Processes of becoming: water and wastewater in some Northwest urban landscapes

October 2, 2011 § 5 Comments

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Last week I spent time in a city where rivers and streams are so much a fabric of the culture, they are a character in public life, possibly even approaching equals along with salmon, Microsoft, clearcut forest, and eagles… « Read the rest of this entry »

A Small Red “Y”

February 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

The red "Y" indicates "stream bottom" vegetation, and coincides with the Eagle Rock Creek forming from two small branches. Light brown indicates "sage". Other indicated plants include Sycamore (in stream bottoms), and on the slopes, Chamise, Ceanothus crassifolius, Laurel Sumac, Black sage, and Scrub oak ("Quercus dumosa"). Source: Wieslander, 1928.

A very interesting day! We visited several sections of the Eagle Rock canyon on a quest to find sycamores that predate development. It is amazing that despite the scale of engineering and earthmoving that resulted in  1.) the building of the 134 freeway over foothill terrain  2.) an entire complex of utilities related buildings and an access road to Scholl Canyon Dump being built over the streambed– that the stream continues to flow, as if nothing has ever changed!

All this urban complexity means that the landscape around the stream appears radically different  (if it’s above ground at all) in different places. Depending on where you are, you might only see concrete under your feet and utility lines overhead. In another section, you might look down from the road and see sycamores growing near the base of steep canyon walls.

The most idyllic part of the canyon is the far upper reaches, which still show a similar same palette of vegetation as recorded by a crew under Wieslander in 1928, save for some very old introduced trees.

I was thankful to be with plant people.  Barbara Eisenstein pointed out monkey flower, and Ceanothus crassifolius, which was in full bloom.

It was amazing to think that only a couple generations ago, this same mix of vegetation extended all the way down the canyon past the Eagle Rock. This reminds me of the passage by Helen and Francis Line, who lived right at the Eagle Rock, from January 1945:

Shortly after we moved here to our home last January 26, the buckthorn bloomed. It has come early this season and the hills are already turning white again. Each of the eleven months that we have been here– save one or two– has seen wild shrubs and flowers in blossom;– the buckthorn, monkey flower, buckwheat, toyon, and wild tobacco.

By a wonderful stroke of luck, we also met someone who knew about the history of the canyon, who offered information to corroborate something told to me by one of Eagle Rock’s most illustrious oldtimers. More on this later.

The lower part of Eagle Rock Creek, which used to be the central feature of a well-known local park is described at Myriad Unnamed Streams.

Going bananas over water quality in Orange County

September 8, 2009 § 2 Comments

This just in.

Yesterday I was bemoaning the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board for their failure to complete their review of a 401 Permit application from the County of LA, leading to it being approved by default.

And here’s what happened when a full review was completed.  Down in Orange County, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board approved the County of Orange’s stormwater discharge permit (a MS-4 in Clean Water Act jargon).  They determined that new development must retain 100% of stormwater runoff (from a 2-year storm) if the stormwater will flow into a natural stream.  Good good, yes?  The conventional wisdom is a big yes.  Development increases rates of runoff and stream velocities, so retaining the 2-year storm will reduce this.  It also keeps urban non-point source pollutants (car oil drippings and doggie doo, for example) out of the streams.  But I wonder, will it also starve the stream of the low flows they need to maintain channel form?  Would there be a way to allow runoff that mimicked the pre-development condition? I realize that my scientist buddies will point out that in developed areas, streams tend to be “starved” of sediment so a reduction in runoff wouldn’t affect them.  Yet I have seen that urban streams, given enough time and an absence of new disturbances, often do tend to adjust their channels to a geometry (width and depth of stream) suited to the available sediment they receive.  Will we be starving them anew, not only of sediment now, but also the frequent storms that prevent channels from getting silted up, keep emergent wetland vegetation from colonizing and taking over?  I know we need to get urban pollutants out of the water, but some consideration for how a stream functions from the standpoint of its channel-forming processes also is needed to sustain habitat.

OK, so that’s just me being troublesome and thinking out loud and probably out of turn – isn’t that what blogs are for?  But here’s the next part.

New development that would drain into an engineered channel (hello, ex-creeks everywhere in the OC) are exempt from this requirement.  In other words, any incentive to restore these former streams has just been yanked off the table.  And what’s to ensure that this doesn’t get abused, turned on its head as an incentive to lay streams in concrete?

