Graffiti, the Los Angeles River, and the Federal Stimulus

December 28, 2009 § 4 Comments

Graffiti pieces reflected in the waters of the mighty Los Angeles - photo copyright Urban Photo Adventures - click for info on their tours

“Glad to see drab concrete restored back to its pristine condition” writes one presumably-sarcastic commenter on today’s informative L.A. Times article about recent graffiti abatement efforts on the L.A. River.

The story of L.A. River graffiti goes back quite a while. It’s a mixed bag; there are lots of different types out there – from fascinating hundred-year old hobo graffiti to beautiful elaborate pieces to irritating irreverent tagging. L.A. Creek Freak won’t attempt to be exhaustive here… but what follows are some anecdotes and thoughts about graffiti on the river… and better uses for federal stimulus monies than a short-term paint-out. « 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)

Stormwater Harvesting Roundup

November 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Here are three recent items for folks interested in harvesting rainwater:

>>Today, UC Riverside researchers released a report entitled Capturing Urban Stormwater Runoff: A Decentralized Market-Based Alternative. It shows that decentralized stormwater interventions can be cheaper and more effective than centralized ones. Here’s their press release or download the full 16-page report (PDF) here. From the press release: the cost of building and maintaining these smaller, decentralized devices in urban areas could be 30 percent to 50 percent cheaper than constructing and operating large, centralized stormwater facilities. They also found that the value of the water that could be captured and used to recharge aquifers could amount to 38 percent of the cost of the smaller devices.

>>Via Boing Boing and my friend/neighbor/conspirator Federico: Take a look at this photo showing a beautiful artistic water harvesting system from Kunsthofpassage in Dresden, Germany!

View of Grassy Swale at Broadous School (from TreePeople's report)

View of Grassy Swale at Broadous School (from TreePeople Rainwater as a Resource report)

>>Last year, TreePeople released a report entitled Rainwater as a Resource: A Report on Three Sites Demonstrating Sustainable Stormwater Management. The report, available at TreePeople’s website, details three innovative green watershed management projects: Hall House, Broadous Elementary School, and Open Charter Magnet Elementary School. The report tells the stories behind these projects – site selection, design processes, costs, maintenance, quantification of various benefits from water quality to air quality to flood prevention, and more. The reports tell the stories warts and all! TreePeople has made some interesting mistakes learning opportunities… which should be expected when folks push boundaries with ambitious projects. The report presents plenty of lessons learned and important recommendations for similar projects in the future. Also included are some serious appendices with as-built plans, and details regarding maintenance and inspection.

From TreePeople’s Rainwater as Resource report:

Challenge: In the absence of a written maintenance agreement for the Broadous project, partners whose contractual obligations ended when construction did nevertheless found themselves working without compensation in an effort to maintain the viability of the project. The lack of a comprehensive and easy-to-use operations manual, inadequate communication among the partners and turnover among the district’s operations and maintenance staff exacerbated the problem.
Lesson: It is difficult to get anyone to accept liability as complicated issues arise. Construction and other
liabilities (such as issues of contaminated soils disposal, underground utilities, and construction fencing to ensure student safety) nevertheless have to be adopted. It is advisable to budget extra time, care and resources toward these challenges, and to plan quarterly meetings between representatives from all involved parties for the first year after construction. Written maintenance contracts and clear instructions should be developed and agreed upon before the project is completed.
Despite the intensive resource demands of the planning and implementation phase, the project does not end once construction is complete. The project will only fulfill its purpose if there is sustained interest and a plan for continuity.

LA City’s Proposed River Zone and River Corporation

October 6, 2008 § 7 Comments

PROPOSED Boundaries for River Zone and River Corporation (click to download detailed pdf)

PROPOSED Boundaries for LA City's River Zone and River Corporation (click to download detailed map pdf)

The city of Los Angeles’ River Revitalization Plan (the LARRMP) includes many components – from taking out many tons of concrete at Taylor Yard to making river-adjacent neighborhood streets greener, more walkable and more bikeable. The city is getting the ball rolling on implementing the plan. Two proposed components of the LARRMP have been written up and are up for public review right now. Creek Freak brings you the 411 on these: the River Improvement Overlay and the River Revitalization Corporation. If you have ideas, objections, or just random musings, we invite you to be a part of the city’s process by offering your comments. It’s important to comment if you see things in these that you’d like to be changed, but it’s also good to comment favorably when you think that the overall proposals are a step in the right direction – which I think is the case here.

