It’s sedimentary, my dear Watson

May 27, 2011 § 4 Comments

Calling your attention to an excellent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times this past week, Let the River Run – providing some historical context for the construction of dams on the Mississippi River that have contributed to the massive loss of coastal wetlands along the Louisiana coast (they lose approximately 25-30 square miles a year) and floodplain development – and therefore heightened flood risk, and background to the recent opening up of the Morganza spillway.  The piece also gives space to an often unconsidered, forgotten, human dimension: the forcible relocation of Native Americans, in the middle of the 20th Century.

To those unfamiliar with the issue, dams trap sediment, but sediment builds and rebuilds river channels, floodplains, wetlands and coastlines – via flooding.

So dams interfere with this natural process, and we (the collective we, who have handed responsibility over to our Publics Works departments) are then stuck with the management problem of clearing dams and basins of sediment and all sorts of things to manage downstream effects. We need to make the connection: this story about the Mississippi and its management problems has information for us. Their trapping of sediment had downstream effects, our trapping of sediment has downstream effects. And in an emergency situation, flooding had to be brought back into the picture…meanwhile we in LA fight over whether or not to clear basins of sediment to prepare us for inevitable large storms.

What’s missing from our discussions is recognition of a San Gabriel Mountain-sized elephant in a corner of the room: the absence of a long-term sustainable solution, one that involves some measure of floodplain restoration, in-channel sediment transport. How much money have we sunk in diesel fuel alone over the decades to truck this stuff around, supplanting the free, emissions-less, work of gravity?  And how much more are we willing to spend? How many more oak woodlands or canyons are we willing to fill with dirt that naturally washes downstream? How many times will we watch increasingly rare species colonize in debris basins only to be wrenched out to protect downstream humans? Some of the outrage and fighting over short-term management issues is a worthy reaction, a wake-up call to the fact that surprise! our rivers aren’t exactly healthy, but I believe that we need to refocus on that not-healthy-rivers bit, reach a little further in our scope, and recognize the beautiful simplicity of a gravity-based solution.  That, yes, entails dealing with my favorite two words (after sediment and flooding, that is): political will.

Reading the L.A. Times, between this fine piece about a far-away river, and our local flood control dramas, such as the Devil’s Gate sediment removal, may make your head spin for the lack of consistency in perspective and understanding, insofar as the Times editorial staff is keeping a much narrower view of managing our waterways in the name of public safety. Would they ever acknowledge the value of floodplain restoration as a key to unlocking the sediment troubles at Devil’s Gate and beyond? Perhaps someone in Louisiana is writing an op-ed to that effect, albeit no doubt while grumbling about the Morganza spillway.

Knocking down harmless art on Ballona Creek

February 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

Regular users of the Ballona Bike Path next to Marina del Rey are probably familiar with the little stone cairns down by the water’s edge. Or were – they apparently have merited the attention of the Flood Control District, which is now going to knock them down if they haven’t already.  « Read the rest of this entry »

The Arcadia Oaks: tunnel vision and the dirt pile

January 7, 2011 § 7 Comments

Cue Pink Floyd: We don't need no tunnel vision. Photo: Joshua Link, Ecotone Studios.

Ever been on an Ancient Tree Hunt?  Seen the decorative skirts placed around trees by Shinto worshipers? Tie a yellow ribbon “round the ole oak tree” or gone to a Shakespeare production in the center of an oak woodland? Ever play “Robin Hood” in an oak woodland? Any woodland? Ever play?

You know where I’m heading with this.

LA-area place names like Encino, Los Robles (both Spanish for oak), Sherman Oaks, Fair Oaks, etc hint to us of woodlands past. An oak reputed to be 400-years old on Caltech’s campus demonstrates that their presence was no fluke. Oak woodlands belonged to Southern California.

How many do you know of today?

Today the moratorium to level a century-old oak woodland in Arcadia ends. With security fencing lining the perimeter of the site, it is difficult to imagine that the County has arrived at a different outcome after their moratorium to re-think the approach.

And while I’m not sure what that means to them, it speaks volumes to me. Mitigation may replant oaks, but the interplay and evolution of organisms from microbes to mammals takes time to repair – and will occur uniquely in different locations. Supervisor Antonovich will be lucky if his great-great-grandchildren are able to find equivalency in the experience of this mitigation project as adults.

Given the quality of environmental values on display here, his great-great-grandchildren may very well be fortunate to know any kind of nature in Southern California at all.

But they will have many a dirt pile to look at. Those too will likely be fenced off.

Will the Supervisor’s ghost come down to them, saying, “sorry, but I had to do it so the trucks wouldn’t rumble past the people in their houses.”

Make me wrong, Supervisor. Make me eat my words. Please. I’d love that.


