Heavy Rains Reveal Creek Streets

March 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

After Sunday’s daylong rainstorms, the rains ended and the sky still looked plenty cloudy Monday-yesterday, I bundled up and was bicycling into downtown, when I came to this massive puddle across from LaFayette Park. The photo shows the south side of Wilshire Boulevard between Commonwealth Avenue and Hoover Street. I didn’t get a shot of it, but there was a least a couple of feet of water in the park itself. The southwest corner of the park, normally enjoyed by lots of skateboarders, was being enjoyed by a half-dozen ducks.

Yesterday's post-rainstorm pond, Arroyo de la Brea re-emerging on Wilshire Boulevard across from LaFayette Park

Creek Freaks will recall (from Jessica’s earlier article Commerce over creeks at Wilshire + Hoover and other mentions since) that this particular dip in Wilshire Boulevard, and this part of LaFayette Park, were historically Arroyo de la Brea – a creek tributary of Ballona Creek.

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Places to Visit: Bimini Slough Ecology Park

January 19, 2010 § 16 Comments

A manmade creek runs through the Bimini Slough Ecology Park

Located on the northeast edge of Los Angeles’ Koreatown, the Bresee Foundation’s Bimini Slough Ecology Park is an excellent and innovative example of how we can heal our urban watersheds and bring green spaces to underserved neighborhoods. I was glad to see that my co-blogger Jessica promoted this park in Emily Green‘s recent L.A. Times column entitled The Dry Garden: Capturing the spirit of L.A.’s streams, even if they’re gone. Here’s an excerpt:

No matter how many rain barrels we put out and percolation pits we dig, many homeowners can do only so much in compensating for the absorptive and cleansing power of lost streams. Because many sites cannot capture all the rain that falls on them or flows through them, [Jessica] Hall sees cleverly situated public water-catching projects as crucial companion pieces to the water gardens put in by homeowners.

Asked to point one out, Hall chose the Bimini Slough Ecology Park. Designed by city landscape architect and wastewater engineer Nishith Dhandha, this mere half-acre sandwiched next to the Breese Community Center in Koreatown acts as a giant filter by taking urban runoff from a full city block. First it captures the water, then passes it through grates to catch trash. From there, the storm water runs through a meandering marsh, where riparian plants do what they have always done: cleanse the water.

That quote tells the basic story of the Bimini Slough park, located at the corner of Bimini Place and Second Street. Our readers know that I am capable of turning a short story into a really long one, so… what follows is that long story: how to get there, the history of the slough, how the park came about, and what it features.

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Why I, creek freak, like bike!

August 23, 2009 § 8 Comments

Bicyclist riding along the L.A. River - from cicle.org

Bicyclist riding along the L.A. River – from cicle.org

I’ve mentioned this on some previous posts and in my book, but I want to go into excruciating detail telling the tale of why I choose to ride a bicycle, and how this connects to improving the health of rivers and creeks. There are a lot of good reasons to bicycle, related to health, community, global warming, peace, and joy… but I am going to focus herein on connections to waterways.

Bicycling, more than driving and I suspect perhaps even more than walking, gives the rider a sense of the contours of a place. When I bike east from my home at Los Angeles Eco-Village, I immediately notice that First Street dips. Most of us creek freaks out there know that these dips are L.A.’s historic creeks – in this case, I am riding across Arroyo de la Sacatela as it enters the Bimini Slough.

I find that many very useful streets for bicycling are those that follow the course of a creek; these tend to be low-lying and have a nice gradual grade. In my neighborhood, a few of these include Silver Lake Boulevard , Myra Avenue and Glendale Boulevard – which correspond respectively to an eastern branch of Sacatela, Sacatela and Arroyo de los Reyes.

Bike paths are often the way that the public gets introduced to Southern California waterways. Growing up in Tustin, I biked along the Santa Ana River to get to the beach. It was pretty much as concrete as L.A.’s rivers, and only much later did I learn how that river had been straightened; it had formerly flowed through Tustin (an area that the early Spaniards had called Rancho La Cienega de las Ranas – the swamp of the frogs.) When I lived in Long Beach, before I knew it was the Los Angeles River, I rode the river bikeway and began to notice the bird life in the estuary below Willow Street.

Bicycling contributes to river health largely because getting around by bike impacts our environment much less than driving does. We mostly think of cars as a major source of air pollution, but driving also has very serious direct and indirect contributions to water pollution. Many pollutants from cars settle onto our roadways and, when it rains, are swept into our storm drains, creeks, rivers and ocean. Every time a driver presses her/his foot on the brake, brake pads shed a small amount of copper. This copper (and copper from some other sources) finds its way into our local rivers which are officially impaired by copper – meaning there’s a little too much copper to be healthy for aquatic life. Similar water pollution attributable to automobiles includes oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, antifreeze, etc. It’s basically all the gunk that makes those spots on ground in parking spaces… the rain carries those spots into our rivers.

Comparison of Runoff from Various Types of Surfaces - from Upper Parramatta River [Australia] Catchment Education Resource Kit

Comparison of Runoff from Various Types of Surfaces – from Upper Parramatta River (New South Wales, Australia) Catchment Education Resource Kit

And then there are the huge indirect automotive impacts on watersheds – those impacts that are a result of all those roads, driveways, and parking spaces. The health of our streams is largely a reflection of the health of the watersheds that drain into them.

Hardscape in our neighborhoods contributes to rainwater rushing out into our waterways very rapidly. This is represented on the hydrograph below.  A hydrograph shows how stream flows change over time; the peak represents what flows follow after a rain storm. The red line shows a natural hydrograph; the blue line shows an urbanized one – basically the chart says that, where there are a lot of impermeable surfaces, when it rains, we get higher peak flows sooner.

