefits.

    Do we know for sure that the Torrance wetland is naturally occuring? And isn’t due, for example, to local runoff or a burst pipe underground? And if that’s so, would that change your view on the value of that wetland?

    • Jessica Hall says:

      I’m sure there’s local runoff involved but that doesn’t make it unnatural, as many seasonal wetlands are formed by runoff. The natural process (runoff) is shaping the wetland – as our constructed wetlands should also be shaped and maintained by runoff.

      This area, as I mentioned in the post, is associated with the backwaters of the Los Angeles River. The old Dominguez Slough was a vast wetland. The open water was mapped, but the extent of actual wetland plants, of wetland soils etc is not, to my knowledge, mapped. The historical ecology projects for Ballona Creek and San Gabriel River demonstrate that as one moves further from the open water wetlands, the wetland habitat changes to wet meadows, vernal pools, and alkali sinks, and these covered at times broad areas in response to our region’s rain cycles, which dumps a lot of rain in a short period of time.

  • Glen Dake says:

    I’d put my small bit of hope in increased investment in land use planning. The City of LA General Plan has a conservation element covering these issues that is irrelevant to the planning process. http://cityplanning.lacity.org/cwd/gnlpln/consvelt.pdf Given the land use system we have, the choice available to both the MTA and the City Council office staffs was to look for land and buy what was available.
    Second, the large constituency that sees itself as for “environmentalism” in City of LA is short on attention to scientific rigor, and not tolerant of any trade-off’s. (Though many of its leaders are up for the science.) Could we be motivated to unite and press for new accountability to a robust, scientific “Conservation Element”? Any chance that we get to put forward a little more of the science of natural systems into the newspaper we should take it.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Conservation element with science and teeth, yes!

      The land in question (wetland #3) is in the City of Torrance, however.

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