Rivers & Streams
February 15, 2012
The San Fernando Valley is about to get a little greener. Phase II of the Tujunga Wash Ecosystem Restoration project breaks ground next Wednesday. By the time it’s completed, it will have restored ten acres of open space and created a sustainable stream system in the neighborhood of Valley Glen.
The $7 million project is a joint effort by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The area to be restored is 3,000 feet long and 65 feet wide on each side of the wash. The finished section will link two existing “greenbelts”—Phase I of the project and an “original” greenway from the 1970s, forming 13,200 consecutive feet of revitalized land.
For the ecosystem, the project means nesting for migratory birds and a corridor for wildlife movement. Native vegetation will be installed, and the new stream will give local plants a chance to take root. The stream will replenish groundwater and act as a natural filter to urban runoff.
“The goal is to mimic Tujunga Wash in its natural state, but on a smaller scale,” said Richard Gomez, project manager for Department of Public Works.
For humans, the project offers a place to walk, learn and explore. Ornamental gates will mark entry points, a 12-foot-wide path will give pedestrians and bicycles room to meander and educational signage will teach visitors about the local ecosystem and the project itself. Benches and rock wall seating will offer folks a place to rest amid the greenery. Existing chain-link fencing will be replaced with more aesthetically pleasing material.
A ceremonial groundbreaking will take place at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, February 22, at the intersection of Vanowen Street and Fulton Avenue. Speakers include Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Colonel R. Mark Toy and Public Works Director Gail Farber. The public is invited to attend.
The Tujunga Wash feeds into the Los Angeles River in Studio City. In the first half of the 20th century, repeated flooding of the channel caused widespread property damage and even some deaths. As a result, in the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers lined nine miles of it with concrete. This and other human activity had the unintended effect of eliminating the natural habitat of the waterway.
The longterm hope is revitalization of the entire length of the Tujunga Wash, said Gomez. When the current project is completed this fall, that goal will be 3,000 feet closer.
March 31, 2011
When the heavens open, as they did epically last month, the Los Angeles River becomes a roaring, churning testament to urban junk and waste.
With a collection area of nearly 900 square miles, it carries in its rain-swollen waters anything that can be chucked into flood-control channels or pushed down curbside catch basins—sofas, stereos, soccer balls, spray paint cans from taggers, whatever.
Then there’s the trash, layers of plastic bags and Styrofoam mixed with tangled vegetation mowed down by fast moving waters on the river’s channel bottom, where it’s been allowed to grow wild again.
At the end of this mucky 51-mile journey to the sea is Jared Deck of Los Angeles County’s Public Works Department. He oversees a multi-million dollar operation in Long Beach to corral all that junk in a boom unfurled across the river, just north of the Queen Mary and the harbor. Think of it as a goal line stand.
At first, it’s hard not to be caught off guard by Deck’s youthfulness in a bureaucracy in which some guys have been on the job longer than he’s been alive. But then you learn that the 26-year-old is a Hermosa Beach surfer with a unique feel for the value of his job—and those of his colleagues in the Flood Maintenance Division—every time he paddles into the water.
“It’s fulfilling,” Deck says. “My playground is the outdoors so I enjoy doing anything I can to make it better.”
In March, the stakes were historically high for him and the boom, which was first placed across the river 11 years ago as a pilot project. More dammed up debris—460 tons of it—was hauled out of the water than at any time before, tangible evidence of the severity of the March storms. The tonnage included full, uprooted trees. (See video below of the boom in action.)
To be sure, the county, along with its private and government partners, has worked hard to significantly reduce the amount of debris and pollutants flowing into the Los Angeles River from a watershed area of nine million people.
Among other things, county officials have installed 11,000 catch basin screens and other devices in unincorporated areas and have encouraged cities across the region to do the same. They’ve also launched ad campaigns to discourage dumping and educate the public about the relationship between the ocean and what they wash down their driveways.
Still, during the storm season between October and April, all bets are off. Those catch basin inserts, for example, are designed to unlock so greater loads can be accommodated and street flooding can be reduced. And, with as much as 330 million gallons a day flowing through the river, there’s little to do but wait for the debris to hit the boom.
