Tag Archives: Los Angeles

Mayor Garcetti’s bold drought move poses tough questions

Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced some bold initiatives for the city of Los Angeles to address the ongoing drought. In brief, he’s calling for a 20 per cent reduction in use of fresh water by 2017 and more ambitiously to curtail the purchase of imported water by  50 per by 2024.

The second number really got my attention as there’s a lot packed into that short sentence. Cutting the purchase of imported water by 50 per cent sounds bold. But it’s not as bold as it needs to be. And the twist is that the City actually owns a lot of the water it currently imports — water from the Owens Valley — hence it’s not being purchased.

Between 2006 and 2010, water from the Owens Valley provided 36% of LA’s water, compared to 52% from the Metropolitan Water District which imports water from the State Water Project and Colorado River.  The city already had a plan in place to cut MWD water to 24% by 2034. In effect Garcetti’s announcement accelerates the timeframe by a decade. That’s great. But look closer, and the original plan actually calls for an absolute increase in imports from the Owens Valley. It may make economic sense, but it doesn’t enhance resilience and doesn’t address the environmental issues the valley faces.

In the face of global warming, what is needed is to move the city to much greater reliance on utilizing water resources local to the region and its watersheds. If the city could get to the point where 50 per cent of its water came from truly local sources it would be much more resilient from both the ravages of global warming, and the disruption from the big earthquake when it strikes.

Currently the city imports 85 per cent of its water more than 100 miles. The three primary imports are from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada (the State Water Project), the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada (the LA Aqueduct and Owens Valley), and the Colorado River.  By and large all this water is the result of snow-melt. In the face of climate change this will diminish, threatening LA’s water supply and very future.

In addition, all pipes cross the San Andreas fault, some multiple times.  Modeling for a major quake on the San Andreas fault show that much of the disruption the region will feel is the result of loss of water as these pipes rupture. Can you imagine going without a shower for a week, let alone three months of a year? I can’t!

Coincidentally, it is estimated that about 50 per cent of water is used outside for landscaping. So getting to 50 per cent truly local water means the city could survive without those imports for a while. I think most people would be prepared to let their grass die so they could take shower.

Getting to 50 per cent truly local water is an ambitious goal for Los Angeles, but I believe it is the right goal. The city has the tools in place through its conservation programs, recycling programs, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture. What’s needed now is to take the Mayor’s bold plan and amp it up a notch. Then Los Angele’s will truly be building sustainability and resiliency for the future.

Canals criss-cross the state bringing water to Los Angeles
Canals criss-cross the state bringing water to Los Angeles – how would these fare in an earthquake?

 

Dodging a Bullet in Atwater Village

In the early hours of Thursday morning, a pipeline carrying oil from Texas to Los Angeles ruptured in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles. Over the course of about 45 minutes 10,000 gallons of oil spilled into the streets creating a noxious lake a half-mile long and knee-deep in places.

It appears that the nearby Los Angeles River was saved by the alert response and quick thinking of the Los Angeles Fire Department. We owe the team a huge debt of thanks. Not only did they get on the scene fast, but they thought creatively about how to stop the oil from flowing into the stormdrain system and hence to the river.

And one stroke of luck also helped. One business in the industrial section just happened to be a cement plant with ample stocks of sand. The fire department deployed the sand to build berms that contained the spill.

Initial reports indicate that the quick response averted potential environmental impacts. But even so, a few neighbors were taken to local hospitals and potential environmental damage is still being assessed.

We applaud all of the first responders. But we also have to ask, is this a risk we’re prepared to take in our communities and our Bay?

As I write this, the residents of the small South Bay city Hermosa Beach are preparing for a referendum on whether to allow Big Oil to sink 34 oil wells in the heart of their city to tap into oil under the Bay. The oil company tells them to not worry, it’s safe and any spills will be quickly contained. You tell me, is this a risk you’d take?

 

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Precious water: what price waste?

On Wednesday I joined Mayor Garcetti, Governor Brown and members of the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience at a reception to kick off day-long talks about how the federal government can help communities confront climate change. And today in Fresno, President Obama is unveiling an aid package for communities hit hardest by the drought.

Even as we address immediate needs of drought-stricken communities, we must also be moving beyond short-term aid, to investing in a water system for California’s future. And that presents historic opportunities for our work at Heal the Bay. Since 1985, we have been focused on cleaning up pollution in California’s waterways and ocean.  We have had some remarkable successes.  However, many of the state’s rivers and streams still fail to meet clean water standards and much of our ground water is polluted.

Hyperion
Just some of the 250 million gallons of water that is discharged to the bay each and every day

There’s much discussion at the moment about how we “waste” water by dumping it into the ocean. Every time I hear that I cringe. While it is not a waste to let water flow to the ocean (it’s an essential part of the natural system that keeps us alive), it is a waste is to dump highly treated water in the ocean that could be reused to off-set dwindling imported supplies.   And we do this every day from countless wastewater treatment plants. One plant alone, Hyperion out by LAX,  flushes 250 million gallons a day of treated waste water into Santa Monica Bay – equivalent to the water needs of 2 ½ million people. That’s unconscionable waste!