Today bloggers are uniting to express their opposition to this proposed conversion of an oak woodland to a silt pile. Here’s a link to other blogs participating (this list will be updated throughout the day). Many of them have also been covering the issue for a while, with excellent updates and open letters (linked at Creekfreak’s earlier post by Josh Link).

And thanks to LA Observed for linking to Josh’s Arcadia Woodlands Update post and to the Arcadia Patch and Sierra Madre Patch for recognizing our blogger effort – and doing a splendid job reporting on the issue. I also want to give a nod to the Sierra Madre Tattler who I’m told has been behind the ball on this one all the way through.

Got silt? Oak woodland to become dirt pile.

December 4, 2010 § 6 Comments

A perennial management problem for our channelized, dammed river system is sediment. Natural rivers use sediment to shape and reshape their channels and floodplains – in fact the channel dimensions reflect the most efficient way for it to move that sediment.

Not so in our engineered systems. Dams trap sediment, while over-wide channels cause it to drop out, foster colonies of vegetation: both reduce flood capacity. So as long as we have people living in floodways and an engineered system, there will be jobs-for-life for the guys who truck out dirt.
What’s bewildering is where to put all this sediment. Again, nature distributes it along the floodplain, and ultimately the finest material makes it to coastal wetlands and the beaches. Not so, today. If the County has its way, it will raze an 11-acre century-old oak woodland in Arcadia to make space for dirt piles.

Funny, ’cause when I look at a map of the Arcadia-Monrovia area, near the imperiled oak grove, I see a lot of very big holes in the ground. (if any aren’t used for water recharge, what’s the big? Store it there, at least until we can get a grip on better ways to manage this stuff) Or consider the salinization problem with soil in our nearby Central Valley ag lands – wouldn’t good soil be a resource that increases our food security?

The fact is, local government is acting like parking lots have more intrinsic value than these oak woodlands, described as being in a canyon – will a stream also be impacted?

Equally disappointing, however, is that this proposal went through a 2-year environmental review process – and made it through unscathed. As much as I appreciate that we even have a public process and environmental protections, clearly they don’t go far enough to ensure that the public actually knows what’s on the table. The news didn’t cover this when it was a proposal, but waited til it was a crisis. And environmental regulations, as I feel I drone on and on about, don’t necessarily protect natural resources so much as lay out a process for evaluating and “mitigating” the loss of natural resources. But how do you mitigate time? It took one century for these trees to grow to the state that we appreciate them today. Streams flow for millenia and then are abruptly filled. And how can you agree that the mitigation will provide the same quality of habitat when 11 acres is being cleared on one site and the mitigation project will take place on acreage half that size with three times the number of trees? How will overcrowding those trees be an effective way to ensure no net loss?

You can let your Supervisor know how you feel about this:

D1: Gloria Molina:
SD2: Mark Ridley-Thomas:
SD3: Zev Yaroslavsky:
SD4:For Don Knabe: Aaron Nevarez handles enviro/public works
SD5: Mike Antonovich:

News Sources:

San Gabriel Valley Tribune: Last ditch effort to save pristine native woodland from clearance

Los Angeles Times: Century-old oaks in the San Gabriel Mountains may make way — for silt –

AB2554: New State Legislation Enables Potential County Water Quality Improvements

September 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

The California Senate and Assembly recently passed legislation that enables Los Angeles County to solve local water quality problems. The new law is Assembly Bill 2554 (AB2554.) It passed the State Senate on August 19th, and State Assembly on August 27th, and is currently awaiting Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature. 

Assemblywoman Brownley (left) with Nancy Sutley, of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Photo from Assemblywoman Brownley's website.

AB2554 was introduced by State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley whose district includes mainly the Santa Monica Bay coastal areas of Los Angeles County and a portion of southern Ventura County – roughly Santa Monica to Oxnard.

Here’s a basic description of AB2554 from the Legislative Highlights section of Brownley’s website:   

AB 2554 – Flood Control 

Los Angeles County contains six major watersheds, significant areas of coastline and multiple lakes and rivers which are subject to pollution from storm water and urban runoff. This bill would authorize Los Angeles County to ask voters … if they want to pay a property-related user fee to raise funds for clean water projects.
Status [9/5/2010]: Awaiting governor’s signature

« Read the rest of this entry »

County Bike Plan Considers Paths Along Rivers and Creeks

January 14, 2010 § 3 Comments

Los Angeles River Bike Path - One example of the types of waterway bikeways expected in the county bike plan - photo from L.A. Streetsblog

Tonight is the kick-off meeting of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Advisory Committee (this is county – not to be too confused with the city committee that shares the same name.) The meeting is open to the public. It’s at 6:30pm at the County Hall of Records, 320 West Temple Street, downtown L.A. 90012. Lots of details (agenda, bike parking, transit directions, etc.) on the meeting are already posted at BikingInLA, so I won’t bore you with them here.

