15 minutes for Creek Freaks and the waterways we love

November 15, 2021 § Leave a comment

We are having a moment in the spotlight! Alta Online journal recently published a great story, Soaked Through, about LA’s waterways and some of the people who love them. I encourage you to give it a read! Writer Denise Hamilton covered a lot of ground about LA, its streams, relationship to groundwater and then some – and her work updated me on some happenings that I may rant about here sometime. (As longtime readers know, I promise such things but the time to deliver is hard to find.)

That said, Alta invited fellow CF Jane Tsong and I to participate in an online panel which will be this WEDNESDAY at 12:30 PST!

You can register for the event HERE. Join us!

While I’m talking about great recent articles, another beautiful one by writer Judith Lewis Mernit, who periodically visits river and creek topics, can be found at the Red Canary Collective. It is a fine read, a clear a clarion call for a different way of thinking about our waterways. Send it to all your elected officials!

About that Dominguez Stench

November 5, 2021 § 18 Comments

I’ve really been trying to resist the urge to talk about the Dominguez Channel’s horrible stench. Driving through it when I was down visiting family recently, I understood that nothing I can say will make it better. It is absolutely noxious. I can’t imagine being stuck in that.

But long-ago angelenos of the past can.

Historically the slough that is today’s Dominguez Channel was a broad flat wetland. It had another name, a racist slur, and we’ve written about that before.

George Bixby described the very marshy landscape of the lower San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers, Compton Creek and Dominguez Channel Slough areas, as it existed before American occupation:

“I once had a Mexican vaquero whose father had lived there all his life who said that all the valley between Los Cerritos, Dominguez and San Pedro was one tangle of marsh willows, larch, blackberry vines, and other tangled undergrowth which was impenetrable. There was only one or two trails across the valley, and they were not safe for two reasons: on account of the undergrowth and bogs, and there were bears in the tangled jungle.” – G.H. Bixby, 1914

(By the way, he meant grizzly bears…I know, right??!!)

Groundwater was high in this area, replenished by frequent flooding. Groundwater pumping and leveeing and culverting of waterways resulted in a shrunken perimeter of the wetland that would fatten up again with rains. And parts of the LA area that is today’s Gardena, Torrance, West Athens, Compton, parts of Hawthorne and Lawndale, Carson etc was this slough, or converted to farmland around it. The Gardena Willows, Madrona Marsh, “Devil’s Dip” at Chester Washington Golf Course, and a wetland inside a mobile home park are what remains of the over 1,200 acres of wetland (in 1900). Oh, and it’s probably been destroyed by now, but also a seasonal wetland in Torrance… Alondra Park sits on land that was part of the wetland, but nothing about it (as far as I know) is ecologically related. Victoria Regional Park/Golf Course in Carson were also part of it – a soft bottom reach of Dominguez Channel is what remains – but that site also has toxic cleanups in its midst. More about that later. Nice parks, though.

Wetlands are beautiful, but sometimes stinky, things. They have slow-to-not moving water and decomposing vegetation. As that veg sits there, over the years, it can create “swamp gases” as it breaks down. But even that isn’t what made the stench at the former slough memorable to people, who, in 1914, clearly recalled the Great Yuck of the 1890s. Humanity played a role in creating it: Apparently carp were a popular fish to stock in ponds back in the day. And humans being what we are, people weren’t thinking about consequences, so when it rained, the fish just washed into the wetland. After large rains in 1889 expanded the girth of the slough, the fish population expanded with it. And shoulders shrugged.

Then the drying started.

“the people imported a lot of carp about 1878-79 and everybody that had a lake or pond got some carp and stocked them up and in 1889 was overflowed and their ponds washed out and the fish were carried down to…(the) Slough and when (the) Slough began drying up some years later the fish commenced dying and made such a stench the supervisors had to hire men to clean them up and burn and bury them. – J.J. Morton, 1914

“…One noticed a dreadful stench coming from the direction of the…slough and it was found that the slough was drying up and leaving tons and tons of dead carp fish rotting in the mud. People went there and hauled away wagon loads of the fish for fertilizer and other purposes. Finally it became so bad that people began to leave Long Beach, and an appeal was made to Supervisors for relief. Trenches were dug and a great amount of the fish were buried – A.C. Cook, 1914

James P Reagan, County Flood Control Engineer, collected multiple accounts of this event in his document Early Floods in Los Angeles County (1914). (Creekfreak likes to quote this document. Here’s a few places…) Yet this wasn’t the only non-industrial stinky gross wetland horror story in LA’s recorded history. As we all know too well, LA’s rainfall patterns tend to be all-or-nothing. And LA used to be ranching country. So again with wetlands expanding and contracting:

In 1863-64 there was an awful drought and there were thousands of head of cattle and horse died. Going to Wilmington you had to tie something over your nose on account of the stench along the San Gabriel and Slough. You could walk for miles on dead cattle. The whole slough and river down below Bixby Hill was full of them. There were fifty men skinning cattle and there were boat loads of hides stacked up. There was no rain at all that season and feed was so short that the cattle got so weak when they would go down to the river and slough for water they would get in and mire down and were too weak to get out. -John Guess, 1914

This happened throughout the Ballona country, as well as the the Dominguez and lower San Gabriel areas. Hard to imagine, eh? (Not if you’re in Carson.)

Long story short: I don’t really have a point, except: ew.

Well, actually –

When I read that County Public Works was saying that the stench on Dominguez Channel was “natural”, part of me wanted to rear up and defend poor little Dominguez. There’s not much about it that is natural anymore. I’m sure that part of what is happening is because of the drought, and decay of whatever is on the bottom of the channel. Arguably “natural” in an otherwise wholly unnatural system. But it took “tons and tons” of dead carp in a 1200+ acre wetland, to create the level of sick that drove the residents of Long Beach away. So how many dead things would have to be in the Dominguez Channel right now to create the level of sick that is sickening Carson (and Gardena, where I smelled it)? Is there evidence of those dead things? Who knows if there are other factors, like industry, as some residents have wondered.

I don’t think it’s far from anyone’s mind that this is a community of color that is primarily impacted by this stench. And if you’re a thinking person, you have probably also made a mental note of all the heavy industry within spitting distance of many residents in the greater Dominguez watershed. If you pay attention to the news, the stories, for example of industrially contaminated soil in these areas that periodically pop up in the news are rather plentiful: for example, here, here, here…stop already you cry! But there’s so much more to show you – just take a whirl through the Department of Toxic Substance Control’s Envirostor.

Here’s a teaser:

So, these are communities that are deeply screwed.

That level of zoominess yields the same response in most of the LA Basin, to be fair. But when you scroll over to the IE or Ventura, it will display at that scale (=less screwed?). So, here’s a zoomed-in screenshot of part of the historical area of the Dominguez Slough:

Still screwed.

The Mapping Inequality project (screenshot below) showing how the New Deal government redlined the country offers additional insight. The slough still existed (offensive name intact), and the land around it was still being farmed, with housing – much of it described as oil workers and farm hands – in the “hazardous” (to lenders) redlined communities around it. Hawthorne where I grew up is just off the image, also “hazardous”, mainly due, apparently, to the presence of “Mexicans, Japanese, & Italians”.

Ironically(?), redlined ol Hawthorne was, before my time, a sundown town (as were many LA communities) and I recall how like the John Birch Society so many of our white neighbors sounded. And redlined Torrance was, in my youth, a pretty racist place. Which is a roundabout way to say, you can poke holes in correlations in the South Bay, between wetlands and industrial development and redlining and systemic racism. But, having lived there, I think the overall trend holds. And that, beyond the gross-out factor of stenches past and present, is what races to the fore of my mind as I follow the ongoing saga there.

Truths universally ignored: wetlands and floodplains are not great places to build. Yet instead of seeing them as ecological and hydrological resources, we see them as “wastes” and then treat them as such. Then we said that scapegoated peoples couldn’t live in the nice places, and left them to make homes on these “marginal” lands. Government helped to make so-called waste land usable, and industry – which wouldn’t be welcome in the “nice” places – sets up shop. You know this, I know this, people at whatever city hall you visit know this. But it happens anyway…

And as far as environmental racism and watersheds goes, it’s is an iceberg of an issue and we’re just looking at the tip. Oh, and: that iceberg is melting. Let’s talk about floodplains and race.

