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 »
February 29, 2016 § 1 Comment
Something came up in a recent discussion I was having about current spate of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers make-work projects to degrade the L.A. River in the name of El Niño. If you haven’t seen it, the cutting vegetation and installing dirt-fill barriers along the edges of parts of the river, resulting in nutty bike path detours.
What makes me sad is that the L.A. River generally hasn’t flooded during El Niño years, but instead mostly during La Niña years.
I know this from an excellent interview that FoLAR bird expert Dan Cooper did with climatology professor Richard Minnich back in 1998. I ran excerpts from this in 2010 – a drier La Niña year with some big storms. Below is the whole article.
Talkin’ El Niño
An interview with Dr. Richard Minnich of University of California Riverside, by Dan Cooper
Richard Minnich is a professor of biogeography and climatology in the Department of Earth Sciences at UC Riverside. He has been studying weather patterns and landscape ecology in Southern California and Baja for the past two decades, and recently spoke with FoLAR’s Technical Advisory Board chair, Dan Cooper, in Riverside on March 6, 1998
Dan: Dr. Minnich, let’s begin with the basics – what causes flooding in L.A.?
Rich: Two components are involved, long-term and short-term causes. In the long-term, the ground has to get completely saturated by rain; water hitting dry ground won’t do a thing. Now, in the short term, it’s the hourly rates throughout the day that are important. These rates are what cause catastrophic flooding like we had in 1938.
Dan: What kind of rain are we talking about?
Rich: Ballpark rates, maybe 20 inches in a day in the Transverse Ranges (incl. the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mtns.).
Dan: Twenty inches in one day? That’s typically what we get in a year.
Rich: In January ’43, it rained 20″ in the mountains, but it was on dry ground so nothing happened. Now downing the coastal plain where everyone lives, all that concrete has led to the potential for flash flood conditions – the water has nowhere to go but into the channels. But even without concrete, major floods are possible – the floods in ’38 occurred before the whole plain was concrete and the rivers were completely channelized.
Dan: So 1938 must have been a big El Niño year…
Rich: Pretty neutral, actually. Neither El Niño nor La Niña conditions were recorded that year. Another neutral year was the winter of 1966-67 – the Transverse Range got 30 inches in December of ’66. The Transverse Range got 30 inches in December of ’66.
Dan: So El Niños don’t coincide with flooding in the L.A. Basin?
Rich: The three spectacular El Niños we’ve seen this century have been 1940-1, 1982-3, and again in the past season [1997-8]. Not one of them caused extensive flooding in the basin.
November 1, 2014 § 4 Comments
Recently we have been having fun with creek freak real estate leads sent to us by Louisa Van Leer. From now on I will post the leads as they come, hoping other creek freaks in the community might be want to jump on creek side property, or pool efforts to make some stream-side amazingness happen.
This 10,000 ft2 lot on the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco is part of a steep hillside dotted with native walnuts. The slope leads down to the former stream bed right behind Aldama Elementary. The route of the North Branch can be viewed on this Google map.
The property and the adjacent undeveloped lot happen to make a lush backdrop for the concrete yard of Aldama Elementary. While millions are being spent on schoolyard greening projects elsewhere, one could imagine Aldama students might one day simply walk out an open gate into an extension of its schoolyard to access hands-on science and ecology fun in a native walnut grove. This greenery is already there.
Looking around, we found some mysterious notes, a tree which might possibly be making pecans, and numerous balls of all sorts. Poking one’s head into a culvert opening at the end of the lot, one can hear, deep underground in a pipe, the echos of the waters of the North Branch flowing toward Sycamore Grove Park and the Arroyo Seco.
August 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
The city of Los Angeles is proceeding with demolition of the historic Riverside-Figueroa Bridge over the L.A. River. I’ve been covering this story over at Streetsblog Los Angeles, see today’s article featuring sad photographs showing the bridge being torn up. It makes me sad that this neighborhood-scale bridge is being torn down in favor of a freeway-scale bridge. In this earlier post, I called the project “nothing but zombie engineers fulfilling a now obsolete paean to the automobile.” I don’t think I can outdo that characterization today.
Water is a Living Archive: Examining myths of where various urban streams come from: Pt. 1: Kellogg Creek
July 2, 2014 § 3 Comments
Have you ever heard rumors that water in various urban streams in Los Angeles originates in significant part from irrigation runoff?
It’s true that car wash and irrigation runoff are often seen flowing into storm drains. Dry season (summer) is the time these activities are most likely to take place. In the case of the Los Angeles River, a good deal of the river’s dry season flow comes from point source discharges rather than groundwater: one report says this figure is about 80% (Arup, 2011). Point sources include storm drains which convey irrigation runoff and carwash runoff, but also effluent from wastewater treatment plants. Flow data collected in 2000-2001 by Stein and Ackerman (2007) indicated that on the average, half of dry season flow in the Los Angeles River originated as effluent from wastewater treatment plants and half from storm drains.
As Josh Link puts it, the Los Angeles River, the end of pipe destination for a good deal of imported tap water, is effectively a « Read the rest of this entry »
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.