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.

Water quality compliance focuses on test tube results, not overall environmental needs of our community.
Image: The Noun Project, Creative Commons License

The Boring Part – More Brain Pain

I’m going to try to say this in intelligible language, which means its lack of precision will probably irritate regulators, scientists and engineers. And it will still probably be painful reading:

The interest in dry weather diversions, as mentioned yesterday, is compliance with the Water Board’s TMDL for bacteria. (Water Board is short for the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has a Los Angeles office, aka LARWQCB. It answers to the State Water Resources Control Board, or SWRCB, and they answer to the USEPA.) TMDL means total maximum daily load, or the max amount of a pollutant that is considered not harmful to public health that can be found in the water on a given day. TMDLs are part of the Water Board’s tool kit for implementing the federal Clean Water Act and the State’s Porter Cologne Act. By the way, bacteria isn’t the only contaminant of concern on the Arroyo Seco or anywhere else in LA. In the Arroyo Seco, it just happens to have eye-poppingly high numbers, in both wet and dry weather flows, including at the Storm Drain 5202 aka the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco aka Arroyo del Cal outfall. Ditto, apparently, the stormdrains Arroyo de las Pasas and Arroyo de los Reyes.

With bacteria being regulated, we’re talking mainly about shit. Human, other animals: shit. Sure there’s streptococcus and others, but what is most likely to spread disease comes from shit in stormwater. You may wonder why or how shit is getting into the stormdrains when we have separate sewer systems.

You wouldn’t be alone. For a long time now, environmental nonprofits such as Heal the Bay, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, Center for Watershed Health, the Arroyo Seco Foundation – and countless public agencies and university researchers – have monitored water quality at various beaches, rivers, and stormdrains. You may be aware of the Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card, and of periodic health advisories to beachgoers. You probably already know that after rainstorms, there is a often a surge in bacteria levels, that surfers have been sickened, etc.

Confession: while working in the watershed world in LA, when everyone was earnestly discussing water quality, my eyes were glazing over. I just wanted to dig up buried streams, bring them back to dense underserved communities with a desperate need for open space. But protecting, restoring and daylighting streams couldn’t advance due to stormwater manager and regulator attitudes such as:

  • If we daylight this creek it means it will become a protected waterbody and then we will be on the hook for maintaining its water quality. We can’t have more liability.
  • But what about the water quality in this daylighted creek? Homeless people will bathe in it, and then children will play in it! We can’t have that!!
  • We would have to clean the water before it could get into the creek! How can we do that without a filter? Who’s going to maintain it?
  • It would be easier for us if we could just pave everything.
  • How do you know it’s a stream?
  • And from a developer: what would it take for you to say it’s not a stream?
  • And my favorite: Don’t tell anyone but we’d fire you if we could. Since we can’t we will just block everything you try to do.
  • What have you gotten built/done/designed that proves you know what you’re talking about?

OK, now I’m just venting (but these are actually things said, some lightly paraphrased, some pretty much verbatim). This is what happens to people in LA who speak persuasively about restoration. But the pertinent point here is: I’m no expert on water quality yet I’ve had to pay some attention to answer to a lot of that. I’ve had to have a working understanding of the issues facing the people managing these stormdrains streams. So I do vaguely recall that in the mid 2000s, engineers puzzling over bacteria sources thought the high levels might be tied to waste that washes into the storm drains, like from dogs. Genetic testing to identify the species of animal that was pooping the fecal coliform was beginning to be used. Decrepit septic systems were also suspected, in areas with them. LA is a big expanse of urban development, and yes, it is challenging to sort this out. Cameras were being sent up stormdrains, performing urban colonoscopies looking for illegal stormdrain connections. I think ultimately a lot of modeling that projected pollutant loading by land uses was ultimately used to guide most water quality planning, informed by sampling.

The modeling approach is helpful but it assumes that urban infrastructure is basically always working properly. I’ve had some direct experiences though, that inform how we create Shit Creeks – and it’s rooted in what happens when that infrastructure fails and no one’s noticing. When faith in engineering causes a short-sighted obtuseness about actual observable reality. So I’m sharing them here, to perhaps spawn some other forensic thinking about why the bacteria levels along these buried waterways might be as bad as they are.

Sh*t Creek Story Time

1. Before landscape architect-ing, before watershed coordinating, I had a degree in architecture and working at an LA-area architecture firm. I had a project converting a very old building to a private school in Los Angeles. The contractor excavated to find the sewer line. What he uncovered was a void space where the sewer line had once been – we concluded that, being as old as it was, the line had corroded completely away. The prior owners were fortunate the line hasn’t collapsed. We were all pretty grossed out by the implication of this, however. Who knows how many years sewage had been seeping….this was an area with high groundwater (the building had a basement with a sump pump). I know now (but didn’t then) that there are creeks not too far away – I also don’t know what the bacteria counts in those creeks are, but we here have an example where groundwater was likely contaminated and could potentially migrate to a protected waterbody.

  • How many older buildings along flood control channels and stormdrains rivers and streams might have similar issues?
  • Review of the old stormdrain plans for North Branch/Arroyo del Cal note permit exemptions allowing single family houses to be built overlapping or on top of the stormdrain creek, and include instructions for multiple sewer connections to be repaired as a part of the project. What kind of land settlement (earthquakes, compaction, groundwater pressure) might have impacted sewers? What measures are in place on the Sanitation side to notice changes, and how far back in time do they go?
  • Has anyone surveyed the region’s architects and plumbers about the frequency and locations of these kinds of problems?