Why should creek freaks be interested in L.A. County’s bike plan? Well, I am glad you asked. Other than the overall bike-watershed connection, it’s  because the county plan will include bike paths along rights-of-way controlled by the L.A. County Flood Control District – known in the vernacular as: rivers, creeks, washes, arroyos, streams, sloughs… 

« Read the rest of this entry »

An environmental agenda for Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Part II

January 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Part II

Honorable Supervisor Ridley-Thomas,

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas with Tavis Smiley

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas with Tavis Smiley

Congratulations on being sworn in as our newest county supervisor!  We’re impressed that you’ve tapped Dan Rosenfeld to be your planning deputy. Rosenfeld has caught our attention as someone who really gets urban environmental issues, including supporting river revitalization (including playing a role in the creation of LA City’s River Revitalization Master Plan.)

In our last post to you, we outlined key Creekfreaky environmental objectives for the Second District.  Today we are sharing with you our priorities on a County-wide basis.  There are management issues that affect waterways and the environment throughout the County, and that need your leadership to foster healthier creeks and happier people.

We’re aware that Supervisors, out of respect for one another, often defer to each other’s lead within their own domains.  However, where natural resources are concerned, we ask you – and your fellow Supervisors – to consider that these resources are a common good, not defined by a political boundary.  We heartily recommend that you take a leadership position on these issues that impact your constituents but aren’t limited to just within your district’s boundaries.  We trust your leadership and statesmanship to move these forward without stepping on too many toes.

Countywide Issues

Broaden the Mission of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District – The LACFCD will celebrate its 100th birthday on your watch.  A lot has changed in a hundred years, but not the district’s mandate.  Older thinking brought us single-purpose concrete channel flood protection.  Currently approaches favor multiple-benefit approaches that prevent floods, but also increase local water supply, green neighborhoods, provide recreation, improve habitat, and more.  Creek Freak urges you and your fellow supervisors to work with county staff and state legislators to redefine the mission of the flood control district to encompass a broader, more holistic, multi-purpose watershed management approach.  Perhaps it could be re-purposed and re-named – maybe a County Watershed Management District?  Your experience in and relationships with the state legislature will be critical in this task.  A re-purposed District could be the engine driving a revitalization of our local infrastructure, capitalizing on President Obama’s momentum to reintegrate and naturalize waterways while creating a restoration economy.  If London can do it, so can LA. (JH/JL)

Implement Integrated Maintenance for County Rivers and Creeks – Current county maintenance regimes result in a boom and bust cycle of healthy neglect for vegetation growing in our creekbeds, then total bulldozing (as was recently inflicted on Compton Creek and the lower Los Angeles River.)  Sometimes exotic invasive vegetation is left standing while native trees are felled.  These bipolar approaches are not optimal for flood protection capacity nor for habitat nor for aesthetics.  Creek Freak urges you to help County Public Works to study and to adopt a new maintenance regime that integrates and balances flood capacity, habitat, water quality, and other benefits.  Integrated maintenance might be a little more labor-intensive, hence a little more expensive. You might be able to save some money, if you can get greater community involvement in the stewardship of our waterways.  What do you think about a pilot integrated maintenance project on the soft-bottom stretch of Compton Creek? (JL)

Work Cooperatively with Cities to Revitalize Waterways – Unfortunately there seem to be too many turf struggles between the county and cities when it comes to pursuing waterway projects.  These issues can be attributed to both electeds and agencies, to both county and cities.  The LA City River Revitalization Master Plan probably doesn’t sufficiently respect the county’s LA River Master Plan that preceeded it… so the Joint Powers Authority the city proposed has been roadblocked, debated, undermined, watered-down and downgraded into a (still-not-finalized) Master Use Agreement that won’t have one-hundredth of the momentum that the initially proposed JPA could have had.  Creek Freak looks forward to the benefits of your leadership and your experience in city government to foster a more cooperative atmosphere.  We urge you to focus on what’s best to make progress for our communities and our environment, and not get bogged down in jurisdictional squabbles.  (JL) 

Sewage infrastructure and reclamation.  Sewage of +9 million people is a big deal.  The City of LA may have the largest treatment plant, but the County also plays a major role in addressing sewage.  Aging sewage pipes are a nasty business*, and opportunities for widespread recycling or recharging treated sewage are tremendous.  Meanwhile, scientists are honing in on the alarming consequences of hormone-mimickers, pharmaceuticals, and other nonregulated contaminants in our treated wastewater.  And yes, there are problems with long term use of reclaimed water – it does have a slightly higher salt and nutrient content than potable freshwater.  Let’s put scientists and engineers to work on figuring out how to close the loop on these issues so we can move forward – rapidly –  to reclaim and reuse this water.  There’s a lot of jobs in replacing the old pipe, and laying the new ones for recycling.  Purple pipes should reach all corners of the county! (JH)

*I once worked on a job where the sewage pipe had corroded away, the void left by the pipe was conveying the raw sewage, in a part of town with a high groundwater table.  Yuck!

