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

December 29, 2021 § 3 Comments

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

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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About that Dominguez Stench

November 5, 2021 § 19 Comments

I’ve really been trying to resist the urge to talk about the Dominguez Channel’s horrible stench. Driving through it when I was down visiting family recently, I understood that nothing I can say will make it better. It is absolutely noxious. I can’t imagine being stuck in that.

But long-ago angelenos of the past can.

Historically the slough that is today’s Dominguez Channel was a broad flat wetland. It had another name, a racist slur, and we’ve written about that before.

George Bixby described the very marshy landscape of the lower San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers, Compton Creek and Dominguez Channel Slough areas, as it existed before American occupation:

“I once had a Mexican vaquero whose father had lived there all his life who said that all the valley between Los Cerritos, Dominguez and San Pedro was one tangle of marsh willows, larch, blackberry vines, and other tangled undergrowth which was impenetrable. There was only one or two trails across the valley, and they were not safe for two reasons: on account of the undergrowth and bogs, and there were bears in the tangled jungle.” – G.H. Bixby, 1914

(By the way, he meant grizzly bears…I know, right??!!)

Groundwater was high in this area, replenished by frequent flooding. Groundwater pumping and leveeing and culverting of waterways resulted in a shrunken perimeter of the wetland that would fatten up again with rains. And parts of the LA area that is today’s Gardena, Torrance, West Athens, Compton, parts of Hawthorne and Lawndale, Carson etc was this slough, or converted to farmland around it. The Gardena Willows, Madrona Marsh, “Devil’s Dip” at Chester Washington Golf Course, and a wetland inside a mobile home park are what remains of the over 1,200 acres of wetland (in 1900). Oh, and it’s probably been destroyed by now, but also a seasonal wetland in Torrance… Alondra Park sits on land that was part of the wetland, but nothing about it (as far as I know) is ecologically related. Victoria Regional Park/Golf Course in Carson were also part of it – a soft bottom reach of Dominguez Channel is what remains – but that site also has toxic cleanups in its midst. More about that later. Nice parks, though.

Wetlands are beautiful, but sometimes stinky, things. They have slow-to-not moving water and decomposing vegetation. As that veg sits there, over the years, it can create “swamp gases” as it breaks down. But even that isn’t what made the stench at the former slough memorable to people, who, in 1914, clearly recalled the Great Yuck of the 1890s. Humanity played a role in creating it: Apparently carp were a popular fish to stock in ponds back in the day. And humans being what we are, people weren’t thinking about consequences, so when it rained, the fish just washed into the wetland. After large rains in 1889 expanded the girth of the slough, the fish population expanded with it. And shoulders shrugged.

Then the drying started.

“the people imported a lot of carp about 1878-79 and everybody that had a lake or pond got some carp and stocked them up and in 1889 was overflowed and their ponds washed out and the fish were carried down to…(the) Slough and when (the) Slough began drying up some years later the fish commenced dying and made such a stench the supervisors had to hire men to clean them up and burn and bury them. – J.J. Morton, 1914

“…One noticed a dreadful stench coming from the direction of the…slough and it was found that the slough was drying up and leaving tons and tons of dead carp fish rotting in the mud. People went there and hauled away wagon loads of the fish for fertilizer and other purposes. Finally it became so bad that people began to leave Long Beach, and an appeal was made to Supervisors for relief. Trenches were dug and a great amount of the fish were buried – A.C. Cook, 1914

James P Reagan, County Flood Control Engineer, collected multiple accounts of this event in his document Early Floods in Los Angeles County (1914). (Creekfreak likes to quote this document. Here’s a few places…) Yet this wasn’t the only non-industrial stinky gross wetland horror story in LA’s recorded history. As we all know too well, LA’s rainfall patterns tend to be all-or-nothing. And LA used to be ranching country. So again with wetlands expanding and contracting:

In 1863-64 there was an awful drought and there were thousands of head of cattle and horse died. Going to Wilmington you had to tie something over your nose on account of the stench along the San Gabriel and Slough. You could walk for miles on dead cattle. The whole slough and river down below Bixby Hill was full of them. There were fifty men skinning cattle and there were boat loads of hides stacked up. There was no rain at all that season and feed was so short that the cattle got so weak when they would go down to the river and slough for water they would get in and mire down and were too weak to get out. -John Guess, 1914

This happened throughout the Ballona country, as well as the the Dominguez and lower San Gabriel areas. Hard to imagine, eh? (Not if you’re in Carson.)

Long story short: I don’t really have a point, except: ew.