Natural Flow vs. Urbanized Flow Hydrograph - from Upper Parra

Natural Flow vs. Urbanized Flow Hydrograph – from Upper Parramatta River (New South Wales, Australia) Catchment Education Resource Kit

Our urbanized impermeable surfaces rapidly shunt water out into our creeks and streams, causing scouring and flooding. This flooding danger leads to interventions including armoring the levee walls with concrete. Before we can remove a lot of concrete on our river banks, we’re probably going to have to remove some concrete from our neighborhoods.

Urban development that is pedestrian-centric or transit-oriented can be very compact, where car-centric development sprawls across our landscape, extending impermeable surfaces more broadly. One big culprit in this vicious cycle is parking requirements. For every car, whether a prius or a hummer, we build at least 3 parking spaces. (In L.A. I’ve heard the number is more like 6 or 7, but I couldn’t find a  reference for this.) For a lot of interesting work on how parking impacts cities and the environment check out the work of UCLA professor Don Shoup; I recommend starting with this short interview.

There are also some reports that indicate that driving consumes a great deal of water – in the manufacture of cars, the refinement of oil, and other aspects. There are more impacts… but I think I’ve already made my point.

At this point, you’ve probably stopped reading… tired of Joe’s zealous anti-car rant. Perhaps you’re thinking “I live in Los Angeles, it’s too dangerous to bike and I can’t possibly give up my car.” I would agree with you to some extent – bicycling isn’t the right choice for every single trip. I am in a car now and then, and certainly on the bus and train more and more often.

I would suggest that change – for our rivers, for our lifestyles – doesn’t happen all at once. Bigger changes are the sum of many small changes. Bicycling (walking, or taking transit) now and then is great – every trip counts. It can also give us confidence to bike further and more often. One strategy is to identify shorter trips and take those by bike. For example you might visit a local friend, restaurant, video store, etc. Forty percent of trips are two miles or less, an ideal distance for easy bicycling. There are a number of local groups (including one that I work for – called C.I.C.L.E. – Cyclists Inciting Change thru Live Exchange) that teach workshops to help inexperienced cyclists gain skills and confidence.

As you get out of a car and up onto a bike, your local waterways will thank you.

RIO approved by Planning Commission

February 18, 2009 § 1 Comment

planning-commission-full

The Planning Commission approving the River Improvement Overlay

The River Improvement Overlay, or “RIO,” zoning ordinance was approved by the Los Angeles City Planning Commission last week on Thursday February 12th 2009. Keen-eyed non-memory-impaired Creek Freak readers are already familiar with the RIO from our earlier in-depth coverage. The RIO is one small part of the larger 20+ year Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.

The RIO creates a new set of city planning rules (technically a supplemental use district) that will apply to an irregularly-shaped corridor approximately 1/2 mile on either side of the Los Angeles River, within the City of Los Angeles (actual boundary map here.) The RIO is a kind of river-friendly checklist – a bit like the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system for certifying green buildings. It makes things a bit greener, more sustainable, and more oriented toward bicycle and pedestrian transportation. It also encourages affordable housing, river-orientation of activities, and more.

Two smart things that I want to point out about the RIO:
> It offers alternative traffic mitigation for development. Right now, when a developer wants to build a new building, she/he is required to include traffic mitigation – often in the form of paying for widening streets, synchronizing traffic signals, etc. I think that this is a big problem – we just continue to plan for more and more cars, and the environment and quality of life goes from bad to worse. Under the RIO, developers can instead provide facilities for bikes and pedestrians, instead of just cars.
> It’s scalable. Right now, the RIO tool kit is just being applied to the L.A. River corridor, but future RIO zones can be implemented along any waterway (or even for watersheds.) Sooner or later I hope we’ll see these districts applied to the Tujunga Wash, the Pacoima Wash, the Arroyo Seco, Ballona Creek, Compton Creek, the Dominguez Slough, Sacatela Creek, and… indeed, all the waterways and watersheds in the city of Los Angeles.

At last Thursday’s meeting, Planning Commission president Bill Roschen had nothing but praise for the RIO. He introduced the items stating that the commission was going to get dessert before lunch, praised the work of planning staff, and closed with “O happy day” when the measures were approved unanimously.

There were eight public comments in favor of the RIO, including representatives from the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority, Mujeres de la Tierra, the Arroyo Seco Foundation, and even your friendly neighborhood L.A. Creek Freak. Friends of the Los Angeles River‘s Lewis MacAdams, quoting George Mihlsten, said that he could think of no more powerful words than that he “concurred with the staff report.” The only voice of criticism was from a representative of the Sportsman’s Lodge (which neighbors the river in Studio City) who requested that the RIO include more incentives for development.

Commissioners including Mike Woo and Diego Cardoso praised the RIO. They credited the broad level of support to good staff processes in developing the RIO. The entire commission voted unanimously to approve the RIO and the LA RIO. The RIO puts in place the overlay as a potential tool in the city’s toolbox of zoning regulations. The LA RIO applies that tool to the specified set of boundaries along the Los Angeles River.

From here, the ordinance will be heard by city council committes (I expect it will go to both the Planning and Land Use Management committee and the Ad Hoc River Committee) before going to the full city council. It takes effect only after being approved by the full council.

Kudos to LA City Planning staff – Claire Bowin, Tom Rothman, and Deborah Kahen – for getting things this far!

(Image above cross-posted at my Handmade Ransom Notes art blog.)

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