Dry weather diversions – memories up a sh*t’s creek

December 29, 2021 § 3 Comments

Yesterday’s post hurt my brain to write, and it hurts my brain a little to re-read. OK, it hurts my brain a lot. So I suspect it’s not fun for anyone else either. I wish it could be more straightforward.

And then I woke up this morning realizing I wasn’t done with the subject yet. Ugh.

So if this issue of buried streams in the crossfire of clean water regulations and local governments liable for compliance is pertinent to you, bear with me. If you live in a park poor area with buried streams (Angelenos, that’s basically you), it’s pertinent.

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A buried creek’s dilemma: to be daylighted or drained?

December 28, 2021 § 3 Comments

[Opening digression: I was just texted an image predicting rainfall for LA for the next few days – it looks like you could get hammered (rainfall-wise – what you do with alcohol I have no predictions for), so this post may seem ironic, misplaced, bad timing? You’ve got a trough heading your way and if it doesn’t keep moving…well let’s just hope that it does. The focus of today’s post is dry-weather flows…]

To those of us who recognize stormdrains (or, some of them) as body-snatched creeks, and who long for a water management approach that would incorporate daylighting or naturalization of concreted waterways and nature-based treatment that doubles as streetside landscaping, floodable parks, greenways, etc., well, prepare to be disappointed. Or enraged? Whichever, it’s a familiar feeling. At least we’re not alone on this.

The City of LA recently issued an IS/MND (Initial Study/Mitigated Negative Declaration) and awarded a contract to start work on diverting low flows from certain stormdrains. The low flows – aka urban slobber in some circles – would be pumped from the storm drains into the sewer system, so that they can be treated for pollutants. From there, like the rest of the region’s wastewater, it either gets discharged into flood control channels rivers, is infiltrated to groundwater, or reused (such as purple pipe irrigation). So you can see how it closes some loops and ticks some sustainability boxes.

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More on the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco

August 11, 2009 § 10 Comments

Sycamore Grove Park, with concrete-lined North Branch of the Arroyo Seco in background.  Image:  LA Public Library, #00019799

Sycamore Grove Park, with concrete-lined North Branch of the Arroyo Seco in background. Image: LA Public Library, #00019799

A couple weeks ago, Jessica made a thoughtful post about Stream Spirit Rising (part 1, part 2), a series of activities organized around the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco. I wanted to continue that thread by summarizing the history of the North Branch in Highland Park, culled from old photographs and published materials. The extent to which we have slowly altered the landscape in the last hundred years still seems unbelievable to me, even after I’ve been looking into Northeast LA water history for several years now. I keep hoping that by getting more of this history out there, it will start to seem more “real”!

Though little trace of it remains above ground today, the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco was once a defining feature of the “vast meadow” that would eventually become Highland Park. Archduke Ludwig Louis Salvator noted the stream in his account of his travels through Los Angeles, which were published in 1876. Building a railroad over the stream near what would become Sycamore Grove Park, altered its surface appearance irretrievably. But even so, the stream persisted aboveground in places into the earliest years of the 1900s.

According to Chas. Elder, who wrote about the stream in the mid-twentieth century, the North Branch’s main source was “a great spring situated just west of North Figueroa at Springvale Drive” whose flow was once “as big around as a water bucket.” Smaller springs added to this flow, most significantly Glenn Rock Spring, at the head of Milwaukee Avenue. (Glenn Rock Spring had once been little more than a trickle, before an investor drilled a tunnel 350 feet into the hillside around 1890. Thus developed, the spring became the source of what may have been Northeast Los Angeles’ first water bottling company, “Poland Rock,” which was well advertised through much of that decade.)

Of the North Branch, Elder wrote:

This little river had a good stream of water flowing down it even in the driest seasons, and was full of mountain trout and catfish even up as far as York Boulevard. I myself have seen boys pulling fish weighing half a pound as far north as North Avenue 51 and Buchanan Streets. The North Branch from Springvale Drive to Meridian Street flowed through a beautiful little glen about 40 feet deep and 200 feet wide in places, which was full of most beautiful ferns. Along the banks of the stream were hundreds of fine old oak and sycamore trees.

A map from the 1880s, shows the stream sinking underground into the sandy banks of the Arroyo Seco even before reaching present-day Sycamore Grove Park.

By the late 1920s, the North Branch’s reach had been extended and tamed for middle class urbanites by routing it through the Park in a neat concrete liner.  A wading pool filled by the stream became a central feature of the park.  Idyllic landscaping around the pool included bamboo clumps, night lighting, and rustic benches. The path of the stream through the park is indicated on maps from the 20s and 30s.

Aerial of the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco, coursing through Sycamore Grove Park. Note the substantial flow of water entering into the Arroyo Seco. Photo:  USC Digital Archive.

Aerial of the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco, coursing through Sycamore Grove Park. Note the substantial flow of water entering into the Arroyo Seco. Photo: USC Digital Archive.

