Tag Archives: Drainage basin

The concrete jungle has a flowing heart

Compton Creek joins the LA River

At first glance it looked like a backdrop to an apocalyptic movie. To many engineers it’s a flood control channel. To some it’s a place to pitch a tent and call home. Or a place to dump garbage too big for your trash can. But as I looked more more closely I began to see it actually was a river with life still flowing in and through it.

Turkey vultures and hawks soared overhead while egrets, waders and herons picked their way up the channel feeding on tiny fish.  Where the sediment built up, reeds and plants started to take hold and an ecosystem was starting to assemble — enriching the  the simple concrete channel and introducing an element of nature’s chaos.

Compton CreekI was standing at the confluence of the LA River and Compton Creek. Compton Creek is the last major tributary to the Los Angeles River and  is where the two join before flowing into the Bay a few miles downstream.  It was my first trip out to the river since I joined Heal the Bay three and a half weeks ago. I am used to watershed tours — having led tours to some of the most beautiful primeval coast redwood and giant sequoia forests in the world. But this was all new to me and I was soaking it all up as staff from Heal the Bay’s Healthy Neighborhood gave me a tour of the watershed and communities they’d been working in for the past decade.

The goal of the program is pretty simple. It’s to let people know that there’s a river in their neighborhood that drains to the bay. For a decade we’ve been working alongside teachers, community groups and local non-profits on projects that connect them to the river that for too long society has turned its back on.

A century ago this was one of the braided channels of the Los Angeles River. For the worst part of a century, it has been engineered and re-engineered to carry flood water as quickly as possible from the streets to the ocean — picking up trash and pollutants from city streets along the way. Finally in 2010, after years of advocacy by many groups, the EPA designated the LA River as a “navigable waterway” of the United States. In a sense that marked a turning point when the flood channel became a river once more.  It would now be subject to protections of the Federal Clean Water Act.  Of course, the ducks and birds and animals that use the river are oblivious to the change

There’s a lot of work underway across the watershed to clean it up and bring people down to its banks.  And what’s good for the river is ultimately good for the health of the bay. I’ll be learning more about all of that in the coming weeks and months. Yesterday was a chance for me to begin the process and to start to understand what watersheds are like in the context of a highly urbanized city. If you’d like to get involved in Heal the Bay’s work to understand and protect the bay and its watersheds, you can learn more and sign up for volunteer activities at Heal the Bay’s web-site.  Thank you!

On the Watershed

40% of LA is paved
LA is 40% paved over

It’s Wednesday and that means I need to move my car from the north side of the street between the hours of 12 noon and 3 pm. If I remember, the street sweeper can work its magic.  If I forget, I risk a fine. That had me thinking of watersheds. Bear with me.

The concept of a watershed is pretty simple — it’s an area of land where all water falling within it drains to a common point. It’s also the name given to the boundary demarcating this area. Whether we know it or not, we all live within a watershed.  Healthy watersheds provide a home for countless creatures and give us clean water. Start to mess with a watershed — by building in it, damming it, logging it, mining or drilling in it — and you start to impair the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. Unfortunately many watersheds around the world are suffering today. And in turn, so does anything that lives there — including us.

It’s hard to image that a heavily urbanized area is also a watershed. Fly over LA and all you see are buildings as far as the eye can see. To me, it couldn’t get more different from northern California and its thick blanket of forest.   But both are watersheds and both suffer from degradation that affects the health of the watershed and the quality of its water. In turn, poor water quality and degraded watersheds, struggle to support life and provide us with clean, drinkable, swimable water.

In northern California, rural roads that dump sediment into creeks and a legacy of aggressive logging are obvious signs of an impaired watershed. Millions are being spent fixing these problems so salmon and other animals can once again thrive.  Down here in Los Angeles, it’s different. I now live in a highly urbanized environments where I almost never see a creek, let alone a fish swimming in it.  For 28 years, Heal the Bay has led the charge to clean up Santa Monica bay and its watersheds. At first it had to tackle the acute problems, such as the dumping of untreated wastewater in to the Bay that was killing sea life and sickening surfers. Today, the challenges are more those of a chronic malaise. We’ve triaged the worst of it, and now we have to deal with the underlying causes — foremost is how we deal with storm water that flushes directly from the street to the bay, untreated, carrying the toxic debris of urban living with it.

Because in most regions all water flows to the ocean, the health of the bay is an indicator of the health of the region and its watersheds.  When we can swim in the bay 365 days a year and know that it provides a rich environment for the countless sea life beneath the waves, we know we’re doing our job. While huge strides have been made over the past 28 years, there’s a long way to go to complete the task of healing Santa Monica bay.

And that brings me back to street sweeping.  Moving your car once a week is a simple act that helps keep the watershed just that little bit healthier.  Every bit of trash swept up is one less piece that is dumped in the bay.  And what’s true down here, is also true in your neighborhood. As all oceans are really just one body of water, so we all live in the same watershed. And to me that’s a powerful thought as I move my car and help protect the ocean along the way.

Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay
Storm Drains flow straight to the Bay