Well, actually –

When I read that County Public Works was saying that the stench on Dominguez Channel was “natural”, part of me wanted to rear up and defend poor little Dominguez. There’s not much about it that is natural anymore. I’m sure that part of what is happening is because of the drought, and decay of whatever is on the bottom of the channel. Arguably “natural” in an otherwise wholly unnatural system. But it took “tons and tons” of dead carp in a 1200+ acre wetland, to create the level of sick that drove the residents of Long Beach away. So how many dead things would have to be in the Dominguez Channel right now to create the level of sick that is sickening Carson (and Gardena, where I smelled it)? Is there evidence of those dead things? Who knows if there are other factors, like industry, as some residents have wondered.

I don’t think it’s far from anyone’s mind that this is a community of color that is primarily impacted by this stench. And if you’re a thinking person, you have probably also made a mental note of all the heavy industry within spitting distance of many residents in the greater Dominguez watershed. If you pay attention to the news, the stories, for example of industrially contaminated soil in these areas that periodically pop up in the news are rather plentiful: for example, here, here, here…stop already you cry! But there’s so much more to show you – just take a whirl through the Department of Toxic Substance Control’s Envirostor.

Here’s a teaser:

So, these are communities that are deeply screwed.

That level of zoominess yields the same response in most of the LA Basin, to be fair. But when you scroll over to the IE or Ventura, it will display at that scale (=less screwed?). So, here’s a zoomed-in screenshot of part of the historical area of the Dominguez Slough:

Still screwed.

The Mapping Inequality project (screenshot below) showing how the New Deal government redlined the country offers additional insight. The slough still existed (offensive name intact), and the land around it was still being farmed, with housing – much of it described as oil workers and farm hands – in the “hazardous” (to lenders) redlined communities around it. Hawthorne where I grew up is just off the image, also “hazardous”, mainly due, apparently, to the presence of “Mexicans, Japanese, & Italians”.

About that Dominguez Stench

Ironically(?), redlined ol Hawthorne was, before my time, a sundown town (as were many LA communities) and I recall how like the John Birch Society so many of our white neighbors sounded. And redlined Torrance was, in my youth, a pretty racist place. Which is a roundabout way to say, you can poke holes in correlations in the South Bay, between wetlands and industrial development and redlining and systemic racism. But, having lived there, I think the overall trend holds. And that, beyond the gross-out factor of stenches past and present, is what races to the fore of my mind as I follow the ongoing saga there.

Truths universally ignored: wetlands and floodplains are not great places to build. Yet instead of seeing them as ecological and hydrological resources, we see them as “wastes” and then treat them as such. Then we said that scapegoated peoples couldn’t live in the nice places, and left them to make homes on these “marginal” lands. Government helped to make so-called waste land usable, and industry – which wouldn’t be welcome in the “nice” places – sets up shop. You know this, I know this, people at whatever city hall you visit know this. But it happens anyway…

And as far as environmental racism and watersheds goes, it’s is an iceberg of an issue and we’re just looking at the tip. Oh, and: that iceberg is melting. Let’s talk about floodplains and race.

A developer’s option could take the rio out of Rio de Los Angeles State Park

December 21, 2011 § 9 Comments

[Updated with corrected development costs.  Thanks to Melanie Winter at The River Project for the corrections.]

Things are about to get a little ridiculous over by the RIO DE LOS ANGELES State Park.  Because that whole Rio de Los Angeles part could potentially be blocked from that State Park part by a wall of industrial development.  Kids, come and play soccer over by this…well never mind.

Here’s the shortish explanation:  Anyone remember that huge battle to buy the Taylor Yards and create a vision for a riverside park(1,2), with the potential for eventual naturalization of the river along this largest underutilized brownfield parcel on the river?  We got 40 acres and developed parkland along San Fernando Road for something like $45 million, with another parcel (aka G2) between that and the river.  (We also got an 18-acre strip, G1, along the river further upstream for an additional $10.7m- A link to parcels and ownership is here.)  Parcel G2 (that really should be river floodplain) is up for grabs.   Developer Trammel Crow appears to be an interested buyer in G2, and is apparently talking industrial development.  Is this a ploy – common enough in local environmental conservation/acquisition efforts –  to up the property value with entitlements and re-sell to the City/State for a big return?  And who would take on remediation costs in such a scenario?  Who knows.  Why even let the situation get to that point?  Here’s a link to a petition, sponsored by The River Project, an organization that’s carried the Taylor Yard torch from early on, to Trammel Crow asking them to withdraw their interest in exercising their option to buy.  Phew, that’s a mouthful.  But hopefully correctly stated.

I’m a little confused why/if the City/State didn’t have an option to buy this parcel, and why “railbanking,” something the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy makes look so doable never seems to be so in LA.

Anyway…we need our developers to share our vision of a livable Los Angeles – and to put their resources towards making it happen.  This action seems like the wrong direction when visions of a Los Angeles living with natural processes is actually becoming chic.   This is even more humiliating when you see how Chicago has managed to coalesce around a really big vision of a 140,000 acre conversion of brownfields to wildlands.  (Yes, you just read 140,000.)  A higher quality of life supports multiple returns on investment, so what’s the big?

Some of Joe’s previous posts related to the Taylor Yards/Rio de Los Angeles State Park:

Demolition at the Taylor Yards

What’s the Plan

Touring Native Plantings at the Rio de Los Angeles State Park

What’s Up, Whatcom Creek?

November 17, 2011 § 4 Comments

Fish ladder on Whatcom Creek

I recently made a quick trip to Bellingham, Washington, where Whatcom Creek flows through the center of this old salmon fishery/lumber town-turned-college town.  It’s a sweet place, walkable, bikeable, with generous greenway trails that were former railroad lines.  Bellingham has its own issues, of course – among them paved-over historical wetlands currently used as railyards that are slated to become bermed mixed use development (bermed, of course, to protect from storm surges, flooding, you know, stuff that happens in wetlands) instead of restored habitat that would benefit salmon fisheries.  Just more of the everyday environmentally harmful planning decisions which are the background noise to big news stories like the fight over a coal shipping depot.

But back to the beauty.

Here’s some photos from a quick jaunt along Whatcom Creek.  These photos were taken right next to Bellingham’s Civic Center, just a few steps of descent from the street (and spitting distance from Occupy Bellingham, which was holding firm in the 30° nights!).  My friend giving me the tour – and my coworker who advised me to look for this creek – tell me salmon still run the Whatcom.  This bridge used to be a barrier until the fish ladder was installed (there are other barriers upstream, however).

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Enjoy the photos – and believe in the possibility of such a visage – perhaps a somewhat drier one – with steelhead trout, on the Arroyo Seco, or Las Virgenes Creek, Ballona Creek… We don’t need fake creeks in Los Angeles, we need real ones that bring spring runs for our fish, shade trails, offer us seasonal cycles of willows budding, fluffing out, turning from silvery green to yellow, golden, deciduous, delirious.

Our waterways are restorable, it is about political will, whether the public wants it enough.  Do we?

Trying to Respect Work Toward a Halfway Decent North Spring Street Bridge Project

May 15, 2011 § 12 Comments

Back in 2006, the city of Los Angeles proposed tearing down the 1929 North Spring Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River. The city planned to demolish the locally and nationally recognized historic bridge and construct a brand new bridge. The project included widening North Spring Street  from about 43 feet to about 96 feet. More than double. Really. Spring would have gone from a large neighborhood-scale street to a freeway-scale street.

It was particularly irritating to me that city engineering folks would present this project as needed for bike safety and for river revitalization… though no cycling or river groups were pushing for it, and, in fact, many opposed it. Grrrrr. Cyclists sure don’t need fifty-feet’ worth of widening.  Wider bridges and streets just mean faster-moving cars… making conditions less safe for biking and walking. And if you really wanted to spend ~$50million to make the river healthier and/or to make streets safer for bikes, there are a lot better and more effective ways to spend it. To me, it’s clearly about wider roads for more and more and more cars… in a dense central part of the city where high percentages of people walk, bike and take transit… hence it’s about jamming more non-local car traffic into Lincoln Heights and Chinatown.

Enjoy and defend our historic bridges while you still can. Pictured: Detroit Avenue Bridge over the Rocky River - Cleveland, Ohio - demolished

Due to a lot of pressure, mostly from historic preservation folks, that massively wrong-headed version of the project is now off the table. Whew.

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Off to the Rio de Flag

April 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Rio de Flag. Photo by Friends of the Rio de Flag.

I’m boarding the Southwest Chief to Flagstaff, home of Friends of the Rio de Flag, a community group organized to “support preservation and restoration of the natural beauty and beneficial functions of the Rio de Flag stream channel.” I’ll be talking at their annual Membership Meeting on the topic of “An Ecological Los Angeles: Just Add Water Political Will.” « Read the rest of this entry »

Natural Habitat or Grass? South Pasadena Council to Decide

April 1, 2011 § 7 Comments

Photo: Barbara Eisenstein.

And today’s ticking time bomb for the remnant wildness of LA is in South Pasadena, along the Arroyo Seco. South Pasadena is considering taking over some undeveloped land between the Arroyo Seco Golf Course and the Arroyo Seco Nature Park. This undeveloped land has lovely habitat – which you can view in some detail at Barbara Eisenstein’s Wild Suburbia blog.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Another creek faces the pipe – San Fernando Valley edition

March 28, 2011 § 9 Comments

April 4th is the deadline to give comment on a draft EIR that if approved will consign another small creek to permanent pipe-age in the City of LA.

[Updated paragraph] Download  the draft EIR from this City of LA site by clicking Environmental/Draft EIR in the left panel of that page. Then click on the bold-font title of The Village at Westfield Topanga to be taken to a download site.  That bold font fooled me when I first wrote this post, didn’t understand that it was a hyperlink. Thanks to readers for setting me straight! It can also be found at the Central Library, and Woodland Hills, Canoga Park and Platt Branch libraries or purchased on CD-Rom.

The creek – located at Owensmouth and Victory in the San Fernando Valley, has been dubbed Owensmouth Creek by locals. Its history is a little tricky to me, as it doesn’t appear on historical USGS maps.  GIS data from the County of Los Angeles, however, does indicate what looks to be a diversion of drainage from Topanga Canyon Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, labelled as an open channel.  Navigate LA calls it a city stormdrain, D-17768. But more incontrovertible is photography. Jim Anderson, of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council, shared with me a photo of the threatened waterway.

Destined for a pipe? Photo: Roger Gerrish, provided courtey Jim Anderson.

Channel?  Bed?  Banks?  Sediment? Water (including seasonal)? Direction of Flow?

Looks like we’ve got a stream that meets the City’s definition. So why again is this small edge of the property being piped and paved, not set aside as a public park, or dare we suggest, part of the Low Impact Development/stormwater mitigation plan?

I’m told it’s needed for part of a Costco members’ service station at the planned Village at Westfield Topanga, folks.

I’ll just leave us all to ponder that for now.

Coverage in the Daily News here.

Send comments by 4/4 to:

Elva Nuño-O’Donnell, City Planner
City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning
6262 Van Nuys Boulevard, Room 351
Los Angeles, California 91401
(818) 374-5070 (fax)
Elva.nuno-odonnell@lacity.org

More landfill design stylin’ in the Santa Clara River watershed

November 8, 2010 § 1 Comment

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(Above: I’ve outlined creeks in red – mostly elusive unmapped ephemeral drainages that will be filled by proposed development. Grey lines are existing contours, black includes new contour and lots. I only reviewed a small number of the sheets available at the website below.)

Here’s a chance to weigh in to keep the Santa Clara watershed from looking worse than the LA River watershed. I say worse because at least our hills and mountains, for the most part, haven’t been reshaped to look like engineered landfills. I haven’t had much time to review the documents, but my 5-minute assessment reveals that the beautiful terrain will be dramatically re-shaped to create stabilized and uniform slopes for cookie-cutter homes, condos and commercial areas. Drainages will definitely be filled. And these could be intermittent or ephemeral streams, with their own sensitive habitat. Remember, not all streams are properly mapped.

What’s more, as recent posts have shown, preserving uplands is also important. Will they preserve and replant the seedbank? I don’t know (the first chapter of the EIR is 122MB – too much for a mid-day work break!) That it will have the required stormwater quality detention ponds and protected areas for spineflower and stickleback is a perfunctory nod at legal requirements rather than an inspired design approach that leverages the natural capital of the site for long-term sustainability and aesthetic pleasure.

From Lynne Plambeck, Friends of Santa Clara River:

Just a head’s up to anyone that might be interested – The Mission Village project will be heard at the LA County Regional Planning Hearing Rm 150 (320 Temple St., LA 90012) Wenesday morning at 9AM. (emphasis by LA Creekfreak) « Read the rest of this entry »

Not Necessarily Narrowly Navigability

August 9, 2010 § 8 Comments

Navigable, yes, not quite the navigable river that we have in mind. Tom Andrews photo of 2008 Los Angeles River expedition - from LAist

Here at L.A. Creek Freak, we’re very excited about the EPA’s determination that the Los Angeles River is navigable and is protected fully under the Clean Water Act. It’s a welcome decision, strongly supported by the river’s pastpresent, and planned future. The determination got the L.A. Times out kayaking the river (watch their excellent video!) and sparked off mayoral, journalistic, and advocate discussions of the river’s bright future.

But… the whole navigability test is… unfortunately… a bit limited.

Is navigability the right test for what streams deserve federal Clean Water Act (CWA) protection? Is the Clean Water Act all we need to restore rivers, creeks, and watersheds? Does a narrow focus on improving water quality get us to a goal of healthy creek and stream ecosystems? 

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