And then there’s storm water. When it does rain, millions of gallons of water flush through our cities via engineered culverts and channels, picking up pollutants in its rush to the ocean. In a naturally functioning system, much of this would infiltrate into the ground and replenishing our aquifers.  Instead we are left with polluted beaches and depleted aquifers. Crazy!

We cannot make it rain. But we can make much better use of the precious water we have. Today, Heal the Bay is advocating for solutions and investments that make better use of our local water resources – from groundwater clean-up, to storm water capture and recharge, to increased recycling. Taken as a package, they will go a long way to cleaning up our rivers, streams, and ocean. And that will make for a healthier bay. I’ll drink to that!

The D Word

ImageI have spent much of the past two weeks on the beach. While much of the rest of the country continues to suffer through sub-zero temperatures, it has remained a balmy 72 and sunny here in Southern California.  It’s been great as my family from the Bay Area and England has been here for the holidays.  Each day we’d remark how glad we were it had, “turned out nice again.” Let’s face it, 72 degrees and sunny is pretty much perfect. Christmas on the beach. Can you beat it? Really not.

But with the holidays a memory, it is time to get serious about what 72 and sunny means for us in Southern California and beyond. If it persists, and with no rain in the forecast it seems likely, we need to start thinking about drought. According to the head of the Department of Water Resources the Governor is starting to think the same. When a drought is declared in Sacramento, it has cascading affects across the state. Crops die as previously irrigated fields dry.  Sprinklers are banned and lawns turn brown  Native fish in our streams struggle as water is diverted.  Water quality suffers as discharge regulations are relaxed. The economy suffers as farmers fields fallow. And we start counting the days until the rain drops fall.

2013 was a record dry year for the state. By some estimates, it was the driest year in California since records began…….way back in 1849. In downtown Los Angeles we had 3.6 inches of rain – drier than 1947 and 1953 when 4.08 inches fell.  To add some perspective, in 1849 the states population was about 50,000; 1940 it was 6.9 million; 1950 it was 10.6 million; and in 2010 stood at 37 million.

That’s less rain and a lot (LOT) more people. It’s true that we have built a remarkable system to capture and transport most of the state’s water from north to south (while sweeping in water from the Colorado system to boot). We’re definitely getting better at using water efficiently here in California — after all, LA’s population has grown over the last 20 years and our water usage has not. But we have a long way to go. In California we use an average of 105 gallons per day per person. In Australia they have it down to 59.

The impending drought highlights the need to invest in our water infrastructure in California. But we can no longer assume it’s just a matter of impounding and transporting water from north to south. We need to work towards a more resilient system. And resiliency has to start locally. We need to make investments to reduce demand and make California a world leader. We need to make better use of local water supplies by cleaning up and harvesting groundwater, sustainably. We need to recycle wastewater (300 million gallons a day out of Hyperion alone).  We need to capture, infiltrate and make use of urban runoff – reducing stormwater pollution in the process. And then and only then should we shore up our ability to move water around the state to better match supply and demand.

Doing all of this is going to take bold leadership. We at Heal the Bay are ready. Are you?

100 years on: what value water?

LA is 40% paved over
suburban LA – water fueled

When you have been working with redwoods, 100 years is a moment. Enough time for a giant to grow a few inches in girth and a few feet in height, But when you’re dealing with water and Los Angeles it is a game changer.

A century ago, Los Angeles was largely reliant on the water that fell in its own backyard. Then Mulholland opened the canal gates and the people of L.A. took what they had been given.  Rain and snow from the eastern Sierra mountains could now flow under gravity to fuel the growth of suburban Los Angeles. It was then and is now an engineering marvel.

It’s all too easy to see this as a bad thing.  After all, as water flowed south the Owens Valley and Mono Lake suffered. I went there earlier this summer and saw the toxic dust clouds myself. The lake levels are down and the natural system is suffering as a result of all the water that is shipped south to this day.

At the same time, that water has changed the world.

Really.

I grew up in England in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a long way from Los Angeles. But L.A. loomed large in television shows, popular culture, and fast food.  And the world tried to emulate it.  It is not a stretch to say that the Hollywood dream machine was built on the back of water from the Owens Valley.

And that’s where the problem comes in.  Classical economic theory would have it that a rational person chooses the option that maximizes economic return. Well that water diverted from the Owens Valley has created an awful lot of value down here in Southern California and around the world. Some might argue that it is greater than the value of all the fish and critters that lived in the Owens Valley.  So in theory if we had it over, we’d do it all again. Personally, I think that a simple economic approach is short-sighted and ignores the intrinsic values of nature that cannot (or should not) be monetized.

