LA River Historical Flows, circa 1879

February 3, 2022 § 5 Comments

Just a quick note to add some perspective to a recent LA Times article about treated wastewater discharged into the LA River and the possibility that this could be reduced. The amount of water in the river in its “beforetimes” has been the subject of quite some argument that sometimes gets trotted out to justify modern decisions. So here’s documentation from the State Engineer William Hammond Hall circa 1877 (Emphasis mine):

The drainage of the Los Angeles river after leaving the Sierra Madre Mountains is received into the large basin of the San Fernando Valley, whose soil is gravelly and porous, but probably underlaid with an impervious substration(sic) of clay or rock , and acting as a great sponge, it holds the water it receives and gives it off slowly. This valley is shut in on the south of the coast range at the foot of which the river runs, finding an outlet through the hills by a narrow gap just above the city of Los Angeles. The streams emptying into the basin are the Paloma, the Pacoima, the Tujunga, and the Verdugo, of which the largest is the Tujunga. Like all the mountain torrents which descend from the Sierra Madre, they have a very rapid fall, and on reaching the valley spread out into broad “washes”, whose beds are composed of boulders gravel and coarse sand. In flow they flow entirely across the valley to the Los Angeles river, but in summer the water barely emerges from the mountains, and sinks from sight in the porous channels. The Arroyo Seco, another large tributary having the same characteristics as the other mountain torrents, enters the river at the city of Los Angeles.

In May last the discharge of the river at the mouth of Tujunga Wash ten miles above the city, where the upper dam of the Los Angeles irrigation system is located, was 24 ½ cubic feet per second. This amount was augmented by about 54 cubic feet per second from springs rising in the bed of the river at various points between this dam and the city. The total available supply therefore was about 78 ½ cubic feet per second. An amount which is but little diminished during the summer months.

Below the city the river is broad, shallow and sandy, and only upon rare occasions does the water ever find its way entirely to the sea, but is absorbed by the thirsty sand.

-State Engineer William Hammond Hall Papers, Misc. Working Papers, General Irrigation Info, Reports- LA County (Schuyler)
Which are at the State Archives under AC 91-06-10

(Schuyler FWIW is the actual person taking the measurements and writing the notes…The dam mentioned is near present day North Hollywood. That total flow description is for flow approximately near Figueroa Street in Northeast LA – He doesn’t mention any inflow from the Arroyo Seco, so it’s hard to say if he was measuring above or below that)

It’s a shame the terms of contemporary debate are so narrow that serious people only argue about how much life support (treated sewage aka used imported water) to give the river – if any. In some parallel universe there is perhaps a dialogue being had about recharging groundwater, reconnecting floodplains, and removing or reducing the effect of dams on river flows… but for us, in this universe, we don’t even have in the English language much of a functioning subjunctive tense with which to describe the possibilities that the river (and we) deserve, without being laughed out of the room.

But the subjunctive still gives us this: Long live the river!

In every bottle, a creek or two… (again)

January 20, 2022 § 4 Comments

Thanks to Ian James for getting the environmental cost of bottled water on the front page of the LA Times and giving a boost of visibility to the local protectors of this creek. Please keep in mind as you read the article that Strawberry Creek is not the only local creek being sold in plastic bottles on supermarket shelves for one company’s profit at the expense of the water supply of our local creeks and watersheds. There is a list of creeks on the label of every Arrowhead bottle sold.

I’ve been fascinated by how this list clarifies our relationship to nature. Nature isn’t simply what’s out there in some pristine separate world, but Nature is in a larger sense, how we have shaped the world we live in, including even our urban world and all the manufactured and refined products we surround ourselves with everyday. (Thanks, Jenny Price, for articulating this!)

Back to creeks. Of the two bottles shown in the photo below, one was purchased in Southern California, and the other was purchased in a location in Oregon that gets significantly more annual rainfall than Los Angeles. Yet the list of creeks listed as sources of water is exactly the same. They are all in Southern California. Is it not a little appalling that we are allowing companies to bottle the water produced by local precipitation falling on our local landscapes, while the LA Basin struggles to upkeep our local groundwater supplies? While we allow our local streams to be bottled for profit and shipped to other states that are wet by comparison, the accepted method of maintaining local groundwater supplies for public water supply in Los Angeles has come to be filling local aquifers with water taken from other streams that are hundreds of miles away.

