February 23, 2018 § Leave a comment
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.
February 2, 2017 § 4 Comments
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!
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.”
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.
Origin of the Arrowhead landmark near San Bernardino, California. California Geographical Society.
July 27, 2016 § 5 Comments
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.
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 »
Early Floods in Los Angeles: Interview 140, William Mulholland: It is no difficulty to do things when the work is carried on in harmony with Nature
July 15, 2016 § 9 Comments
One of the best creek freak documents around is a series of interviews made by Los Angeles County Flood Control Engineer James Reagan, around 1914. The interviews give a vivid picture of the Los Angeles basin of more than 100 years ago. We will be posting other interviews from this document in the following months.
The following is a transcription of Mulholland’s interview by F. Z. Lee, on October 2, 1914.
As Mr. Mulholland said, he has never had anything to do with the river other than in connection with the water works, where their supply came from for many years.
There seems nothing strange or mysterious about handling the floods of the river if the lesson from nature was followed. It is no difficulty to do things when the work is carried on in harmony with Nature, but when man begins to obstruct the laws of Nature and to work against them, then there is great difficulty.
We had no trouble with the Los Angeles River until 1877-78. Up to that time the channel of the river was clear of willows and other growth that would cause the water to change about from one side of the river to the other. When the floods came they spread over the gravel beds of the river and ran along smoothly without obstruction. There were some willows along the banks of the streams but none out in the channel. The channels remained the same all the time.
May 18, 2016 § 1 Comment
When this blog first started, those of us interested in what our neighborhoods used to look like in the far past had to trek to libraries and archives all over town to find old maps, then figure out a way to photograph or scan the most useful. To understand how these maps related to the contemporary landscape, I used to superimpose scans of old maps over contemporary ones by using Adobe software- a slow, cumbersome, and inaccurate process!
Since then, there has been an explosion in the quality and quantity of map resources online. Best of all, some have already been georeferenced (digitally located in physical space), which means that anyone can very casually compare any neighborhood now to what it was 100 years ago by using a slider.
Here are some of my favorite places to look for old maps of Los Angeles:
USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer (click on the area of the US that you want to view, then choose a USGS map from the timeline to view)
William Hammond Hall’s irrigation maps at the David Rumsey Map Collection (some of the LA area maps have been georeferenced, but if you have the interest, anyone can contribute by georeferencing new ones….such as the one of San Bernardino pictured below)
Here is a modest effort of my own from way back, a synthesis of William Hammond Hall’s sketch of the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco with elevation data of the same area created in ArcGIS, then shared through the old Google Maps interface. It was a disappointment that the shared map was not readable with a phone due to the quirky layout of the old Google Maps interface… but when I have time maybe I’ll start playing with some of the new map-customization tools online…
I am fascinated by the messiness of the historical landscape before it was flattened and filled, with water confined to neatly linear paths. There are so many notations mapmakers used to depict the ways water manifested in the historical landscape. William Hammond Hall’s maps go beyond mere notation, into the realm of artistic representation. In contrast, USGS maps of contemporary Los Angeles use a limited and inflexible set of icons to depict water: blue lines for waterways (thin or thick, solid or dashed), and blue amoebas for lakes. Does the simplicity of these icons reflect what we’ve done to our surface water; or has what we’ve done to our surface water reflect our simplistic cultural idea about how a water body is supposed to look like and behave?
Early aerial photos are another great resource for armchair creekfreaking. UCSB’s collection of aerial photography, which spans the last century, is now easier than ever to access online. Just zoom in to an area that you would like to see, then select an area to browse aerial photos in the collection. Look for photographs taken before the great stormwater engineering projects of the midcentury.
Let us know of other good resources you know, or any wish-list map projects to consider in the comments section…. there is another great map viewer in development that visualizes percolation, alluvial geology, water quality, and other topics, whose link I’ll post very soon…
February 28, 2014 § 3 Comments
I just posted an article at L.A. Streetsblog that wouldn’t be out of place at L.A. Creek Freak.
It’s the first part of a series where I’ll be exploring the connections between streets and creeks. I’ll be highlighting various green street projects, this article shows off the recently opened Woodman Avenue Multi-Beneficial Stormwater Capture Project – a collaboration of The River Project and the City of Los Angeles.
August 12, 2013 § 6 Comments
As part of coursework for Dr. Susan Mulley’s Research Methods seminar in the graduate program in Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, Hieu Nguyen chose to examine landscape changes to the Arroyo Seco through the technique of repeat photography. By comparing historical photographs to contemporary views taken from the same location, Nguyen hoped to detect changes in the parkway landscape throughout the years. “I was mainly looking for vegetation changes, urban development, physical deterioration, and obstructed viewsheds.”
Nguyen had treated the Arroyo Seco in a previous Urban Planning project, and was drawn to the topic again because of “the history, design, and uniqueness of the parkway’s scenery.”
Narrowing down available historical photographs to 10-15 that could be feasibly be physically located, Nguyen headed into the field. But things did not go quite as expected. Nguyen’s narrative offers a poignant view at how physical access to the arroyo has changed:
During the trip, I found out that I could not locate all of the camera angles that I intended to shoot due to the urban development, fencing, private properties, etc. For one photo, the walkway was so narrow, I had to grab onto the handrail on the bridge to keep myself balanced while I was taking the photo as the cars were passing by me at 40-50 mph.
For another photo, I had to climb down the Arroyo Seco Channel to get the camera angle that I wanted. However, I was not satisfied with the angle and wanted to take it from the other side of the shallow running water way. So I tried to jump across, almost slipped and got myself all wet from knee down. But when I went home and overlaid the historical photo and the current photo, I realized that the current angle was incorrect because the channel bed today was much lower than the historical one due to the flood management and channelization of the Arroyo Seco (Fig 4a).
One of my biggest disappointments was finding a lot of chain link fences on the bridges along the parkway. Because most of my camera shots were taken from the bridges, most of the photos were obstructed by the fences (Fig. 1a). Nonetheless, my professor, Dr. Susan Mulley, and classmates all agreed that the fences were significant landscape changes to the grand viewshed of the originally designed parkway and an important part of my research analysis.
Just as starkly, the historical photographs themselves show a channel that was anything but pristine. Creek Freak co-founder Jessica Hall notes that the Arroyo Seco was once characterized as a shallow and broad river. But even the earliest of the historical photos above already show levees and other substantial encroachments onto the Arroyo’s broad floodplain, which confine flow to a narrowed and deepened channel.
Such encroachments suggest that channelization did not happen in one fell swoop– attempts to control the flow of winter stormwater dated from the beginning of development in the Los Angeles basin and intensified with the changes in stormwater flow regime wrought by devegetation and proliferation of impermeable surfaces. The Army Corp’s famous post-1938 feats of flood control are merely the culmination of this history of efforts at confinement. The final result– a smooth and clean channel so conveniently free of vegetation or anything that might obstruct the swiftest flow of precipitation toward the sea. Gone is the disorderly seasonal dynamism of the original floodplain connecting the foothills to the coast. Channelization creates a streambed as neat as a conveniently placed pipe. One might imagine that streamflow originates from a magical tap in the foothills, rather than from the seeping of precipitation into the soil, and its slow under- and aboveground migration to the sea, which happens to leave in its wake a messy mosaic of vegetation and wildlife habitat.
Nguyen’s photographs also illustrate how armoring of banks with concrete did more than just alter hydrology and habitat. Channelization thoroughly severs any natural functional relationship between various parts of the larger watershed — literally paving the way to the radically featureless flat urban landscape we know today.