River Improvement Overlay (RIO)

The River Improvement Overlay District (called the RIO) is a zoning overlay that fosters appropriate and watershed-wise development in neighborhoods that are close to the LA River. For those folks familiar with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – the most prominent standards for green buildings), the RIO is somewhat similar. If someone wants to build something next to the river, then they need to include various components related to the environment and access to the river. RIO also includes street standards, calling for bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets in the river area.

There’s a bunch of very clear and helpful background information on the web – all pdf files. The two-page RIO fact sheet gives you the basics. The ordinance itself is in multiple parts attached to this table of contents. The proposed boundaries for the RIO are shown above; they include an irregularly-shaped river corridor, extending approximately a mile or so on each side into the adjacent neighborhoods.

The City Planning Department‘s River Unit had hoped to put the RIO in place right away after the LARRMP was approved in 2007. There was an initial ordinance and some meetings last year, but it wasn’t put into effect until the city did their due diligence for environmental review – in hopes that no mean-spirited developer will sue the city as the RIO will mandate them to build a bit greener. The city has evaluated the environmental impacts and has now published an initial study and a draft mitigated negative declaration both basically stating that the RIO won’t harm the environment.

Comments on the RIO are due Monday October 27th 2008.  They should be emailed to deborah.kahen {at}

The RIO is excellent – I hope it gets approved very soon. My only criticism of the RIO is that it doesn’t go far enough. I’d like to see more specific restrictions on development immediately adjacent to the river and tributaries. Given that the entire city is watershed, the run-off from all our neighborhoods contribute to water quality and quantity problems on our rivers and creeks. We can’t solve these problems by only creating higher standards for river adjacent neighborhoods… but I am ok with us starting there.

Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (RRC)

The LARRMP calls for three new entities to manage the revitalization of the river within the city. These include 1) the Los Angeles River Authority – a new power-sharing entity where the city, county and federal governments can work collaboratively, 2) the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (RRC) – an entrepreneurial non-profit that will work to revitalize the river and connections into adjacent communities, and 3) the Los Angeles River Foundation – a philanthropic non-profit that will work on projects and programs that celebrate the river.

The city is working on all three of these (I hope to report on other second entities soon), but for now, I will focus on the second. The RRC will be a new non-profit corporation that will build river-related improvements, facilitate economic development, and be responsible for some maintenance and management. The boundaries for where the RRC will operate are the same boundaries for the RIO (shown at the top of this blog).

The RRC will function a bit like a miniature community redevelopment area, so it comes as no surprise that Los Angeles’ Community Redevelopment Agency is leading the efforts to set up the organization. LA’s CRA is helping the RRC get started by paying for the first year of staffing, providing office space and some administrative and legal support. The proposed by-laws for the corporation (2MB pdf) are available on-line. Comments on RRC by-laws are requested by October 15th 2008, and can be emailed to jneville {at} and lupe.m.vela {at}

Creek Freak, having too much time on his hands, has actually read over the by-laws and they look pretty standard, which is fine. There will be seven members on the initial board, three appointed by the mayor, three by the City Council, and one by the chair of the council’s Ad Hoc River Committee. The proposed purposes of the RRC include “preparing and implementing plans and programs that facilitate, encourage, promote, and foster responsible development, redevelopment and revitalization of properties within … the RIO District” and “acquiring, assembling, developing or selling interests in real or personal property within the RIO District” and more.

The River in Downtown Los Angeles Today (courtesy LARRMP)

The River in Downtown Los Angeles Today (courtesy LARRMP)

Zoning and by-laws – topics no doubt guaranteed to drive up our statistics! Never say that Creek Freak doesn’t bring you the most exciting and scintillating tidbits of what’s happening along our waterways.