Fun Silly New L.A. River Kayaking Video

December 10, 2019 § Leave a comment

Enjoy this new video from a couple of intrepid folks who recently attempted to kayak the L.A. River… and didn’t get very far… but nonetheless made a fun video showing their experience. They put in near Griffith Park’s Bette Davis Picnic Area – at the edge of the city of Glendale’s Glendale Narrows River Walk and only got to the adjacent Griffith Park Ferraro soccer fields.

There are plenty of places to put in and kayak the L.A. River safely and enjoyably – see my 2008 account of my first kayak trip there: day1, day2 and day3. The Burbank and Glendale stretches do involve plenty of portaging (walking.) There are also various organized kayaking tours these days. One warning: the L.A. River can get very dangerous very quickly during rainy weather, just watch No Way Out. The best time to kayak is when it’s not raining.

Hydrodiversity

September 5, 2018 § 4 Comments

 

I can’t stop looking at these old maps of the Los Angeles basin, from the late 1880s. Cartographic representation of the way water flowed over, under, and into the landscape approaches the expressiveness of art.

These maps depict a spectrum of conditions between dry and wet that included marshes, seeps, streams, seasonal and perennial wetlands, freshwater sloughs, arroyos, wet meadows, alkali meadows, vernal pools… Each of these hydrological conditions would have supported plants and animals uniquely suited to the resulting ecosystem.

I think of how every place in the basin interacted with water in its own particular way.

And yet these maps are only a snapshot in time. The amount of surface water in the landscape might vary according to the season, and if it was a particularly dry or wet year. In a dry year, a seep might stop flowing. After a string of wet years, it might create a small pond. During a particularly large storm, a river might shift and find a new bed.

In our current urban fabric, much of the land’s hydrodiversity has been reduced to only three basic conditions: Dry (developed) land,  lakes (reservoirs or recreational use), or stream beds (linear channels fixed in place).

What kind of hydrodiversity might urban river and stream restorations seek to create?

For more about the complex mosaic of habitat types that once existed in our basin, please see this study of the San Gabriel River and this one of the Ballona watershed.

The watershed in your yard: the WaterLA 2018 Annual Report

February 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

waterlacover

Books! OK… well – Reports! Part 3, the final of my recommended reads – the practical, the lyrical and

The Celebratory (also, yes, the Nerdy): Water LA 2018 Report

WaterLA , a project spearheaded by the River Project, champions making watershed management local. Hyper local. Your front yard local. The team there combines community outreach with effective, tested permaculture and landscape design techniques to harvest and retain water in yards and street planting strips. Rain gardens, rain barrels, grey water systems and permeable paving are among the solutions used at multiple sites across LA’s Valley. WaterLA organizers locate community members ready to pitch in and engage in work parties, so that everyone’s working together – building community while building resilience.

This year’s WaterLA Annual Report, then, is a celebration of the gains to individuals, families and our water supply delivered through participation in the project. You see, all those small projects add up to groundwater enhancement, and reductions in peak runoff when it rains – dampening the effect of most floods. The Annual Report quantifies water savings and relates project costs to other, more costly, regional approaches currently in use. Native plant and permaculture folks may be excited to see the conversions of lawns to habitat and foodscapes, community-minded folks may find some inspiration in its projects, and fiscally-minded folks may be encouraged to see creative, affordable solutions to expensive regional problems. A worthy project that would benefit all if it could be applied on a larger scale.

Check it out.

Tree: a novel born of a Southern California watershed

February 21, 2018 § 3 Comments

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-16,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

Part 2 of books practical, lyrical and celebratory. Today’s offering:

The Lyrical: Tree

Tree’s author, Melina Sempill Watts, dedicated years to enhancing the Malibu Creek and Santa Monica Mountains watersheds through her work as a watershed coordinator at the Resource Conservation District there. She worked with stakeholders to support projects, obtain funding, and educate the public about protecting the treasured mountain resources that so much public money has preserved.