2. When I moved to Humboldt to work at Baykeeper, we organized water quality testing to identify DNA, and found that it was likely a lot of geese – and given the extensive fields and seasonal goose population it made sense. There was also a beach with notoriously bad water quality, and while we suspected septic systems, an anonymous tip off led us to a field of dead and dying cows. It was very gross. That’s not to say septic systems weren’t also part of the problem – we didn’t rule that out. But it is a testament to how weird some sources can be.

  • While Humboldt’s got a lot more animals than LA, there may be focused sources of pollutants, animal or human – we’ve all become aware of homeless encampments for example.
  • There’s a reason they tell you not to bury Fluffy in the backyard…or any other bodies.
  • This doesn’t seem like a super relevant example for our three streams, but you never know what is going on until you look…

3. But I have an even weirder example, and more complicated. While watershed coordinating, I got a call from someone living in one of LA’s many canyons (a prestigious one – the kind where some homes get blurred out by Google StreetView). Now, all canyons have streams of some kind at their bottom. The water has to go somewhere, after all, and gravity makes the rules. But we like living in canyons, we like roads and we hate floods. So a long time ago the stream was culverted. What remained was a stream-ish looking swale with catch basins in it, and the stormdrain stream under ground, directly beneath it.

The caller was watching new development going in, and observing that septic systems were being installed right next to these swale-streams. Wasn’t this a violation? The Plumbing Code is very clear – septic leach fields must be 100 feet away from streams. What I saw was that we weren’t even talking about the leach fields being less than 100 feet from the stream. They were in the damn stream… And this was permitted by the City because it did not recognize the stream as a stream anymore: it was a storm drain to many engineers enforcing or interpreting regulations.

Stream, what stream?

It gets worse: Because of this mindset, most if not all of the existing development in that canyon that was on septic also had leach fields either near or in the modified stream. There was simply no room for the 100′ set back in the narrow canyon.

It should surprise absolutely no one that that beach at the bottom of that particular canyon routinely got an F on the Heal the Bay Beach score card. And without trying to address this problem at its root, the low flows there were diverted to a treatment plant, just as is being proposed here. Problem solved? Only for the test tube results of low flows (being zero flow) – it now gets an A (wet weather is another story).

The call from that resident, however, kick started an effort to discuss stormdrains as former streams within the agencies. The houses under development were required to install a different kind of sewage treatment system by the Water Board. We even developed a draft stream protection ordinance with the city – which predictably stalled out in a City Council committee. We also worked with the staff on a definition of a stream, and mapping remaining streams so that Building and Safety would know not to permit grading in stream corridors. I’ve since learned that the stream maps have been unevenly implemented, if at all. And that residents continue to fight development permits at even natural streams, much less culverted ones.

When I stop to think about how many homes in LA may have been permitted under similar circumstances…well, I just stop thinking.

I don’t know about you, but all this high-class poo washing downstream with impunity bothers me. And by engineering it away at the beach we can pretend it’s not a problem. Maybe that’s fine for that neighborhood. When you take this a step further, to an urbanized and park-poor watershed with little to no nature around you, for example, it becomes a selfish solution, one that may serve the interests of a distant community with the resources to hire lawyers but doesn’t give much back to the neighborhood. Engineering the problem away doesn’t give us back our creeks. The fish and frogs and birds that have disappeared. The open space that’s desperately needed, the safely out-of-traffic paths. Is it too much to say, the spirit of the land? But please be thrilled with this pocket park and the buried devices we will use to “capture” stormwater. And bonus: it keeps coastal nonprofits from suing the City over water quality noncompliance, and it keeps the Water Board from levying fines.

Angelenos, I hope you realize that – without restoration – this is what the brave sustainability talk boils down to. And this is at the heart of the fight over dry weather diversions.

Photos: Google StreetView.

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§ 3 Responses to Dry weather diversions – memories up a sh*t’s creek

  • David D. Rowley says:

    One day the city decided to replace the sewer pipes on my street. I asked the workers for the old pipe and they showed me that it had all disintegrated and there was no pipe. I asked if they would replace it with plastic and they told me they could not as the clay pipe makers had lobbied to not allow the plastic pipe. So the new pipes will dissolve too.
    “Up Shit Street without any Oars”

  • Rex Frankel says:

    Jessica, the fix is in, now, just as it was 15 years ago when i complained about the polluter-control of the process and you treated me like i was nuts. Im glad youve seen the light. Most of the Ballona wetlands activists that back in 2006 joined your efforts as a bureaucrat to unearth creeks upstream of the wetlsnds have retreated just to defending the wetlands from a State plan shoveled like manure, to dredge out the wetlands for 9 years and backed by sold out grant seeking whores aka coastline defenders like Deal the Bay, Waterkeeper, Surfrider, turning Ballona into something it never was, and overwhelming the wetlands with urban runoff shit as you called it. And completely going against USC and UCLA scientists’ Ballona Historical Ecology Study, which concluded that a historically accurate restoration is the opposite of the States plan. Based on our engineering knowledge and given that the plan we support does not require thousands of earthmovers to happen; it could be accomplished in one year without flattening every living creature there. Finally, one of the main arguments used by bulldozer lovers to justify this scheme, namely that the wetlands are covered in 12 feet of dirt, was recently debunked on the pages of the Argonaut newspaper, which quoted a 30 year old archeologists report and map prepared by the former owner of Ballona which concluded that the site of most of the bulldozer work is not a filled in marsh but actually an upland island which is mostly in a natural state. Its not a degraded disaster zone justifying a plan so extrene. Join us. SAVE EGRET ISLAND!

  • Jack Hodges says:

    Thank you Jessica for your noble efforts. You are inspiring!

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