Going bonkers over the brea in Ballona
December 4, 2011 § 18 Comments
I’ve been a pretty regular visitor to Ballona Creek’s daylighting spot, at Cochran Avenue near Venice Boulevard, for over ten years now. And I don’t think there has ever been a time when there was no oily rainbow sheen when I’ve peered over the railing, to watch water flow out of the culverted creek to the open channel. It’s something I’ve pointed out on tours to various watershed groups over the years.
So I’m pretty unimpressed by the observation of an oily sheen there. Back when I first observed it in 2000, city staff told me they were already aware of it, and pretty sure it was from a natural source, observing that tar seeps are fairly common along Wilshire east of the tar pits. There is also fairly high groundwater, which is pumped out of many apartment building basements. Tar seeps + sump pumps = oily water downstream. In 2004 I took Ballona Creek Watershed stakeholders on a “watershed walk” where we easily observed tar seeps as far east as Lafayette Park, oozing between cracks in the concrete. Indeed, in my 2001 group-thesis, Seeking Streams, we mention the active tar seeps at a parking lot across the street from Lafayette. So there’s no surprise there, or shouldn’t be, on the part of anyone who’s taken a tour with me (and that includes people in Agencyland).
Which is why I’m surprised that this has been traced to the La Brea Tar Pits.
Actually I’m flabbergasted. You see, the article indicates this is the result of overflow when stormwater overwhelms the oil and water separator at the Tar Pits. To that point, I’m a little skeptical. Folks, that sheen is there year-round, I find it hard to believe that seasonal overflow is dribbling out all year round. Know how our storm flows come in large-volume flushes? The sheen would be seasonal, actually would probably move with that large flush and not be terribly visible on dry winter days. And certainly not on dry summer ones. There’s got to be a perennial source of discharge. As city staffers had said, it seems most likely that oily sheen is a side effect of a naturally occurring process upstream.
And, um, upstream doesn’t lead to the La Brea Tar Pits.
For the Tar Pits to be the source, we’d see this sheen somewhere between Marvin Avenue and Fairfax where stormdrains from that area connect to Ballona, not several blocks upstream at Cochran. There has been a long-standing odor problem around Fairfax and the creek, but that was tied to scrubbers on the sewage system. I’ve never seen any other issues with oil in the creek. While the Tar Pits separators may periodically overflow, there are other continual sources elsewhere. You know, upstream.
Now I hate to see $2 million go to waste, may I humbly renew the suggestion that we consider daylighting Arroyo de la BREA which flowed from Lafayette Park down to Ballona Creek? And is, in fact, upstream of the known & observed offending sheen. Given the natural occurrence of tar here, the gadfly in me also wonders if this particular water quality battle is as misguided as everyone’s sense of direction. Tar here is a background condition, and I wonder if any ecologist can speak to unique species diversity that evolved to inhabit this type of environment, and can offer a fair assessment of that to the level of ecological or public health threat this poses downstream. This brea, after all, has been present for thousands of years while downstream rivers flowed to coastal wetlands. Perhaps the fragility of our remaining resources exceeds the benefit of restoring creeks in the city, especially if they ooze tar. I could accept that conclusion if, over the past ten years, there’d been some fair consideration of the benefits of daylighting.
As a point of reference/contrast, there’s open tar seeps on Santa Paula Creek, a trib to the Santa Clara River. I don’t see anyone trying to slap an oil-and-water separator on that. Indeed, I find a lot of irony in how we in Los Angeles have made our natural environment so unnatural that we cannot find what’s upstream of a given point, nor can we accept some of the messy natural processes of the land, nor can we fathom a restoration that provides benefits and context for this messiness. But we can apparently throw money at devices.
So there’s this simple device called a trash can, and another one called a garbage truck, that I think could definitely be a benefit in greater quantities to this area of the Ballona Creek watershed. If we can’t put money into restoration, could we at least throw some more of it at this? And into housing, food and aid for the homeless, whose rummaging through these already overflowing receptacles in search of something to eat or recycle often lands garbage in the gutters – trash in street runoff merely being a side effect of their plight.