With the debut of her novel, Tree, Sempill Watts shows us just how deeply she treasures those resources as well. While a single California Live Oak tree is the story’s protagonist, the world of the watershed unfolds and adapts, it burns, floods, thrives, and reluctantly submits to asphalt and lawn. It is not only the history of our landscape – including our rivers and streams – but also of our interactions with it, and the hopes and heartbreaks that we imprint onto it. And as our shorter human lives intertwine with Tree’s arching narrative, our aspirations, our births and deaths fall into the rhythm of nature. The story of Tree is a story that includes us. « Read the rest of this entry »

Restoring Neighborhood Streams: a book that LA could use

February 19, 2018 § 9 Comments

Maker:L,Date:2017-9-16,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-Y

Creekfreaks! If you, like me, have resolved to pull away a bit from the netflix-amazonprime-hulu bingefests that serve as a daily nonpharma escapist (are we really living these political times?) opiate, and if maybe you, like me, are rediscovering those magical things called books – then I have a few reads for you! They range from  practical, to lyrical, to celebratory. Personally, I find them all inspirational. In today’s post, I give you –

The Practical: Restoring Neighborhood Streams; Planning, Design, and Construction

Restoring Neighborhood Streams; Planning, Design, and Construction (2016, Island Press), builds on author A.L. Riley’s decades of engagement and effort in the restoring and daylighting of streams in urban and suburban areas. This Creekfreak was especially influenced by Riley and her work. Her previous book, Restoring Streams in Cities, is well dog-eared in my library, and has been an important go-to reference for how to think about stream function and restoration design. This new book provides case studies that illuminate fundamental questions that should be the basis for planning and design of urban stream restoration:

  • Is it physically feasible to restore?
  • Is it financially feasible?
  • Does the public support (I’d add: political will) exist to support land use changes to support a live river or stream?

« Read the rest of this entry »

Lists!

June 30, 2017 § 1 Comment

daylighting

There are opportunities to daylight or naturalize culverted or concreted streams throughout the Los Angeles region.

A Creek Freak quickie: 2 LA-centric lists with creek/river connections:

First, stream daylighting got a bump in the LA Weekly this week (#12 of 20 Ways to Fix LA)!

Second, RiverLA has published their 8 Summer Activities on the LA River.  Check it out!

 

In every bottle, a creek…

February 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

arrowhead-bottle-with-springs-list

Next to the snow-covered mountain on each Arrowhead bottle, is a list of “mountain springs” within.

The Arrowhead landmark in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The actual Arrowhead landmark in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

In every bottle of water is a creek, and there is actually a good chance it may be a California creek, as the map in this link indicates: “Lots of your bottled water comes from drought zones.”

This is something I think about every day when I walk by the water dispenser at my office. I look at the snowy mountain top on the label, and mentally compare it to the actual Arrowhead landmark, in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, which I drive by each week. This iconic landmark is made of coastal sage scrub plants: white sage, black sage, california buckwheat, and others (Meek, 2007). Ironically, what makes the arrow stand out from the surrounding chaparral is the grey foliage that advertises the ability of these plants to survive drought.

Our remaining native ecosystems hang on a very delicate balance, and surface water and groundwater play an important role in maintaining this balance. This is just one of the reasons I feel alarmed when I see the list of “mountain springs” listed on the side of Arrowhead bottles. Because I suspect the other places on this list do not look anything like the snow-covered mountain on that label!

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Steve Loe, a retired San Bernardino National Forest biologist, speaks to a packed house.

Last Sunday, I went to a community hearing sponsored by The League of Women Voters and Save Our Forest Association to learn how Nestlé’s extraction of water from the San Bernardino National Forest impacts Strawberry Creek, its riparian ecosystems, and our local groundwater. Speakers addressed a packed house at the Senior Center in Twin Peaks.

Strawberry Creek is the creek associated with Arrowhead Springs, after which Arrowhead water is named. It is located in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Over the last 68 years, Nestlé extracted an average of 62 million gallons per year from wells drilled into the upper watershed of Strawberry Creek. According to figures presented at the hearing, this is over 5% of the safe yield of the entire San Bernardino Basin, which supplies the cities of San Bernardino, Riverside, Redlands, and others. Even in the midst of a multi-year drought, in 2015, Nestlé extracted 36 million gallons.