After all, the California Environmental Quality Act won’t outright ban it.  So who will?

Woodburied Creek

June 29, 2009 § 19 Comments

There’s been a lot of interest in the past few years in restoring the former stream through Washington Park.  Yesterday, LA Creekfreak got a specific request about this creek, the poster, Stanley, said it is believed that the creek’s name was Woodbury Creek.  I believe this may have also been the area of interest to my mystery emailer, “Chris” whose email I had lost.  So here goes….

Scroll through the gallery above for reference, click to enlarge the images.  The 1900 USGS map shows a little swale topography but doesn’t indicate a stream, however they defined it at that time.  The swale signature, however, means that rain water was concentrating along this alignment, and it is likely that stream habitats coexisted – we see examples of that all the time in our dwindling but still-present riparian areas.  The 1928 Altadena USGS quadrangle shows a more tightly defined “swale” that was likely the stream – or could be the “stream” was the result of an effort by farmers to concentrate and ditch the water running off their property.  In the next image, I’ve traced in the line of stream flow indicated by the swale, and in the 4th image, I’ve overlaid the contemporary street grid and County stormdrains, which don’t overlay much of the creek – I suspect the City of Pasadena may also have stormdrains over the creek, as we all know it is encased in concrete today.  This last image was also overlaid in GoogleEarth, and the .kmz file can be downloaded from the GoogleEarth community forum if you want to view it against aerial imagery (download the attachment that I have posted there).

You will note the stream tapers off without physically connecting to anything downstream.  There could be lots of reasons for that.  Given the alluvial fan soils, it may have just all seeped into the shallow groundwater table, eventually flowing from the groundwater out to one of several surface streams downstream (in the general vicinity of the Huntington Gardens).  That and other creeks in Pasadena will be in other posts.

Good luck, ye of Washington Park – let me know if you need some help with restoration design!

South Pasadena’s old streams

June 23, 2009 § 6 Comments

USGS map of the South Pasadena area, approx 1900

USGS map of the South Pasadena area, approx 1900

I got an email a few weeks (really, over a month) ago and unfortunately lost it.  So today’s post is dedicated to I think his name was Chris, who I wanted to reply to about Pasadena’s creeks.  Alas “Chris”, I’m focusing on South Pasadena’s creeks, but I promise to follow up with something more focused on Pasadena.  I don’t actually know a whole lot about them, but above is a map from 1900 that shows some perennial streams, that appear to infiltrate into the ground, leaving sandy washes downstream.  One was called Mill Creek, I think the other may have been Mission Creek, which flowed right by the old San Gabriel Mission.  Part of Old Mill Creek Road runs past the creek, which current aerial photos suggest is still present in part (I’ve not done the ground-truthing on this).  Most of you have probably heard of Kewen or Wilson Lake, which was filled in and was located where Lacy Park in San Marino is (I’ve also heard that the path marks the outline of the lake).

If you feel like doing the ground-truthing yourself, here’s a map with streets overlaid.  Have fun!  And feel free to post your findings!

Streams of South Pasadena with streets overlaid

Streams of South Pasadena with streets overlaid

Urban runoff?

April 17, 2009 § 4 Comments



Streams present and past, from Pacific Palisades to Bel Air.  Blue streams are present, red are gone, baby, gone.

Streams present and past, from Pacific Palisades to Bel Air. Blue streams are present, red are gone, baby, gone.

And here's the (mostly former) streams of the Hollywood Hills and part of the upper Ballona Creek watershed.

And here's the (mostly former) streams of the Hollywood Hills and part of the upper Ballona Creek watershed. Blue lines on the right will soon be deleted, as soon as I get around to the Elysian Valley and streams Northeast.











I am in the midst of a depressing exercise of stream deletion, viz. the image at right.  Once again, mapping streams of LA, and then deleting them to be able to say with some reliability what’s left.  It’s painstaking as well as simply painful.


While simultaneously reaching for some (legal) numbing agent and zooming in a former stream on the north slope of the Hollywood Hills on GoogleEarth, however, I noticed urban runoff dribbling down the gutter.  I was looking for any chance that a stream channel persisted (further down the road, there was in fact an open semi-channelized waterway – so it wasn’t entirely empty hope).  Curious, I followed the runoff upstream, till I arrived at what was clearly a stream.  And it is pretty apparent that the runoff is coming from the stream.  The next canyon over showed a similar pattern of runoff.  And it was in the month of July, so not seasonal, this.


The stream is dribbling.  From GoogleEarth, dated July 31, 2007.

The stream is dribbling (dark stain on left side of the street). From GoogleEarth, dated July 31, 2007.

I often find myself wondering during conversations about “urban runoff” how much of it is genuinely from some idiot watering his or her driveway.  True, we have no shortage of waste from poor water management, and plenty of it is polluted.

But here is interesting evidence that some runoff is from a stream just being a stream – and that it would still be flowing in a stream if we hadn’t rammed a street through it.  Suggestive to me, anyway, that we might want to have a policy for managing this urban runoff a little differently than treating it like wastewater.

Searching for Tom-or Joshua-down in Dominguez

December 20, 2008 § 34 Comments

OK.  I need to begin by telling you that there is an offensive and insensitive word in this post, one that I regret being here, but that is also the genesis of my search.  I apologize for its presence.

Some of you have also been looking for it.  We can see search terms that lead you to the LA Creekfreak.  And ever since that map exhibit at the Public Library, we’ve been seeing those two words, one of which is really ugly.  I bet you have wanted to know how the hell a waterbody ends up with a name like that on a federal map.  In any era.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the image below contains racist language, in a shockingly banal context.




USGS map, circa 1900.

USGS map, circa 1900.

Clearly a loaded topic, and one which links our environmental history to our racial (and racist) history, something which has been lurking in the background in a number of our posts on historical LA and its waterbodies, and which I also feel as an angelena is often not readily acknowledged.  

I have been avoiding writing about this slough in part out of the theory that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. We have a lot of trauma in the city caused by racism, we are still living out the effects of this trauma, and unfortunately there are those creating new traumas.  All the time.  And I don’t want to re-traumatize our African-American neighbors by reviving this horrible name.  But I have also regretted that the story behind the name can’t be turned on its head, and wondered if there was a way to elevate the story to help unwind history a little.

And so this is my attempt, and an incomplete one at that.  

There has been quite a bit of speculation as to the origin of this former place name, later renamed the Dominguez Slough, and today the Dominguez Channel (the slough being all but gone).  Some have asserted that its desultory name came from the black mud that surrounded the area, but I don’t buy it.  The 1914 Reagan papers have repeated references to this Slough, one of which added the name Tom:

“The water was pouring through the bridge that caused our wreck and was running into the Nigger Tom slough…” Mr. A. C. Cook, 1914, in Reagan.

Who was this man Tom, if this name refers to an actual person?  Rudy Mattoni and Travis Longcore, in their 1997 publication, The Los Angeles Coastal Prairie, A Vanished Community, provide the following comment in a footnote: “The wetland was reportedly named after the freemen who farmed near it and the name appears on historic maps of the area (Nelson 1919).”  To further complicate matters, I went over to the CSU Dominguez Hills archives to see what information they had.  In 1977, a student researcher, Bonita Lucille Braddock Miramontes, pulled together archival resources to what she could piece together.  She had met with Bill Mason, then of the Natural History Museum (I don’t know if he’s still there), who shared the view that our  mystery man was believed to be a hog farmer who lived on the old Rancho Dominguez lands, near the slough, in the 1870s.  Bonita then tracked down Robert C. Gillingham, who wrote a history of the Rancho San Pedro.  Gillingham elaborated that he had heard this story from an old caretaker and Dominguez-Carson family members, who in turn heard it from old Mexican farmhands.  He also noted that our mystery man arrived sometime after the Civil War, but that by the 1880s there were no blacks living in the vicinity of the slough.  He also mentioned that “one conjecture is that” the hogfarmer “may have been a descendant of one of the pioneer settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1871, which included a number of negroes.” Bonita went further with her research, locating the name of a black man, Joshua William Smart, who owned property near the slough, in the Assessment Book for LA County, 1870-71.  So…Joshua or Tom?  Or someone else?or all of them?  How did they come to live there, and why did they leave?  How did the slough affect their lives and livelihoods?  How were the neighbors?

Clearly more research is needed.  Bonita listed newspapers that could be consulted, including the California Eagle, a black LA newspaper that began publishing in 1879.  There are other historical society archives to visit, and perhaps even descendants of early settlers.  I haven’t given up this thread just yet.  You see, I can’t help but think of how courageous and resilient he or they would have been, and I think his or their presence lends yet more richness to the diversity that was early Los Angeles.    

If only the County could have been as aggressive in erasing housing covenants and other forms of discrimination as it was in erasing this glaringly embarrassing and insulting name from the maps.  If only they didn’t have to erase the history of Tom/Joshua when they did this.  

I will write more about the slough and its story another time.  For now, I’d just like to point out to you that it was so large as to extend from Carson (think Victoria Golf Course) to Torrance (Madrona Marsh), Gardena, and parts of Compton, with fingerlets in Hawthorne and West Athens(fragments still remain at the Devil’s Dip/Chester Washington Golf Course).  Other bits of remaining marshland include the Gardena Willows near Vermont and Artesia, and what’s called Albertoni Farms in Carson, a bit of slough in the middle of a trailer park.  

I think it would be pretty cool if one day,  a park or greenway or remnant wetland was properly named after Tom X, or Joshua Smart, or whoever our mystery man is.  Smart Creek has a nice ring to it.

Upcoming Events: RioFest, Amigos Gala, Stream Hearings!

September 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

// click for larger version)

Model Train Version of the LA River near L.A. Union Station (photo by and courtesy of Miles C. at click image for link)

Calling all Creek Freaks! (and other interested parties)

If you’ve got time on your hands and you’re itchin’ to attend a meeting or two or five, here’s where you should be. The stream protection hearings are very important! Let the city of Los Angeles know that you want our few remaining natural streams preserved. The city is holding three more hearings, so pick the one that’s most convenient for you. I attended the first one last week and I learned about some streams I’d never known. Please attend!

TOMORROW! Wednesday, October 1st 2008, 7pm – Stream Protection Hearing, Westwood Recreation Center, 1350 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Westwood 90025 map

Thursday, October 2nd 2008, 6pm – Friends of the Los Angeles River’s (FoLAR) RioFest public forum: The Isar and the Los Angeles: Applying Lessons Learned from Isar Restoration to the Los Angeles River, FREE! LA Dept of Water and Power, 111 N Hope Street, Downtown Los Angeles 90012 map (easy transit access from the Metro Red Line Civic Center Station)

SOLD OUT! Friday, October 3rd 2008, 6:30pm – Amigos de los Rios Emerald Necklace Gala fundraiser, Grace T. Black Auditorium, 3130 Tyler Ave., El Monte 91731 map

Saturday, October 4th 2008, 5pm – FoLAR’s RioFest Biergarten, 6th Street Bridge, Downtown Los Angeles map costs $50, support your local river, enjoy great food and great music!

Friday, October 10th, 1:30pm – Stream Protection Hearing, Los Angeles City Hall, Public Works Board Room – 3rd Floor, 200 North Spring Street (public entrance on Main Street), Downtown Los Angeles 90012 map (easy transit access from the Metro Red Line Civic Center Station)

Wednesday, October 15th, 7pm – Stream Protection Hearing, Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center, 6262 Van Nuys Blvd, Van Nuys, 90049 *corrected address* map (easy transit access from the Metro Orange Line Van Nuys Station)

Public meetings to protect LA streams

September 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

If you love LA creeks, or love the idea of LA’s creeks (maybe you haven’t met a local creek yet), the City of LA needs to hear from you! Please attend a public meeting about stream protection:

September 23, 7pm – Sherman Oaks Galleria, 15301 Ventura Blvd. LA 91403 Community Room on the first floor in the Rotunda. (SF Valley, LA Council District 5)

September 24, 7pm – Paul Revere Charter Middle School, 1450 Allenford Ave. LA 90049. (Pacific Palisades, LA Council District 11)

October 1, 7pm – Westwood Recreation Center, 1350 S. Sepulveda Blvd, LA 90025(Westwood area, LA Council District 5)

October 10, 1:30pm – Los Angeles City Hall, Public Works Board Room (3rd Floor), 200 North Spring Street, LA 90012. (Downtown, LA Council District 9)

October 15, 7pm – Marvin Braude Constituent Service Center, 6262 Van Nuys Blvd, Van Nuys, 90049. (SF Valley, LA Council District 6) *corrected address*

*NEW MEETING added* 

October 22, 7pm – LA River Center and Gardens, 570 West Avenue 26, Suite 200, LA 90065. (Cypress Park, LA Council District 1)

For the past two years, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, Heal the Bay, andSanta Monica Baykeeper have been meeting with the City to discuss protecting LA’s remaining natural streams. Council Districts 5 and 11, Building & Safety, and Bureau of Sanitation/Department of Public Works have been front and center at looking at this issue. City Planning has also participated in the discussions. And now the City is bringing the discussion to you.