Planning & county-wide stream & watershed protection. Moving on to real creeks, our County’s waterways continue to decline, in habitat quality and actual stream-miles of riparian corridor, as development intensifies.  State and federal regulations create a process for assessing and “mitigating” the damage done to these wild areas, but the reality is we are facing net losses of waterways.  At present, watershed management is largely confined to Public Works Departments, who can only work within the existing publicly-owned infrastructure.  Engage Planning Departments in stormwater abatement & stream protection.  While working with the County Planning Department is key, we also need to develop more relationships with the planning offices of the many cities in the County, and get everyone on the same page. Here’s a couple of thoughts how watershed planning and Planning Departments can come together:

  • Enact stream buffers around natural streams.  These buffers slow the flow of water, prevent erosion, filter contaminants, protect habitat and can help recharge aquifers.  They also tend to preserve flood plains, and therefore the flood storage capacity of streams.  Assuming someone hasn’t pushed dirt into and narrowed the streams already.
  • Enact permeability zones.  Austin, Texas has an interesting model for this.  The County and its cities have a vested interest in seeing recharge of stormwater occur throughout the region.  Planning departments can set limits on impervious paving/building footprints based on soils, floodplains, and other features.  This can and should also help determine where future housing density should be concentrated – and future parkland prioritized.
  • Provide density bonuses to developers who voluntarily restore currently channelized or buried streams through their developments, with adequate space for natural functions (including flooding).  Not talking about bonuses for low-flow fake streams.  (JH)

Stepping outside of the Second District

This may be dicey, to get involved in local issues in other parts of the County.  But we hope you will work proactively with your fellow Supervisors on highlighting the importance of these issues.

Protect the upper Santa Clara River.  This is breaking Creekfreak’s heart.  A beautiful, wild, Southern California river, just being itself.  But humankind wants to make tons of money by building on its floodplain, resulting in bank armoring and increased runoff rates.  Its tributaries are also being impacted. This is dangerous as well as bad news for the remaining steelhead that run in the river and everyone downstream.  If we continue in this vein, the Santa Clara will end up looking like the worst parts of the Los Angeles River.  Please don’t repeat that mistake.  We urge you to take a day off and go on a tour of the Santa Clara River.  Spend a day enjoying what this is, so much like what the LA River was.  Some things are priceless and phenomenally difficult-and expensive- to restore once the damage has been done.  (JH/JL)

Western Snowy Plover (photo by Michael L. Baird)

Western Snowy Plover (photo by Michael L. Baird)


Dunes & lagoons add beauty and habitat at natural beaches. Morro Strand State Beach.









Bring back the beach – natural beaches for wildlife and people.  Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, have you ever seen the endangered Snowy Plover, which hangs out on our beaches?  Have you ever seen a maintenance truck barrel right through where they are roosting?  I have, at Dockweiler, a popular destination of many of the Second District’s residents.  Beach grooming also kills the eggs of our native grunion, a funny little fish that runs out of the ocean on full moons and spawns in the sand (Desal will kill them too – increased salinity of seawater is real bad for them).  The fact is, our beaches bear little resemblance to the incredible blending of lagoon, dune, and rocky intertidal habitats of yore.  Conventional thinking is that a beach denuded of actual beach habitat is more profitable than a natural one.  I contend that a mix of groomed and natural beaches is good for humans and habitat – and that tons of nature nerds will flock and spend money while gleefully observing least terns, snowy plovers…and sea otters if you can bring ’em back (and yep, they were here too). (JH)

Remove Rindge Dam on Malibu Creek.  Creekfreak’s reach is broad, and we hope yours will be too.  Rindge Dam on Malibu Creek is a major obstacle to the re-establishment of steelhead trout (another of our endangered species) on an already natural stream.  The habitat is there, the fish just need to be able to get to it.  The dam serves no flood control purpose.

And while were at it, perhaps we could re-evaluate the need for other dams that are currently filled to capacity with sediment. (JH)

LA County’s deserts are jewels.  California’s deserts are being eyed as something of a mother-lode for alt-energy, following on decades of use for mining, defense industry training, and more recently suburbs with some of the most aggravatingly long commutes.  They are also fragile, precious and extremely vulnerable to political pressure.  Riparian areas are particularly sensitive, but the wildlife that uses desert waterways also needs safe and protected corridors to access them and move elsewhere in their ranges.  As we move forward, we need to give this serious consideration too. (JH)


We could go on (and we sometimes do.) There’s a lot of work to be done, and we’re glad that we’ve got strong progressive leadership in the Second District. We’re looking forward to working with you in the years ahead. 

With respect and hope,

Los Angeles Creek Freak (Jessica Hall and Joe Linton)

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