Nestlé’s extraction of millions of gallons per year occurred even as residents and businesses were required to restrict their own water usage.

For this amount of water, the company paid only $524 each year. One speaker said this came out to $3.65 per acre-foot of water, which the company then sold for 100,000 times that amount.

36  million gallons extracted in 2015, in the midst of a multi-year drought, means that much water did not make it to the creek. This means all of the plants and animals that once lived in the creek are short that much water.

Loe made it clear that the “mountain springs” of Strawberry Creek are not artesian springs which leap out the ground. Rather, they are horizontal wells drilled over 500 feet deep, maximizing groundwater extraction in the creek’s upper watershed, before water even gets to the creek. The drill sites are so dry that no riparian vegetation appears in their vicinity.

Nestlé claims to only extract water that is in ‘excess’ of the Forest Service’s current and foreseeable needs.

Given the outsized importance of riparian habitats in contributing to local biodiversity and providing regional ecological connectivity,  Loe asked, can one say there is excess water when a creek is close to its lowest flows on record? Species that depend on riparian habitat are at low population levels, and others historically associated with the San Bernardino Mountains, have disappeared. Loe believes Nestlé’s extraction of groundwater was a contributing factor in the disappearance of Santa Ana speckled dace, a native fish species, from the area after 2003.

In a statement by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Story of Stuff, and Courage Campaign Institute, Eddie Kurtz wrote, “The U.S. Forest Service has been enabling [Nestlé] to destroy delicate ecosystems in the San Bernardino National Forest for 27 years, and it has to stop. Our government won’t stand up to them, so we’re taking matters into our own hands.”

List of demands, where "FS" means "Forest Service."

A list of demands. Note that “FS” means “Forest Service.”

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

The co-sponsors of Sunday’s hearing: League of Women Voters of the San Bernardino Area.

I always love the Desert Sun’s coverage of environmental issues: Bottling Water without Scrutiny.

Meek, N. (2007). Origin of the Arrowhead landmark near San Bernardino, CaliforniaCalifornia Geographical Society.

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Found in the San Bernardino Mountains…

Coyote Spring, Inyo County, one of the springs listed on the Arrowhead label.

Coyote Spring, Inyo County, another of the springs listed on the Arrowhead label.

Getting to the Source: Water Quality on the L.A. River

August 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

That L.A. River water isn’t pristine isn’t exactly news. But Heal the Bay’s report this week, with measurements from last summer showing high bacteria content in the river, caused a stir. So what’s going on? We’d like to provide another perspective to better complete the picture and focus the discussion.

With river-connected activities like kayaking, fishing, biking and horseback riding increasing since the EPA’s 2010 determination that the entire L.A. River is to be protected under the Clean Water Act, people have figuratively, and sometimes literally, jumped in. The State Water Resources Control Board and the City of Los Angeles have noted that the river’s water quality was acceptable for activities like kayaking but stopped shy of recommending activities like swimming.

Opening up public access didn’t immediately get us to the point that FoLAR’s Lewis MacAdams had hoped for as a milestone goal for the river: “…a swimmable river.” That’s OK. Since 2010, we’ve taken some large steps forward.

Since 2008 we estimate that we’ve put more than 5,000 Angelenos on the river in our kayaking programs, and there hasn’t been a single reported case that indicated the types of health risks mentioned in the report.

Heal the Bay has made it clear that they do not want to impede the river revitalization process. They emphasized that the report (available here) should not stop anyone from river recreation—only that people should have proper warnings and use common-sense safety procedures.

Unfortunately, following the report there was a great deal of misunderstanding in the general public. Angelenos are accustomed to swimming at Santa Monica Beach or Mother’s Beach in the marina, which regularly get very poor water quality ratings from Heal the Bay due to high bacteria content. The conditions are worse after rain because of urban runoff. We’re all somehow okay with that, as bathers or surfers may get an ear infection or some other ailment, but then surprised when those same problems show up in our hometown river.

We face a systemic water pollution problem in Los Angeles.  « Read the rest of this entry »