Because there is no going back, the challenge is where we go in the next 100 years. Realistically, we are going to continue transferring water from the Owens Valley (and Colorado and Bay Delta). The promise ahead is to do it in a way that helps L.A. and the Owens Valley, Colorado Basin and Bay Delta recover. One way to do this is to make better use of our water resources here in Los Angeles.

And that brings me to Heal the Bay. We’ve been focused on water quality in Santa Monica Bay for 28 years. We’ve also focused not only on water quality, but water supply as well. The two are inextricably linked. Our science and policy team has been working with local municipalities to mobilize public support for a stormwater funding measure that would build green infrastructure throughout the county. Capturing and reusing stormwater helps reduce water pollution, helps develop local water supplies, and in turn reduces our dependence on imported water. So it’s good for our bay, good for the Owens Valley, good for the Colorado River system, and good for the Bay Delta.  I am sure it makes economic sense. But it also just happens to be the right thing to do.

– See more at: http://www.healthebay.org/blogs-news/la-aqueduct-dollars-and-sense#sthash.cCiHGfy1.dpuf

MonoLake 060
A yard stick in Mono Lake stands witness to LA’s thirst

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

Hyperion – they don’t come bigger than this!

Hyperion. To some the legendary father of the sun, the moon and the dawn. To some, the tallest tree in the world.  To the millions who live in Los Angeles, it’s the sewage treatment plant at the end of the pipe. And to me, it will forever be a place that brings two parts of my life together.

Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion
Mayor Garcetti opens a new education center at Hyperion

On September 16th 2006 I schlepped Steve Sillet’s crossbow through the woods as he set out to document this record-breaking redwood for the first time. Until that point no-one really knew how tall the tree was. Steve’s work documented it as a record-breaker at 379.1 feet tall (that’s 115.55 meters). What was remarkable about the tree is that it narrowly escaped being cut down before being protected in Redwood National Park in 1978. I clearly remember being sat in that remote grove as Steve and his team went about their painstaking work. It was a magical place. So quiet and remote with beautiful trees all around.

Roll the clock forward a few years and on September 16th 2013, I found myself sat out by the beach under a hot sun with Hyperion — the municipal sewage plant for LA at my back. It was my first day on the job at Heal the Bay and I had come to where it all started. I was part of the crowd of city officials, environmentalists, and citizens come to watch the new Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, dedicate a brand new education center at what I learned is the second largest septic plant in the United States.

Back in 1985 a group of concerned citizens were tired off the endless pollution pouring into Santa Monica bay, killing fish and sickening people. Organized by Dorothy Green, they founded Heal the Bay, which for 28 years has worked tirelessly for clean beaches and water in Southern California.  Their first fight was to stop untreated wastewater from Hyperion being dumped into the bay. They won that battle and many more since then.

Today, the greatest threats to our coastal waters and watersheds, and to all of us – both human and animal – that rely on the ocean for pleasure, income or sustenance, come from urban and stormwater runoff, plastic pollution, and the ever-increasing stresses to our marine environment from over-fishing and climate change.  Together, these threaten to impair the bay and ocean just as untreated wastewater from Hyperion did all those years ago. Unfortunately the solutions are no longer as simple as as a new septic plant. They require us to be thinking and working throughout the watershed and at policies at both the local and state-wide level.

When I need inspiration,  I will return to this day and to Hyperion that brought so many threads together. From the towering redwood to the sewage treatment plant. At their core both are a story of how people stood up to protect places they care about and in the process changed the course of history.

Muir Woods

Plastic Bags Ban: back to the future?

San Francisco led the way, the County of Alameda has done it, Pasadena has done it, Delhli has done it, and now the City of Los Angeles has done it. And it? Banning single-use plastic bags.

plastic bag nightmare 001

History might even show that the plastic bag was a temporary aberration of the late 20th century — perhaps the ultimate symbol of a wasteful time.
Gyre water in jarBy some estimates a trillion of these light but strong bags are produced each and every year. It’s easy to think of them having a short life: from the check-out to your kitchen counter. But for many, there life does not end there. They end up in landfill where they last an eternity. Or worse still, in our waterways where they choke fish on their way to the ocean where they slowly break down in to smaller and smaller parts and make their way out to massive churning mid ocean gyres of polluted water. Pretty nasty stuff, especially if you care about our oceans.

I was curious about the history of these bags. I really can’t remember a time without them. But as with many things it turns out there are a temporary invention — and a Swedish one at that. An ingenious Swede invented the process for making a cheap, light strong and disposable plastic bag in the 1960s. They made their way to the States in the 1970s, finally achieving wide-spread use when they were adopted by Krogers and then Safeway in the 1980s.

I for one won’t miss them. It’s one less question at the check-out stand (paper or plastic….) and even though I now have to buy bags to put my trash in, its a small price to pay.

It also has me wondering what’s next? I remember when milk was delivered to my door in glass bottles on the back of an electric milk-float, the empties collected by the dairy the next morning. Sounds futuristic, but it was actually Britain in the 1970s! It’s time to get back to some of that. Good for the environment and convenient too!

Milk Float Movie