“Grondwater word hier gebruik”

January 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the Cape region of South Africa, a mecca for plant nerds, and during my last couple hours in Capetown, I had the pleasure of visiting the studio of artist/designer, Porky Hefer, maker of suspended tree pods inspired by the nests of local weaver birds.

His studio is in part of a former farm compound in Oranjezicht, a neighborhood on the side of Table Mountain, within walking distance of downtown Capetown. Table Mountain is to Capetown what the Empire State Building is to New York City. It towers above the city with its top often bathed in a cloud. The changing appearance of mountain, light and rolling clouds provides a show I found endlessly inspiring. The mountain itself is even more awe-inspiring in that it is a world renowned center of biodiversity right in the middle of a very cosmopolitan city.

Table Mountain, seen from Oranjezicht

I was charmed by  a modest water feature next to the discrete entrance gate to Porky Hefer’s studio. The fountain was labeled with a sign that said ‘Grondwater word hier gebruik.’ Though not running, the fountain was built to feed into a brick-lined rill, and as I walked through the studio compound, I noticed the rill appearing mysteriously in other areas of the compound.

When Porky returned from his appointment, he filled me in on the whole narrative of this water. From the first water fountain, water flows into the rill that I first saw. Then it rounds a corner, runs under a door, through a corridor, and into a brick-lined watering hole from which horses once drank. After offering the animals a drink, it runs down a couple stairs, and fills a small courtyard pool, whose reflective surface picks up the movement of the wind. After this thoughtful pause, it flows through another corridor and under a wall to connected properties, where I supposed there were gardens or orchards to be watered.

I loved the sequential integration of direct streamflow into the daily activity of a farm-turned-studio.

Grondwater word hier gebruik

water flows into the rill, where it rounds a corner…

runs under a door, through a corridor….

and into a brick-lined watering hole from which horses once drank…

after offering the animals a drink, it runs into a small courtyard pool, whose reflective surface picks up the movement of the wind…

it flows through another corridor and under a wall to connected properties…

It ends up that springs that flowed from Table Mountain inspired Khoi people to call this area ‘Camissa,’ the ‘place of sweet waters’ (where sweet means drinkable). These springs are the reason Capetown developed here. Oranjezicht springs were among the first sources of water for Capetown. Though most of the springs were eventually routed underground, Table Mountain still supplies 5% of the city’s water. The water of Table Mountain is the source of drinking water at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, where it is treated with nothing more than ozone.

Reclaim Camissa is an initiative founded by Caron Von Zeil to bring to light and celebrate the Camissa water system. Its poetically named pilot project, Field of Springs, embodies the potential of urban waters to seamlessly bridge utilitarian, ecological, and cultural life. This project was included in Capetown’s successful bid to become  World Design Capital for 2014. With Capetown in the design community’s eye, it will be wonderful if this initiative can be brought closer to implementation and inspire visionaries in other cities.

This trip was funded by the Dangermond Travelling Fellowship through the Cal Poly Pomona Department of Landscape Architecture.

Through a chainlink fence: the Arroyo Seco back and forth in time

August 12, 2013 § 6 Comments

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Fig. 1a. Looking North from Avenue 43. 2013. Hieu Nguyen. Note Southwest Museum on left and a narrowed stream channel.

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Fig. 1b. Looking North from Avenue 43. 1901-1916. Minerva Classics. Note Southwest Museum on left, and tracks in streambed used for quarrying during harbor construction.

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.”

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Fig. 2a. Looking Northeast from Marmion Way. 2013. Hieu Nguyen.

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Fig. 2b. Looking Northeast from Marmion Way. 1935. Los Angeles Times.

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.

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Fig. 3a. Looking Northeast from Pasadena Avenue. 2013. Hieu Nguyen. Note deepening and narrowing of the streambed.

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Fig. 3b. Looking Northeast from Pasadena Avenue. 1955. Los Angeles Public Library. Note California sycamores lining the floodplain in the distance.

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).

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Fig. 4a. Looking Northeast from Avenue 26. 2013. Hieu Nguyen.

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Fig. 4b. Looking Northeast from Avenue 26. n.d. Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner Collection.

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.

Exploring the Bronx River

January 28, 2013 § 6 Comments

The Bronx River, as seen upstream from the Tremont Avenue Bridge

The Bronx River, as seen upstream from the Tremont Avenue Bridge

A couple weeks ago, I got a chance to bicycle a few miles of the Bronx River. It’s not unlike the Los Angeles River: a very urban, relatively industrialized freshwater river, in the process of making a dramatic comeback – with new parks and bike paths along its degraded banks.  « Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Hurricane Sandy’s Jersey City Debris Line

November 2, 2012 § 6 Comments

(Note to L.A. folks: this former L.A. resident is now spending time living with my fiance in Downtown Jersey City. I’ll be posting occasional east coast pieces that I think may be interesting to L.A.’s Creek Freaks. For more information on recent changes at LACF, see this earlier post.)

I’ve spent the last month living in Jersey City, a place that was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. I am not going to go over all the damage done by Sandy nor the environmental factors likely responsible for second “storm of the century” in two years here… but I wanted to share one small observation about debris – because Sandy’s debris lines resemble those I’ve seen on the L.A. River after storms.

The good news is that my fiance and I are safe and dry, and suffered nearly no serious damage. We did have a day-long blackout, and train service is still out. Neighbors’ places flooded, but our basement stayed dry. At least right here on our street, near Hamilton Park in Downtown Jersey City, we got some strong winds but very little rain. The flooding issues here (and in nearby Hoboken, Manhattan, etc.) were the result of a surge of the waters of the Hudson River. The hurricane pushed water upstream, overflowing the banks and flooding low-lying areas. The surge added to already high-tide conditions on the Hudson – in this area a tidally-influenced river.

Hurricane Sandy’s debris line along a level contour at Jersey City’s Liberty State Park

After the storm, we bicycled around – stretching our legs and checking out downed trees and other damage. We frequently bike at Liberty State Park – a low-lying park along the Hudson, just west of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The park has great views of the Manhattan skyline. The park contains the Liberty Science Center, located on a small hill. Along the base of the hill (see above photo), we spotted a debris line running along a level contour around the hill. The river pushed its flotsam as far as it could, and then receded, leaving a telltale line.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Fancy dancing at the Supreme Court

October 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

Once the election buzz has passed, angelenos can turn their attention to the Supreme Court for some creekfreaky argumentation.  Commenters – can you offer up interpretations of what this decision will mean for clean water in LA if the County has its way?  (feel free to also weigh in on how you feel about the County using its scarce resources for fighting interpretations of the clean water act when it’s under compliance deadlines.  All the way up to the Supreme Court.)

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 »

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