The discussion is spurred by the revelation that ongoing development, from backyard landscaping projects to new subdivisions, is resulting in damage to and loss of our few remaining streams. Many of these projects have straightened, dammed, concreted, or piped streams without following Clean Water Act, Fish & Game, or State Porter-Cologne Act protocols. In other words, people didn’t fill out the paperwork to destroy their creek, as none of these regulations actually outright bans stream destruction.

A city or county could have many motivations for acting to protect their waterways. Functional protected streams improve water quality, recharge groundwater, support wildlife (including fisheries), provide recreational activities, and enhance neighborhood aesthetics. Homes near streams are found to have higher re-sale values than ones further away, and industry has benefitted from mining the boulders, clays and sands accumulated in riverine floodplains. Streams do all these things for us – for free. Furthermore, cities and counties that approve development in floodplains are at increased risk of liability should that development flood.

Yet streams don’t show up on property maps, some streams aren’t even on USGS maps, city Building & Safety maps, etc. Many times they are mislabelled as “ditches.” The good news is the City of LA is working on mapping its creeks, as a first step towards protection.

But any talk of stream protection is fraught with fears that the development community will object. Concern over an onslaught of takings claims casts a long shadow and can kill this effort, leaving us with fewer and fewer of our remaining streams. Pitting development against streams is unfortunate – the streams will go away, but it is we as a community who lose.

Come to one of the public meetings and share your thoughts. Spoiler alert: I or other environmentalists working on this issue will be presenters at these meetings.

Thanks to a fellow creekfreak who jogs this street & saw the pipes show up, we averted the loss of this reach of stream. Creeks need better protection than coincidence.

Streams in the Baldwin Hills Oil Fields

August 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

1902 USGS of Baldwin Hills area.  Arrows point to intermittent (blue-line) streams, and ephemeral streams (ravines without the blue line on the map).

1902 USGS of Baldwin Hills area. Arrows point to intermittent (blue-line) streams, and ephemeral streams (ravines without the blue line on the map).

The County of LA is working with partners to renew oil leases at the Baldwin Hills oil fields.  (EIR here)

The Baldwin Hills are perhaps best known for the sight of the oil derricks, but also the Kenneth Hahn State Park, and the more recent Baldwin Hills Conservancy.  What is hard to believe, is that even on those dry slopes, there are seeps and, formerly, streams.

The 1902 USGS shows several intermittent streams, and also shows the topopgraphy (no blueline) associated with ephemeral streams.  Intermittent streams run through part of the year, and often have willows, mulefat, and some wetlands plants sustained throughout the year, due to moisture in soil.  Ephemeral streams tend to carry stormwater to intermittent streams, and have drier, more disturbance-oriented plants in their channels and floodplains.  Both are home to uniquely adapted species of wildlife, that like the seasonal conditions.


Google Earth aerial image of oil fields between La Brea and La Cienega.

Google Earth aerial image of oil fields between La Brea and La Cienega.

At right is a view from a 1924 USGS map, with today’s streets overlaid.  This is the area of oil field between La Cienega and La Brea, Stocker Avenue and Slauson.  Two significant streams can be seen here, with some smaller ephemeral tributaries draining into them.  These two big creeks then flowed into Centinela Creek, a concrete pipe and channel today.  


Compare this image with a Google Earth aerial at right, and you see traces of the streams in little undeveloped valleys.  But there have been changes: there are basins in the stream bed, some of the stream has been culverted (piped), and otherwise filled or altered. They’re called “ditches” now.  The extensive disturbance of the soil on these hills (see all the bare dirt – the light sand color on the aerial) is likely to wash into the streams, choking amphibians and other species that may be laying eggs (or used to) in the streams’ bed.

Of course, field verification would be needed to really understand how the streams have changed, and what the impact to wildlife has been.  Now, there was probably nothing illegal about impacting these streams – it was mostly likely done before the Clean Water Act (unless there were Fish & Game protections in place before CWA – I really don’t know).  And with proper permitting and mitigation, there’s also no restriction on disturbing the streams (all you need to do is the paperwork).  However, this is a great moment to seek restoration and minimally invasive land management methods.  These streams are a public resource, and in the long term could be part of the Baldwin Hills State Park, as was envisioned in the Baldwin Hills Park Master Plan.

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