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.

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Of chenopods and corn: agriculture along the Los Angeles River, both then and now

July 27, 2016 § 5 Comments

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In the very early days of agriculture in the Los Angeles basin,  the seasonal flooding of the Los Angeles River was intimately connected with the possibility of agriculture. Farmers welcomed flood-deposited silt. It made stuff grow. The agriculture of then grew out of the river of then.

The agriculture of now also deserves to be discussed in the context of the LA River, though  it may require some serious visionary thinking to draw out the possibilities of this connection. Some have suggested the idea of community gardens along the river. Maybe in the near future. But let’s not forget that in the river as it currently stands, there are already all sorts of useful or edible plants that grow profusely without labor, chemicals, or other inputs. What can we learn from those plants?

Last of all, how can we put together the past and present to envision ways in which sustainable local food production might intersect with the Los Angeles River of the future?

At L.A. River Expeditions‘ Sepulveda Basin tour this past Sunday, kayak guide Gary Golding talked about useful wild plants currently found along the LA river channel, such as cattails, castor bean, wild mustards… Some of these plants are exotics and some are natives. Some are edible, and others are used medicinally. But what they all have in common is that they grow profusely and unapologetically, without the help of chemicals, irrigation, or the human hand, in any place suitable to their needs. This includes right in the Los Angeles River channel, where they thrive beneath a lush canopy of native willows. So why not learn what they are and learn how to use them?

Gary talked a long time about cattails. Parts of the plant can be processed into flour. Other parts can be eaten like celery. The pollen can be used in several different ways, and is considered to have healthful properties. This is just a brief capsule of one of the many plants he talked about.

My own talk started with the agriculture of then. Believe it or not, in the early days of (European) settlement in the basin, the soil in many valley areas of Los Angeles used to retain enough moisture to allow for farming without irrigation— this is called dry farming. Ludwig Louis Salvator wrote in 1876 of the “tablelands” of Los Angeles, that properly prepared soil could produce “nine good annual harvests out of ten, without irrigation, of castor oil beans, Indian corn, barley, alfalfa, potatoes, and various kinds of vegetables.”

At that time, the LA Basin was only sparsely developed. In that big open basin, plant roots and plant litter facilitated the soaking of water into the ground. Imagine about 50% of all rainfall ending up stored in the ground (California Water & Land Use Partnership), moving slowly downward through soil with the help of gravity, where it eventually joins the water table. In those days, rain moving slowly underground would have eventually re-emerged into one of the many streams, marshes, ponds, or wetlands in the LA River basin.

Though flooding did occur during the rainy season, it was different from the sudden devastating flooding of the early-mid 1900s– the flood stories we often hear about tend to be mostly from this specific period in history. This pop mythology about the river focusses on the kind of flooding that worsened in severity after houses and roads had already replaced the vegetation that had helped the ground behave like a sponge; the kind of devastating flooding that eventually prompted the channelization of the river into a thick bed of concrete… That kind of destructive flooding was still unknown. In the earliest days, rather, flooding was to be respected, but it also included the happy possibility that the river would deposit rich silt over the land, sometimes in layers several feet deep. Farmers loved this silt. The oral histories collected by Reagan in 1914 include many in which farmers praise the flood-deposited silt.

It was not necessary to fertilize the land, as they are now doing. They raised 100 bushels of corn to the acre, but not now. In those days a crop of corn and California pumpkins were raised on the same land. Those pumpkins would grow so thick that it was difficult to walkaround and step between them, while it was an easy matter to go all over the place and never step on the ground, stepping on the pumpkins. The largest I ever saw weighed 214 pounds, and on our place we raised one that weighed 206 pounds. (Proctor, from Reagan)

These stories might sound fantastical, but in his book on the Los Angeles River, Blake Gumprecht credits river-deposited soils as the reason Los Angeles County was “the most productive agricultural county in the United States until the 1950s.”

Contrast that to our current situation (call it the well-drained city), where 61% of the non-mountainous portions of the city of Los Angeles is covered by impervious surfaces, the hard surfaces like paving and roofs that prevent water from soaking into the ground (McPherson et al, 2008). Water moves very quickly over those hard surfaces, and is funneled into an elaborate network of stormdrains that transports captured rainfall as efficiently as possible into the ocean, rather than allowing it to soak into the ground where it might be replenishing aquifers, streams, and rivers.

On undeveloped land (this depends on slope, soil, vegetation cover, and other factors), one might expect 10% of rainfall to become surface runoff. In urbanized areas, about 55% of rain falling on the ground can become runoff that ends up in storm drains (California Water & Land Use Partnership). It is ironic that the finely networked stormdrain system that culminates in the  Los Angeles River flood control channel really functions to dispose of the water that otherwise would be creating our streams. (This is why any river restoration that focusses only on the main channel without touching the network of tributaries higher up in the watershed might look good, but is essentially an end-of-pipe solution– it will not have a large impact on the river’s hydrology– it will certainly not help the river capture more water.) With precipitation disposed of so efficiently, the landscape of the Los Angeles basin is now so well-drained that the idea of growing vegetable crops without artificial irrigation, even in the ‘table lands,’ might seem fantastical.

