Going bonkers over the brea in Ballona

December 4, 2011 § 18 Comments

$2 million worth of funny. Click to enlarge. Map: Jessica Hall. Base Image, GoogleEarth.

Oh boy.  It’s amusement vs. aggravation here at LA Creek Freak, as I struggle to find adequate words to express how I feel about this much-forwarded LA Times piece about an oily sheen on Ballona Creek.

Image #1: Not news. Oil sheen at Cochran Avenue on Ballona Creek, 2000. Photo: Seeking Streams.

Image #2: Um, oil sheen on Cochran Avenue, Ballona Creek, 2010.

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).

Image 3: Dried brea(tar) ooze near the culverted Arroyo la Brea observed by Ballona Creek Watershed stakeholders walking near Wilshire/Hoover in 2004. Photo: Jessica Hall

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.

Image 4: Creek flowing through the La Brea Tar Pits property. View looking SE, the famous large pit can be seen in the center-top of the photo. I regret not knowing where I originally obtained this image, nor the name of this creek.

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.

Tar Seep on Santa Paula Creek. Photo: Natural Channel Design

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.

Trash seepage traced to Wilshire Blvd.

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.


Tagged: , , , , , ,

§ 18 Responses to Going bonkers over the brea in Ballona

  • I completely agree with you. Big deal. Anybody who truly knows Los Angeles knows that tar is present just about everywhere (as if the tell-tale ubiquitous oil pumps weren’t clues enough).

    Here are photographs that I took of tar in the Los Angeles River (next to Chinatown)…. http://goo.gl/ztYyw

    And here are pictures of tar at Carpinteria State Beach…. http://goo.gl/45ZHb

  • -n says:

    Having seen the insides of several storm drain tunnels (nee creeks), I can confirm that there are significant quantities of tar in branches that (so far as I am aware) have no connection to the pits of La Brea. The amount of tar in any case is far less than the amount of trash.

  • Matt Horns says:

    It seems to me that LA County should have people on the staff that know at least as much as you and your fellow Creek Freaks, but apparently not. I have found in a few cases that gong directly to the offices of public works officials and providing them with information that they are not aware of can actually accomplish something, in this case avoiding a $2 million boondoggle.

    In one case I went into a storm drain and photographed water seeping in through a crack immediately adjacent to a newly-installed septic system leach pit. The “storm drain” was actually Mandevelle Canyon Creek that had been undergrounded years earlier and the Water Board apparently forgot that a creek still flows down the canyon bottom.

    The point is: I presented this informatio to the Water Board at a hearing about the septic system, and won. The developers were forced to move the leach pit 200 feet upslope from the canyon bottom.

    Presenting your information about tar seeps at a public hearing dashes any officials’ hopes of “plausible deniability,” that they didn’t know about other tar seeps.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Oh, don’t even get me started about Mandeville’s little sewage seepage pits…I was involved in that one too!

      • Matt Horns says:

        I grew up in Mandeville and lived there when they installed that horrible storm drain. Everyone I knew objected to it because animals were sure to get trapped in in it and die. Those suspicions were proven true forty years later when we did the investigation on the seepage pits. We found a dead adult rattlesnake, plus a live baby rattlesnake, a ringneck snake. and an ensatina salamander (we rescued all three of them).

        If you were at the Water Board hearing on the seepage pits you heard me speak to the Board, along with Mark Gold, several current Mandeville residents, and a bunch of others (possibly you, too).

  • david rowley says:

    The natural solution to this supposed problem is ” La Cienega ” a swamp. With 2 million dollars we could build a great wetland marsh just upstream of where the water enters Ballona Creek. Natural proccesses would capture and break down the oil as it probably did for a million years prior. David

  • Matt Horns says:

    I suppose its impossible that runoff from the Baldwin Hills oil field could possibly reach Ballona Creek where it runs right along the bottom of the hills.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Most of that drains south to Centinela Creek, connecting to Ballona near the 90.

      • -n says:

        At one time, there were oil fields extending roughly from present-day Koreatown to Bunker Hill, following a geologic fold that caused the oil to collect there. I assume that this fold is also the source of the seeps that caused the Arroyo de La Brea to be so named.

      • Matt Horns says:

        Most oil wells in LA are aligned along the Newport/Inglewood Fault. The ones still producing are in Cherry Hill near Long Beach, Baldwin Hills, and two on the Beverly Hills High School Campus.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        Another handy feature on NavigateLA – historic and current oil wells. They were all over the place, even down in Redondo Beach (not covered by Navla).

      • Matt Horns says:

        Plus a few dozen marginally-productive wells in the Bolsa Chica wetland.

  • Jim Lamm says:

    Jessica, Thanks for your great article! I’ve already started to share it on Facebook in relation to the more limited Ballona Creek Renaissance quotes in the LA Times and NBC Los Angeles articles.

  • Matt Horns says:


    I sent a link for this article to Shelley Luce, Executive Director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. Hopefully she can put an end to this boondoggle.

  • Matt Horns says:

    I’m working with Mark Abramson (Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission’s Watershed Coordinator) this Saturday on a volunteer stream restoration project on Stone Canyon Creek on the UCLA Campus. I will bring up this subject with Mark and implore him and SLuce (an affectionate nickname for Shelly Luce) to bring some sanity to this issue.

  • Matt Horns says:

    The Grandfather of a guy I grew up with in Mandeville Canyon greased some palms and got a permit to drill an oil well along PCH in Pacific Palisades in the 1950’s. It produced oil for 20 years.

  • Matt Horns says:

    I talked with Mark Abramson about this on Saturday and he said that if LA wants to waste $2million there’s nothing he or Shelley can do about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Going bonkers over the brea in Ballona at L.A. Creek Freak.


%d bloggers like this: