News and Events – 21 September 2010

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Undated historic photo of Red Car trolley crossing the L.A. River below the Glendale Hyperion Bridge. Given the complete lack of vegetation in the river, this was likely right after concrete channel construction. From Coralitas Red Car Property - click on image for link



> Culver City construction on the Ballona Creek bike path from Overland Avenue to the Westwood Avenue pedestrian bridge. Looks like another good creek revitalization project, but bicyclists should expect detours now through January (Culver City Bicycle Coalition

> Federal funding secured for the Watershed Council’s Water Augmentation Study (Congresswoman Linda Sánchez

> Downstream cities are installing nice single-purpose gray grates to keep trash out of the Los Angeles River (L.A. Times and L.A. Now – also earlier Creek Freak coverage, though we somehow missed coverage any accompanying source control efforts.) 

> Genetically modified salmon coming soon to a plate near you? (L.A. Times Greenspace

> Beautiful graphical history of the meanderings of the Mississippi River (NPR

> Long Beach awarded grant for river parkway wetlands restoration project at DeForest Park (Supervisor Don Knabe


> L.A. River panel tomorrow September 22nd (Zócalo

> Coastal CleanUp Day on September 25th 2010. (Heal the Bay

> Jenny Price River tours on September 26th and October 3rd (Hidden L.A.

> Ballona Wetlands Science and Research Symposium on December 8th 2010. (Creek Freak

(Just the headlines, m’am, courtesy of Joe being busy with CicLAvia – come and check it out on October 10th!)

Discourse and distraction. In other words, California water policy.

March 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

This may be grim reading.  I’m sorry.

Back in Los Angeles, I’ve had a few days to digest the water policy discussion from the Salmonid Restoration Federation‘s annual conference in Santa Cruz.  Indeed, with the upcoming March for Water on Sunday, I’m thinking about it in the context of local water issues and discussions.

For me, the take home message from Santa Cruz is that the salmonids are the canary in the proverbial coal mine that is California water.  For every culverted road and dammed river or stream, there is a political career at stake or an agency policy exercising an interest group’s political will over our water resources and the life that depends upon them, canaries be damned.

The interest groups – and alliances – are numerous and overwhelming.

And we in Southern California are one of them.  Beyond kvetching about sprinklers running in the rain and people who spray their sidewalks with water, we the public are largely silent.  The piscine “canary” of our local coal mines, the LA and San Gabriel Rivers, is unconscious, our groundwater contaminated and depleted, and we look far afield for water that allows us to live beyond the means of our ecosystem.  The public rarely engages policy makers on these big picture issues.  In one conversation, I was told that people in Sacramento don’t think the public in Southern California cares about protecting northern California’s water.  I am always amused by that argument, given that many cities in central and northern California don’t meter their own residential water users -someone may be ranting about us without even knowing what they consume.  And we SoCal city-dwellers only consume 20% of the water shipped south by the Bay-Delta, and have held water consumption levels relatively stable despite population growth, so we do deserve some props.  Yet as you may have read in an earlier post, I believe we can improve even on that – and hopefully by the end of this, you will feel that to be a worthy goal, if for no other reason than to extricate ourselves from some mind-bending politics.  

I’ve also been told that Sacramento needs us to want the water, so they can keep the projects going. For whom?  The other 80% of exported water goes to agricultural interests, at a nicely subsidized price to keep agricultural production in California competitive.  Now I like California produce, and I absolutely support the idea of locally-grown produce. But at the same time, I hear that some ag interests then re-sell their subsidized water to our utilities (at market rate) while converting ag lands to more sprawl.  

To further complicate the mess, a conference speaker noted that there’s tension between the ag interests around the Bay Delta (around Sacramento) and the West San Joaquin Valley. So it’s not that the ag interests are “all in it together” – they too are competing (or fighting) over this precious resource.  

In addition to farmers, there’s the energy companies and irrigators and fishermen and Indian tribes and of course environmentalists who fight over water.  For a glimpse of how complicated it can be in just one case, check out this blog by Felice Pace at the High Country News, and you’ll see that it’s Yurok and Trout Unlimited and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman vs. Hoopa and Klamath Riverkeeper and the Northcoast Environmental Center, over the relicensing of dams by an energy company. I’m really not clear why anyone’s taking a position to make PacifiCorp’s life easier.

While we argue, a salmon is slamming itself into the wall of a dam, exhausting and injuring itself before it can spawn.  Others are dying in overheated waters, the result of too much water being diverted.  In some people’s opinions, we are beyond talking about fisheries collapsing – they are collapsed.  

And while all enviros deplore the state of salmon, delta smelt and other aquatic life in the Bay Delta, there are plenty of disagreements over solutions. Is the Bay Delta too saline, or not enough?  Does a peripheral canal restore the Bay Delta or not? Are we screwed no matter what we do? Whose scientific charts and graphs are more convincing?  The Blue Ribbon Task Force proposed a restoration vision, but there are critiques from the grassroots.  Yet through much of this arguing, there is a consensus that Southern California will want its water, and has the power to get it.

But! According to an attorney speaking at the conference, only surplus water is supposed to go south.  Surplus meaning that which is left over after the Bay Delta has received enough to maintain its water quality (which has declined over the years) and those with primary water rights (Sac Valley farmers) have gotten their allotments.  These basic principles have been routinely breached in order to ensure that water goes south.  How?  By declaring states of emergency.  Indeed, according to Michael Fitzgeralds at, the “state and feds wrote contracts promising 130 million acre feet” of water, when the average Delta flow is 29 million acre-feet, resulting in overdrafts of Bay-Delta supplies during the 90s as water agencies in the south cut in line to enforce their entitlements.

(Right about now, my mind is swinging back and forth like an oversized ping-pong ball.)

And then it spills over into social justice issues.  Some enviros have really stuck a stinky foot in the mouth, conflating water consumption in the San Joaquin Valley with immigration and crime (HUH?), while at least one politically-connected Latino organization has taken the position that when we declare emergency drought conditions, flows are restricted (just the opposite of what we heard above). They argue this means unemployment, so we need secure water exports (i.e. infrastructure) in order to keep jobs for Latinos secure.  In other words, peripheral canal = environmental justice.

Meanwhile on the sidelines of the bickering, communities of color in some agricultural areas are simply shafted in terms of access to potable water (it’s contaminated from fertilizers); only through tremendous grass-roots efforts is anyone addressing this.  

Our rivers may be running dry, but the torrent of self-interest runs rampant over legitimate needs, reasonable use, and the longevity of an ecosystem.  How do we get past this to preserve the resources that sustain us, and equitably and fairly distribute the surplus? 

Contemplate what water means to you, to all the life that surrounds you.  People are gathering, March 22, bringing their own unique beliefs and appreciation of water, at the Cornfields/LA State Historic Park at 10am.  March for Water.

Swimming California Waters

August 22, 2008 § 1 Comment

“… whatever sense of personal renewal comes in swimming across a river, it is one that parallels the reclamation of the river itself… Each river has its own feel, taste, texture, its own flow, velocity. The stewardship of rivers will only be furthered by the intimate knowledge of these qualities.” Akiko Busch, Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here

Agua University Youth, Leaders and Hosts

Agua University Youth, Leaders and Hosts

Apologies for not posting for a couple weeks, as, with Jessica, I’ve been away on a 2-week tour of California Waters. The tour was organized by my friend Miguel Luna of Urban Semillas / Agua University. With a wonderful crew of 15 high school and middle school youth, we toured various waters of California, learning about the impacts of dams, revitalized rivers, water politics, and Native Americans’ reverence for waters. All along we made connections with the sources and impacts of water that LA imports.

There were many excellent things about the trip (which I plan to use as material for three or four blogs), but the most remarkable thing for me was to swim in the varied waters we visited. I try to keep in shape by swimming a couple times each week in the downtown L.A. YMCA pool. I’ve often repeated the slogan that the Los Angeles River should be “fishable and swimmable” (echoing the 1972 federal Clean Water Act’s assertion that all our waters must be safe for wildlife and human health.) Up until now, that “swimmable” was more-or-less rhetorical. I hadn’t really pictured myself swimming in the often murky waters of the mighty Los Angeles. That is, until the past two weeks gave me a chance to swim in a number of rivers and lakes. This swimming has allowed me to better relate to these places – briefly to tangibly know and feel these waters.

Waterfalls on the McCloud River

Waterfalls on the McCloud River

What we call the McCloud River is known as the Winnemem by its people, the Winnemem Wintu. The Winnemem Wintu hold the river and Mount Shasta (where the river originates) as sacred sites. As part of a ritual that echoed the upstream journey of salmon, the Winnemem Wintu and their guests swim at three waterfalls on the river. Before the Shasta Dam made the river impassable, countless salmon made their journey up each of these ten to twenty-plus feet high falls – though one of the waterfalls is known to the Winnemem Wintu as “the place where salmon turn back.” The waters of the river were cold and clear. From so much swimming in urban pools, I was unaccustomed to swimming in waters with current. As I swam toward the falls, the current increased. The pounding waters of the falls become loud; the surface of the water agitated and the air full of water, making deep breathing difficult. The moment I let up, the current gently swept me back away downstream. Swimming the Winnemem waters, within that ritual, helped me to empathize with the strength of the salmon that had passed this way for eons before me.

We swam at two places along the American River. Initially we took dips at our campsite in Lotus which is very near Coloma where gold was discovered and precipitated the California Gold Rush.  The river there supports kayaking, rafting and inner-tubing, so (I overheard) this activity is facilitated by water releases from an upstream dam. Like clockwork at about 10am each morning, the river sublty starts to rise becoming more agitated on its surface.  It turns a shimmering blue as it reflects the sky. The more still waters along the shores are slightly warmer, and the waters nearer the center are cool with strong current. Though the river wasn’t all that wide, the combination of cooler waters and stronger currents made the crossing somewhat difficult for some of the youth who weren’t strong swimmers. I found myself in the role of lifeguard, swimming alongside youth as they swam across.

The other spot on the American River where we swam was on the American River Parkway in Sacramento. This stretch of the river is much wider and outwardly very calm. The water is fairly warm (though refreshing) and a bit murkier than upstream at Lotus. As I walked down into the waters, my feet sunk to nearly my knees into muddy soft bottom. Three of us, myself, Ernie and Carlos set out to swim to the other side. The current was present, but mellow, a little stronger in midstream, but not nearly as strong as upstream or on the McCloud. At about halfway across, Ernie decided that it was too far for him to swim, so we turned back. I had my heart set on swimming across, so I persuaded Carlos to try it again. Again about halfway across, Carlos voiced his concern that he wasn’t sure he would go the whole way. I assured him that it would be ok to turn back, but that I really did wanted to cross. He assented and we made our way to the far shore, upsetting a gaggle of Canada Geese that had settled there. Later in the trip he would thank me for pushing him to swim the whole way.

Eddie and Joe afloat in Mono Lake

Eddie and Joe afloat in Mono Lake

The next swimming was in the nearly surreal waters of Mono Lake. In the Eastern Sierras, the Mono Basin has no outlet to the ocean, so lake water has collected and evaporated for millennia, becoming saltier than the ocean. The waters were very still and felt thick and viscous. Youth (much leaner than I) who had difficulty floating in the previously mentioned rivers were excited to find that they could float very easily here. I dove in and felt my eyes mildly stinging. When I tried to rinse them off, I found that it wasn’t possible take the sting away with the salty water. We floated and paddled around. Lying on our backs, we were able to simultaneously keep our feet, hands and heads above water. Upon exiting, the water dried up leaving a coat of salt on our skin, which felt like it was stretching the skin taught. Mono is a strange place, with its odd tufa (rock structures formed by underwater calcium reacting with carbonate in the water), huge numbers of flies and tiny shrimp, it’s a sort of moonscape – beautiful, but somehow always a bit off from my expectations of what a lake should be. The quality of the water – and one’s weightlessness in it – reinforces this. The site is a storied one; its tales include those of Los Angeles taking water from this place and the long and largely very successful political struggle to achieve a balance to bring the lake back toward health.

After that we played at the beach of June Lake. Not far from Mono, but much smaller and (I think) a bit higher in elevation, June Lake has clear calm waters and a gently sloping beach. It’s not at all near as saline as Mono (I’d be grateful to any reader who can explain why these nearby waterbodies are so different – please comment.) Dozens of folks lined its shorefront, playing and swimming and diving off of one large rock. The youth and I felt like we were at the beach, albeit with nearly no waves. It’s a very pleasant spot to respite from the Sierran summer.

Now back in Los Angeles, I am plotting when would be a good time for a swim in the waters of the Los Angeles River. I am willing to brave the not-entirely-safe waters of the LA River and look forward to feeling the differences in the water as we steward our local waters to greater health.

A state water tour – seeing where our water comes from

August 13, 2008 § 1 Comment

The problem...and the solution?

LA Creek Freak may have been silent this past week, but hardly on recess.  Joe Linton and I were fortunate to be invited to join Miguel Luna and his Urban Semillas/Agua University kids on a statewide water tour.  In fact, Joe is still touring with the kids – I had to end my share of the fun early.  Miguel’s purpose:  to show kids how water travels from distant sources to LA (where most of our water comes from), and the impacts our consumption has on those sources.  He gave each of us a water spout, a symbol of both the problem and the solution.  

For some of the kids, this was the first time they’d gone camping, and bonding with nature has definitely been part of the experience.  Just two days ago I was watching kids jump onto the top of picnic tables as an overeager baby skunk came out of the bushes to feast on our leftover dinner.  But deeper experiences have also been presented, and made a powerful impression on us all.  We spent a week in the company of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, to whom the waters, landscape and presence of Mt. Shasta are sacred and intimately connected with their existence. We visited the McCloud River with them, heard stories about their lives and culture, and also about the struggles and challenges they face with water and tribal recognition.  

Mc Cloud River Middle Falls

Bottling plants are sending water away from Shasta – at the expense of local groundwater. Last year the tribe’s sacred spring ran dry for the first time in its very long history, and they are concerned that excessive pumping is the cause.  It is easy for us here in LA to not understand, or to forget, that there is more to life than commerce and commodity.  This water is the lifeblood of the Winnemem Wintu, it is precious and priceless. We Angelenos have done our share of unreflectingly pumping springs dry; I stand on the side that says we shouldn’t sacrifice culture for commerce.  

Additionally, the water bond proposed by Dianne Feinstein and Arnold Schwarzeneger would raise Shasta Dam, flooding much of their remaining sacred sites while still not rectifying the loss of the Mc Cloud (and 3 other rivers behind the dam) as salmon spawning grounds (you may have heard that this year-for the first time- California and Oregon fishermen were grounded because there’s simply not enough salmon). The water bond offers little in the way for community input, or a truly integrated approach to sustainable water management while promising more dams and diversions to us (follow this link to page 2 for an example of principles that could improve the bond).    

It was hard to leave such a beautiful place, and such beautiful people, sharpened by the awareness of our impact on their lives.  There will be more blogs on snippets of the experience, as well as missives from Joe, who is spending some time on the American River and then off to Mono Lake with Miguel and the kids.

Of nexus and navigability

August 4, 2008 § 5 Comments

Is the Los Angeles River navigable? The recent kayaking adventure, documented here at LA Creekfreak and elsewhere, demonstrated that it is. The Army Corps’ definition of navigability, however, may relate more narrowly to navigation for interstate commerce. Perhaps if people fly in from out of state, spend some money on kayak rentals, sunscreen and snacks, we’ll fit the definition.

Until then, however, we’re stuck with technicalese to protect the River. As the Army Corps has noted, the officially non-navigable reaches of the River remain protected due to their “significant nexus(link leads to ACOE ppt download on the topic) with the Navigable Water body reaches. Several Supreme Court justices ago, all that was needed to extend Clean Water Act protections to our southwestern rivers was evidence that a waterway was a tributary to a Navigable Water. Now it’s not so clear. I have heard conflicting things about tributaries and their status. A past, present, or potential future “significant nexus” needs to be demonstrated – basically someone has to prove that the degradation of a waterway would impact the water quality of the Navigable Water, and now each tributary to the LA River will need this level of investigation before it attains federal regulatory oversight (which does not guarantee physical protection, a topic for another day).

The River, like so many southwestern rivers and streams, had a great deal of variability to it. Some reaches may have been more like washes, where flows infiltrated into the groundwater; other reaches had perennial water flow. And if you go back a few hundred years, the lowest reach of the river was more like a broad wetland and forest floodplain that soaked up runoff like a sponge, with surface waters rarely reaching the ocean. These waterways were incredibly dynamic, shifting course when log jams or sediment would build up, forcing a new direction for the water to spread. Our mistake is in defining the river exclusively as the channel where we see water. Rivers function to transport water and sediment, dissipate energy, facilitate biological and chemical processes, and support habitat. In all rivers these functions depend upon not only the river’s channel but also its floodplain, and to some degree, its relationship to groundwater. A river is also the sum of its tributaries. The role of tributaries, the floodplain and groundwater may be even more pronounced in our southwestern rivers and streams, and our evaluation of the LA River should be inclusive of these relationships, not as the significant nexus, but as part and parcel of the River itself. This would be consistent with the Clean Water Act preamble, which states a purpose to restore and maintain “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”.

For many, we would feel a greater level of security knowing the River, in either its current or historic configuration, simply met the criteria of Navigability. Historical data I’ve reviewed provides interesting, if hardly voluminous, evidence of boating (& swimming, not really a regulatory criteria but fun info). Despite the widespread characterization of the LA River as “a river by courtesy at times” that, like its tributaries, “sink(s) into the sand in places…and seep(s) along beneath the surface for miles, to appear again,” (Charles Holder, 1906) the river and its mountain tributaries were popular destinations for fishermen of steelhead trout. Ludwig Louis Salvator*, in his enthusiastic travelogue, Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, even references the use of boats to capture these fish:

“…fine brook-trout and salmon-trout are also caught. The latter are usually taken with what are called gill-nets…The net does not touch bottom since the fish swim fairly near the surface, but is stretched diagonally across the stream or a section of it and floats with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile while the fishermen follow behind in a boat.”

Unfortunately, Salvator does not identify specifically where this boating occurred, speaking only of mountain streams. It seems reasonable to speculate that boats following nets “with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile” would need to be on a relatively flat reach of a stream, i.e. the Los Angeles River in one of its perennial reaches, such as at elPotrero de los Felizes Los Pescaditos,“a favorite fishing place on the east side of the river opposite Griffith Park”. Speculation, however, isn’t the basis for regulation.

But boating was also known to occur within the lower Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers’ floodplains. More quotes from James P. Reagan’s 1914 oral histories:

Mr. J. H. Orr, Compton, R. F. D. 1, 101 Home at Compton.

Mr. Orr has lived in this neighborhood for twenty-six years. In 1889 he says the whole country was flooded and to give an idea of how much water there was, he with some others rowed in a boat from Downey almost to Compton, that is to the S. P. R. R. track, tied their boat and walked across to Compton, bought their provisions and returned in the same way. The water was all over the country for six weeks and nothing could be done…

Mr. Lafayette Saunders, 2303 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach

…I have seen this valley solid across here between these mesas (Los Cerritos and Dominguez Hill) and nearly four feet deep. I rode in a row boat with two other from Long Beach to Wilmington and returned for provisions, and the water was from a foot of(sic) so to three and one-half feet deep.”

Here the boating is seasonal in character and really a response to the natural flood regime, in that lower LA River basin that had one time been like a sponge. Obviously this was not pleasure boating! Reagan also indicated that the Los Angeles River in the Glendale Narrows reach was good swimming:

Mr. Randall H. Hewitt, 529 Merchants Trust Bldg.

The year 1876 was a dry year and no water flowed below what was called the “Toma” in those days, above the Downey St. Bridge, which is now North Broadway, where the boys used to go swimming….

(the Toma was a dam that diverted water into the zanja irrigation system)

Joe Bernal, Room 53, Temple Block:

Mr. Bernal was seen at his office today at noon. He was born and raised in Los Angeles… In his boyhood days he used to go swimming in the Los Angeles river when it flowed down Alameda Street. (Reagan)

While hardly likely to convince the Corps that the LA River meets their definition of navigability, these historical anecdotes hint at humanity’s relationship to the river’s more complex structure.

Not just the river, all the streams and wetlands of the LA area, really, have already suffered death by a thousand cuts through the draining, channelization and culverting of over 90% of them. The “significant nexus” test here just adds several additional tons of paperwork and bureaucracy under which to bury our remaining waterways.


*Special thanks to Brian Braa, landscape architect, friend, and Seeking Streams cohort, whose research genius found this author & document.



Some Summer Reading Picks

July 31, 2008 § 5 Comments

The best way to learn about your local creeks, watersheds, and rivers is to go there and walk, bike, throw stones, kayak, etc., but, in case you’re looking for something to read on the bus on the way there, I offer some recommended reading. I will recommend other electronic reading and other books and publications again soon.

Rainwater Harvesting by Brad Lancaster

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Volume 2 Water Harvesting Earthworks by Brad Lancaster (Rainsource Press, $32.95), Foreword by Andy Lipkis

This is one of the best books that I’ve read all year! It’s filled with lots of clear illustrations and step by step details on how to retool your landscape to catch and infiltrate rainwater. It features lots of real life examples, too. It’s a bit wonky, hence probably not for everyone. For us to remove concrete from our local waterways, we’re going to need to heal our watersheds. Brad Lancaster talks about treating rain as a welcome guest – invite it to slow down and stick around a for a bit. If we can allow rainwater to slow down and soak in, then we solve lots of problems for our waterways – water quantity (flooding), water quality (pollutants break down in the earth), water supply (increased infiltration means more groundwater available locally to drink), and greening our neighborhoods.
Excerpt: [A] well-designed and built [rainwater havesting earthwork] system can operate as a “beneficial ruin” once established since it can be largely self-maintaining. Long-abandoned earthworks located throughout the world still function and help support pocket oases of vegetation. Examples in the Southwest U.S. include check dams, terraces, contour berms, and stone mulches constructed by prehistoric Native Americans and more recently by the 1930’s Civil Conservation Corps projects. Each time I come across one of these old earthworks, I find a lost world full of life.
Totem Salmon : Life Lessons from Another Species by Freeman House (Beacon Press, $17.00)
This is another of my latest favorites. It’s a great narrative about an intrepid band of very human river activists in northern California who endeavor to preserve and restore salmon runs on the Mattole River.
Excerpt: A race of salmon is an expression of the river, the intelligence of the terrestrial home traveled to far seas – always to return to its place of birth. Salmon return to their riverine homes with the wealth of the great sea embodied in nutrients they will deliver to the waters and plants and animals of the forest at the completion of their lives. Migration is an adaptation toward abundance: more fish are born than the river can support; thus out-migration to the pastures of the sea. In the case of salmonids, migration and return is a dynamic ritual binding population to place.
The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Re-Birth by Blake Gumprecht (Johns Hopkins University Press, $21.95)
A perennial favorite (and I am happy to be mentioned in the foreword to the paperback edition.) This well-written and very readable book is full of maps and historic photographs. It shows the histories of flooding, water supply, agriculture, and current efforts to restore. I learned a lot about the history of Los Angeles from this book.
Excerpt: [The 1768 Portola Expedition] entered “a very lush green valley,” [diarist Father Juan] Crespi wrote, where they found the [Los Angeles] river … It was a “good sized, full flowing river,” about seven yards wide , he estimated, “with very good water, pure and fresh.” … Just upstream from the point where they first saw the river, the explorers noticed another stream that emptied into its channel, but its large bed was dry on that late summer day. This stream we now know as the Arroyo Seco. “The beds of both are very well lined with large trees, sycamores, willows, cottonwoods, and very large live oaks,” Crespi wrote. … He noted the presence beside its channel of great thickets of brambles, abundant native grapevines, and wild roses in full bloom. Sage was plentiful near the river, and the calls of turtle doves, quail, and thrushes filled the air near the camp. It was “a very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect,” he wrote. “To (the) southward there is a great extent of soil, all very green, so that it can really be said to be a most beautiful garden.”

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