Adventurous boys of that era would follow the creek down into the wilder banks of the Arroyo Seco, where cattails and willows reigned. Henry Welcome was one of those boys:

Sometime in the dim past a large pond had developed in the Arroyo Seco. As time marched on, the youths of the neighborhood had enlarged the pool, adding a raft or two made from abandoned railroad ties. As little fellows we used to catch, in mother’s canning jars, minnows and crayfish. We called them ‘crawdads,’ taking them and the tiny fish home in the evening, where in a few days they usually died of neglect. As we grew bigger we ventured into the big pond among the tules…

After a devastating flood in the 1930s, a large storm drain was built to convey the waters of the North Branch under the Park, and the wading pool disappeared.

That the stream was missed by many is evidenced by Fred Allen’s observation in mid-century that  “the creek is still placed [in paintings of Sycamore Grove Park] by some artists, who think it adds to the natural beauty of the area.”

A small grove of walnut, sycamore, and oak trees just northwest of Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School is the only remaining fragment of the large grove that once shaded the route of the creek.

Very near where the stream had once emerged onto the flood banks of the arroyo at the northern end of Sycamore Grove Park, a particularly prolific spring was tapped by a succession of commercial bottling companies between 1904 and 1970. This spring was most recently known as “White Rose Spring.” Though the spring has been capped, the owner of the building next door told me that whenever there is heavy rain, or if the ground is disturbed during earthquakes or trembles, water reappears through small fissures in the concrete.

In the middle of the last century Chas Elder had mourned that the “great spring” from which originated the North Branch had dwindled to the size of his arm: “Newcomers will laugh at the idea of a river with fish in it wandering through Highland Park, but the old-timers of whom there are over 40 who have lived here over 50 years, will wipe away a tear and sorrowfully commence “I remember when—“

Though we can only imagine what the North Branch was like during Elder’s childhood, a surprisingly simple solution has been proposed that could allow the North Branch’s waters to flow once again through Sycamore Grove Park. An ‘alternative’ streambed would be laid through the park. During storm events, flows in excess of the safe capacity of that streambed, would bypass the intake and continue through the existing storm drain under the park. Dan Sharp, an engineer for the Watershed Management Division of LA County Public Works, suggested that this solution for providing habitat, public use, and quality of life benefits would come at a fraction of the cost and risk of a full-scale daylighting.

Maybe one day residents of Highland Park will laugh, saying, “Remember when the North Branch flowed under the park through that big pipe?!”

Thanks to Virginia Neely for sharing some of the articles and photographs that were the source for this entry and to Jessica Hall for spreading the word about the North Branch. Other sources include Connie and Adrian Saxe, and Charles Fisher. For more on water history in Northeast Los Angeles, visit  Myriad Unnamed Streams.

Daylighting more than streams

July 25, 2009 § 4 Comments

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking – if briefly – to a gathering of kids and their parents, up at the Audubon Center at Debs Park.  My friend Mary Loquvam, director of Los Angeles Audubon, had asked me to make some comments to introduce the short film, Stream Spirit Rising, as part of LA Audubon’s summer film series.  The courtyard of the Audubon Center was a lovely place to be on a summer night – if you have the opportunity, I recommend you attend one of her offerings.


The North Branch - Storm Drain 5202 - coursing through Highland Park.  Source LAPL, photo 00019854.

The North Branch – now Storm Drain 5202 – coursing through Highland Park. Source LAPL, photo #00019854.

I had balked at Mary’s request.  Stream Spirit Rising was a community outreach project I organized while at North East Trees, a small, wonderful nonprofit that primarily serves North East Los Angeles, innovating in urban forestry & watershed management while engaging youth.  In this project (YouTube link here, segment 1, segment 2), we hosted a “Tales of the Arroyo Night” in which old-timers told their stories of the Arroyo Seco and the North Branch stream, a tributary that flowed through the heart of Highland Park, outletting into the Arroyo Seco at Sycamore Grove Park.  Then, over three weeks we were led by artist Jennifer Murphy in the making of stream spirit masks, creatures of all kinds (swamp monsters, turtles, bear, dragons) that represented the beings dependent upon streams.  And finally we walked the old path of the stream (sort of) in a celebratory parade with the masks, the stream spirits rising through the community.  Our goal was to inspire the daylighting of the old North Branch, aka Stormdrain 5202.

This act of community gathering and celebration was beautiful in and of itself.  What has been so difficult for me to forgive, however, was the political dimension.  We had taken our interest in daylighting the North Branch to city government.  We had heard that there was interest on the County government side to re-establish a low flow stream where the creek had been, if not completely daylight it.  But city government had other ideas, and other interests, to play to.  Through back channels, I had heard that the proponents of daylighting (that would be me) were perceived as white and therefore not really representing the interests of the “community.”  Over the course of several years in different situations, including ones unrelated to the North Branch, I was hearing that a conservation and restoration approach to environmentalism was out of touch with “the community,”  that it was streams vs. soccer, that we were canyon-dwelling elitists, etc.

Interesting assessment given that I’m half Mexican-American living in what a friend calls a “charming hovel.”