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What about the agriculture of now? As I spoke, some kayakers pointed out a field of corn planted right in Sepulveda Basin, near our trip’s starting point.

I had to investigate. Rows of corn were planted neatly,  but the stalks were wan and thin. The plants on the edge of the field were dried. Maybe irrigation had just recently ceased. I was surprised to see that the plant that gave the field a dark green color from a distance was actually a species that appeared to have volunteered. This plant, growing far more prolifically than the intended crop, appeared to be some sort of chenopod.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Garcetti Announces US Army Corps Support for $1B LA River Plan

May 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti shakes hands with US Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Kim Colloton at today's press conference in Elysian Valley.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti shakes hands with US Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Kim Colloton at today’s press conference in Elysian Valley.

Earlier today, Mayor Garcetti announced U.S. Army Corps of Engineers support for Option 20 – the most ambitious of various USACE projects for L.A. River habitat restoration. For more of the story, including some impromptu Lewis MacAdams poetry, see my article today at Streetsblog Los Angeles.

Happy surprises for Thanksgiving day

November 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

A year ago, my Thanksgiving post was a tribute of sorts to an endangered species, the Vaquita marina, and a reflection on our consumption of water – an important cause of distress for this brackish-water dwelling, small porpoise:

I can tell you now, I thought that the tribute was an elegy to a dying species, the pitch for water conservation quite possibly a lost cause.  But I needed to learn more, to see this in person – even if that meant dragging out the melancholy. And so, I teamed with Josh Link on a series, Explorations of the Lower Colorado River – a humbling and amazing trip in which we saw how a people’s love for a land, commitment to all species, and creativity and capability was being rewarded, poco a poco, with adjustments and agreements and funding and projects that kept some habitat on life support.  But what was really needed was water for the river, for the delta.

This week, the hard work of these environmentalists in the Mexico and US border region has been rewarded:  a landmark pact between the two nations recognizing the delta’s need for water, and other measures.  It is a five-year treaty, so the flows are not secure. But it is an incredible beginning.

Today’s Thanksgiving celebrates an newfound abundance for a long-withered waterway, a lifeline and hope.

Congratulations, to all involved.

In the news:

National Geographic: A historic binational agreement gives new life to the Colorado River Delta

LA Times:  U.S. Mexico reach pact on Colorado River water sale

Huffington Post: An historic step towards saving the Colorado River and Delta

You can also see photos and news about the delta at the Save the Colorado River Delta Facebook page.  They’ve also posted video of Mexico’s Director General of the National Water Commission talking about the pact.

Reflections on River Access

October 4, 2012 § 2 Comments

Sepulveda Basin: Great Blue Heron and Kayakers, Summer (painting by Joan Wolfe ©2012)

As the heat of summer slowly (hopefully) begins to wind down, so too has the second season of the pioneering L.A. River kayak and canoe excursions. The final group dropped into the River this past Sunday, an undoubtedly leisurely paddle between willows and sycamores, shopping carts and plastic bags. The 2012 installment hosted approximately 2,000 participants, an impressive increase from 2011, when the count for the pilot program was 260. The number of outfits operating on the River has also doubled and now includes Paddle the L.A. River (organized by L.A. Conservation Corps, MRCA, The River Project, FoLAR and Urban Semillas) and L.A. River Expeditions (organized by George Wolfe and the San Joaquin River Stewardship Program). I had the pleasure of paddling with both groups as a guest educator (thanks to Melanie Winter and George Wolfe for getting me out there!), a journey every Angeleno within reach of a buoyant non-motorized vessel should be able to experience at least once. « Read the rest of this entry »

Places to Visit: the East Fork of the San Gabriel River and the Bridge to Nowhere

August 22, 2012 § 4 Comments

The Bridge to Nowhere over the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, photos by Carrie Lincourt

Last week, a friend and I took a really great hike up the East Fork of the San Gabriel River to the Bridge to Nowhere. It’s an excellent local day hike (9.5 miles round trip) that I highly recommend, though it’s probably best done during cooler seasons – say between late September and early June.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Sunnynook River Park Groundbreaking

July 25, 2012 § 8 Comments

Sunnynook River Park groundbreaking: golden shovels lifting ceremonial soil. Visible from left to right City Engineer Gary Moore, Councilmember Garcetti, Councilmember Reyes, Councilmember LaBonge, Recreation & Parks Assistant General Manager Kevin Regan, FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams, and State Assemblymember Mike Gatto

Before a crowd of about 90, the city of Los Angeles broke ground on Sunnynook River Park this morning. The new Atwater Village park will be located in the mostly vacant area on the southwest bank of the Los Angeles River, between Glendale Boulevard and Los Feliz Boulevard – immediately downstream of the Sunnynook footbridge. « Read the rest of this entry »

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