This situation is not really optimum in terms of local water resiliency, energy use, biodiversity, or any other sustainability metric. But is this a wicked, unsolvable problem? Does the problem really seem that complicated?

For a long time, I’ve been meaning to write about Sparkletts. This company has historically been such a point of pride in Northeast Los Angeles, that one nearly forgets the flip side of the story, which is that the waters they sell in plastic bottles are waters that would otherwise be contributing to the base flow of the Los Angeles River.

Eagle Rock is a very rare community in the LA Basin, from a watershed point of view. The community sits atop its own water basin. The Eagle Rock community is (theoretically) positioned (physically positioned, at least) to be able manage its own groundwater levels in its own interest. However, there is only one entity that withdraws water from the Eagle Rock basin. That entity is Sparkletts.

So does Eagle Rock have any particular incentive to increase local groundwater levels? Because of Sparkletts’ rights, any efforts to increase groundwater infiltration in the community of Eagle Rock would not necessarily result in raising the water table, nor in contributing additional flow to a creek that is one of many tributaries to the LA River. Instead, any additional groundwater gained through infiltration would simply increase the amount of water supply available to Sparkletts to put into plastic bottles to sell.

The size of the Eagle Rock watershed is not large, so it’s likely that any spring water from NELA could only account for a very small volume of what the company produces overall. Watermaster reports show that generally, in recent years, just under 200 acre feet of water is extracted yearly. This is not a lot of water when compared to the amount of potable water cities consume or how much profit a large company generates. But it would be a significant amount of water for urban habitat restoration projects, such as is planned downstream at the LA River’s Taylor Yard. 

This is how I understand the issues, but I’m happy to hear any other perspectives on this, so your comments are welcome. Please share your own thoughts about streams and bottles below or on our facebook group.

Dry weather diversions – memories up a sh*t’s creek

December 29, 2021 § 3 Comments

Yesterday’s post hurt my brain to write, and it hurts my brain a little to re-read. OK, it hurts my brain a lot. So I suspect it’s not fun for anyone else either. I wish it could be more straightforward.

And then I woke up this morning realizing I wasn’t done with the subject yet. Ugh.

So if this issue of buried streams in the crossfire of clean water regulations and local governments liable for compliance is pertinent to you, bear with me. If you live in a park poor area with buried streams (Angelenos, that’s basically you), it’s pertinent.

« Read the rest of this entry »

A buried creek’s dilemma: to be daylighted or drained?

December 28, 2021 § 3 Comments

[Opening digression: I was just texted an image predicting rainfall for LA for the next few days – it looks like you could get hammered (rainfall-wise – what you do with alcohol I have no predictions for), so this post may seem ironic, misplaced, bad timing? You’ve got a trough heading your way and if it doesn’t keep moving…well let’s just hope that it does. The focus of today’s post is dry-weather flows…]


To those of us who recognize stormdrains (or, some of them) as body-snatched creeks, and who long for a water management approach that would incorporate daylighting or naturalization of concreted waterways and nature-based treatment that doubles as streetside landscaping, floodable parks, greenways, etc., well, prepare to be disappointed. Or enraged? Whichever, it’s a familiar feeling. At least we’re not alone on this.

The City of LA recently issued an IS/MND (Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration) and awarded a contract to start work on diverting low flows from certain stormdrains. The low flows – aka urban slobber in some circles – would be pumped from the storm drains into the sewer system, so that they can be treated for pollutants. From there, like the rest of the region’s wastewater, it either gets discharged into flood control channels rivers, is infiltrated to groundwater, or reused (such as purple pipe irrigation). So you can see how it closes some loops and ticks some sustainability boxes.

« Read the rest of this entry »

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 § 19 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 § 2 Comments

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 »