But proof that no one has a monopoly on judging by one’s looks rather than one’s life experiences.  That, after all, takes effort, it takes getting beyond your own stuff.

If the stuff of others is their short-sighted perceptions, mine is often ethnic rejection. I don’t “look” latina.  I have often wanted to fit in.  Very badly.  And then, I have wanted to turn the stereotypes upside down, wreak havoc with the sacred cows of the chicano movement.  I cringe when a latino/a gives me the “my people do X – you wouldn’t understand” lecture at the same time that I identify with the experience of being different, of wanting or needing to explain something or feel heard.

But what if I weren’t half Mexican-American?  Why did I play into the belief that this should buy me the right to be heard?  I would hope that we reach for inclusivity, and that we teach our children to be open to the input and wisdom of all people.  But I have heard a latino adult in an environmental context tell latino children that they need people who look like them as mentors in order to believe they can succeed.  So if a white or black or Asian or say, a half-Mexican white-looking person believes in a latino kid, it doesn’t count?  C’mon.  The kids need to know that successful people (of all races) believe in them and their abilities.  It is a disservice to tell kids to limit their self-concept to the exclusive opinions and examples of people “who look like them.”  They have enough obstacles as it is.  We need to look at our own projections.  I’m not saying there aren’t reasons why the projections exist, that the amount of trust it takes to go beyond them must feel unreachable, the wounding, deep.  But we must get there.  Our children deserve to know their potential, and loving people of all races have something to contribute.  This is true when talking about mentors, as well as at the political level. (I’m also not saying that role models and representation doesn’t matter. It does! I’m just saying, let’s not tell kids not to listen to the supportive adults just because of what they look like.)


A couple of my aunts, doing what kids do best. Santa Fe River, 1948. Photo by my mom.

But there is more.  For as cultural identity and environmental justice have been wound more tightly around each other, the political leadership turned to community leaders with culturally iconic associations to define the movement.  In a word, soccer.  I don’t question the cultural significance of the game, the need for playing fields, the powerful role soccer teams and organizations play in stabilizing community and giving youth meaningful outlets.   But when we took that nose-dive into soccer vs. streams on the North Branch (repeated at North Atwater Park, if briefly) I got really angry.  Hanging in the air was this idea that latino kids didn’t need, or even like, nature.  Cultural pride started to feel like a limiting self-concept that was going to trump common sense (kids of all races LOVE to play in streams), science (hydrology and ecology) and watershed planning (multi-benefit and multi-functional uses of common lands for stormwater management, water supply, and habitat).  Recently, the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder has raised our awareness of the value of nature experiences in play.  Exploration, observation, challenging one’s environment – things that happen playing in nature – enhance reasoning, discernment, confidence, self-esteem, and strength.  Neurons fire and facilitate brain development.  Was it going to take someone who “looked” latino to prove to our political leadership that latino children could enjoy and benefit from nature?  I couldn’t take it.  I have seen the photos of my grandfather with his friends on burro-laden camping trips, of my grandmother jauntily perched in a tree, tales of my mother and her sisters playing in the Santa Fe River.  I had my own experiences as a kid, the best times were spent goofing around in nature, around streams.  What’s more, I have seen the countless latino families flocking up the the San Gabriel River’s East Fork to frolic in the river on a hot summer day.  And then I circled back to the ethnic exclusivism of the argument.  Uncomfortable to argue that my background entitled me to be heard, and knowing that it wouldn’t matter anyway, I took myself out of the fight.

Every environmental project has a story about the human dimension that goes beyond the piece of land itself.  This is just one layer of the human story of the North Branch.  These are old battles now.  Today, organizations -including soccer clubs –  in North East Los Angeles have expanded programs that reach out to youth and provide exposure to the LA River, our water system, the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains.  I think we’ve gotten beyond soccer vs. streams – as to the larger questions of the interplay of ethnicity, race, and politics with environmentalism and our long term planning, I have no idea.  But whenever I am asked about Stream Spirit Rising, this is the story that pings around endlessly in my head.  As an event, Stream Spirit Rising had a successful sequence of events, yet I felt it as a failure – we didn’t daylight the North Branch and I was personally stung by the power of superficial perceptions feeding political prerogatives.  It revealed to me that our stagnant human relationships need to be healed more than the stream itself.


At Debs last night, I went up to the microphone, I looked out on all these expectant, joyful, mostly brown, children’s faces.  I asked them if they’d gone on the night hike.  A lot of hands went up in the air.  I asked how many of them liked creeks.  More hands went up in the air.  I briefly introduced the movie, and mentioned how maybe one day we can see that stream flow again.  Looking out on the kids, it was suddenly so easy to be hopeful and positive.

A little latina girl came up to me afterwards.  She said she liked the movie.  I asked her if she liked creeks.  “Oh yes,” she said. “me and my friend were in one.  My friend was on a rock and she slipped and got muddy.” She smiled impishly,  “I like creeks because you can go and get muddy.”

The kids, they get it.  Let’s hope the adults hear them.

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