I recently asked my oldest son what his favorite part of the Thanksgiving break was. Not the turkey, or pie, or playing in the park. It was playing in the rain during the, “small flood” that came along with the recent pineapple express storm.
There are a number of small creeks in the neighborhood that were flowing as high as I have seen them. Another few hours of rain and they would have burst their banks. We didn’t just watch — we got out there and cleared some culverts of leaves and debris and then stood and watched as the huge puddles drained to the bay. It was the perfect way to learn about how the things we do in our neighborhoods impact the health of the rivers and creeks and ultimately the bay.
The creek is barely contained
turbulent water heads under the shopping center
Full culverts blowing water
barely missing the houses
sheet wash off the school playground
playing in the rain garden
cleaning the storm drain
It was great to see the new Rain Garden in the city of El Cerrito working to collect the water and give it time to infiltrate back into the ground. With forecasts of more intense storms in our future, we’re going to need to build many more rain gardens to keep our neighborhoods safe from flood, to prevent pollution into the bay, and to give our kids new places to play — come rain or shine.
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.