The City's Vision for the River in 20 Years (courtesy LARRMP)

The City's Vision Plan for the River in about 25 Years (courtesy LARRMP)

Building a Healthier San Gabriel River Watershed Day 2

September 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

San Gabriel River Watershed (from LA&SGR Watershed Council website - click for larger image)

San Gabriel River Watershed (from LA&SGR Watershed Council website - click for larger image)

 If it’s Wednesday and I’m in El Monte, this must be the second day of the Watershed Council‘s Building a Healthy San Gabriel River Watershed conference.  I neglected to mention earlier that day one concluded with a very delicious dinner at the recently expanded Rio Vista Park.  I’ll blog about that park very soon.

Day two had plenty of informative speakers – a bit more focused, less broad than day one.  Irma Munoz, of Mujeres de la Tierra, spoke on doing real community engagement, not just minority outreach.  Irma tells it like it is – especially how critical it is that we listen to and respect our stakeholders.  Munoz got quite a few questions from agency staff who (it seemed to me) wanted her to reveal the secret trick to making connections with the community.  There’s no shortcut for real respect and transparency and knocking on doors.  Travis Longcore, of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, spoke about the false dichotomy between cities and nature (and local impacts on the Loggerhead Shrike also called the Butcher Bird).  Ken Schwarz, an environmental restoration engineer for Horizon Water & Environment, discussed changing approaches to flood control channels urban streams, including hopeful examples from Napa, Sonoma, and Ballona Creek.  He brought up an interesting aspect that I think is underappreciated locally – integrated channel maintenance(!) and restoration. With all our integrated plans, there hasn’t been much focus on how go about maintaining existing channels and rights-of-way to better restore ecological functions… hmmm… there’s a whole blog entry that we could do with that one… soon.  Ellen Mackey, the Watershed Council‘s native plant guru  Senior Ecologist, spoke about the importance of emphasizing locally native plants.  She’s been instumental in coming up with the very-native LA River Master Plan landscaping guidelines, mapping vegetation on the San Gabriel River, and is also looking at that pesky maintenance issue – by coming up with a site-specific park maintenance manual for park staff and the community.  I will try to get my hands on this and share it soon on this blog.

Climate change was the subject of the second panel, with Rich Varenchik of the California Air Resources Board giving a broad overview of the state’s plan to implement AB32.  It mostly boils down to a much needed massive energy-efficiency plan (with some some smart growth and low impact development thrown in.)  For me, the most interesting speaker of the whole day was Stefan Lorenzato of the state Department of Water Resources.  Lorenzato spoke about how climate change is shifting how we look at watershed management.  In the unpredicability of future climates, he stressed that we should move away from monitoring for static goals, and look at “gradients.”  Our strategy should create rich resilient mosaics, not monocultures.  He connected this with a look at unpublished research that he’s involved in that shows the roughness of various stream channels.  It turns out that, at some flow volumes/speeds, some vegetation (ie: willows) turns out to be less rough (which is to say, allows more stream flow volume) than bare channels.  This means that some vegetation in a channel doesn’t necessarily reduce that channel’s capacity.  I will try to track this study down and blog on it, too (gotta keep a list of the promises I make here.)

The day ended with a media panel: Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times, and Steve Scauzillo of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.  They each spoke movingly of growing up along the then “lush jungle setting” of the San Gabriel River and how their journalism has brought environmental issues to light.  The creek freak bloggers could learn a thing or two from these veteran journalists… especially about getting out a good “summary lead.”  I have to work on that.

Changing Historical Alignments of the San Gabriel River

Lastly, here’s an image from Eric Stein’s presentation on day one of the conference.  I blogged on this before, but didn’t have the visuals to show you.  The maps on the left show how the course of the San Gabriel River has changed over time.  Click on the image to download the full 17MB SCCWRP report.

Well… there’s was quite a bit more that went on at the conference… but that’s my summary of the formal high points.  The best informal aspects of conferences being those times where I get to catch up with many of the other creek freaks from throughout the southland.  I’m grateful to and looking forward to more informative events from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council.

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