Formerly called the Los Angeles River Trash and Debris Collection System, the boom is operated by a private contractor, Frey Environmental of Newport Beach. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors renewed Frey’s contract for an annual sum of $795,000, with a 66-month maximum of about $4.4 million.
Since Frey first got the business in 2003, Dave Duncan has been there for the company as one its site operation managers. During the past eight years, he says he’s seen it all, including the sad discovery of a 35-year-old woman’s body. “I thought it was a mannequin,” he says.
Duncan says he understands why there’s so much old junk that ends up at the boom, where it’s lifted into dumpsters by cranes with “grab buckets.”
“If you’re on the low end of things, making $8 an hour and you don’t have money to go to the dump, what do you do? You throw it in the channel and hope for the best,” he says.
The experience and continuity that Duncan has brought to the operation gave a sense of confidence to Deck, who, in 2008, was assigned by the county to work directly with the contractor. “Whenever I’m on the site, Dave is always there,” says Deck, who was promoted last fall and now supervises the person who got his old job.
Deck grew up in central Maine—“in the middle of the woods”—and attended an engineering school in Worcester, Mass. Deck says he was quickly recruited by Los Angeles County before hiring freezes ended such efforts.
The recruiter, a Boston native, took him straight to the beach. “I was sold from there,” says Deck, who had learned to surf while studying abroad in Puerto Rico. An avid skier, too, he now lives in a Hermosa Beach apartment.
In his short number of years here, Deck says he’s had a great vantage point for seeing the success of efforts to keep the ocean cleaner by diverting runoff and trapping debris. “When I go surfing,” he says, “the water quality is significantly better…It’s great to see the system functioning and working.”
The boom in action
And here’s something you can do: Join the Friends of the Los Angeles River’s 22nd annual cleanup on Saturday, April 30th, from 9 a.m. to noon. The details are here.
April 6, 2010
Twice in recent summers, Malibu Creek’s fledging population of endangered steelhead have been decimated, leaving the experts baffled and saddened.
In 2006, hundreds of the fish turned yellow and died after a heat wave that was accompanied by a foul-smelling black layer of rotting algae and bacteria in the stream bed. The ooze earned a nickname: Malibu Muck.
By early 2008, the population of juvenile steelhead managed to edge toward 3,000 again, giving biologists hope that the fish were making a strong comeback.
But last year, the die-offs returned with a vengeance. Steelhead, as well as the hardy carp, crayfish and others, died en masse. The Malibu Muck was back, too. This time, the baby steelhead didn’t turn yellow but the population in the creek still plummeted from about 1,300 to just 200 young fish.
In the bad years, “everything was dying,” says conservation biologist Rosi Dagit. “And we really had absolutely no clue why.”
Last week, Dagit and other conservation biologists waded into the creek to look for answers, launching the most comprehensive water quality study ever undertaken in the crucial Santa Monica Mountains watershed.
Standing waist deep in Malibu Creek, Steve Williams and Kevin Jonz carefully slid a high-tech measuring device called a sonde inside a plastic housing and dipped it into the algae-green water. They anchored the two-foot cylinder to the creek bed with a steel fence post and then fastened the contraption to a willow thicket with a stout metal chain.
In all, five sondes were installed—four in Malibu Creek and one in nearby Topanga Creek. The devices will gather six vital measures of water quality every 30 minutes, around the clock, from April to October. The thousands of data points on water temperature, clarity, pH, algae levels, conductivity and oxygen levels will provide scientists with a full view of the changes in water quality over an entire season, from the high flows of spring to the slack low water of late summer and fall.
“The overarching question is what [water quality] factors are causing problems for the steelhead recovery,” says Dagit, a senior conservation biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains and the study’s lead scientist. “If you can find ways to give the fish a chance, then you can grow the population.”
Southern steelhead are sea-going rainbow trout that, like their salmon cousins, return to spawn in the creeks and rivers of their birth. The red-stripped, olive-and-silver fish, which can grow to 35 inches or more, has been in decline since the 1950s and became endangered more than a decade ago.
Thousands of tiny steelhead are born in creeks from San Luis Obispo to Mexico, but few survive to migrate to the Pacific. Today, the total population of adult fish that made it into the ocean off Southern California is estimated at only 500. (A northern subspecies, also endangered, ranges from Central California to Canada.)
If the southern steelhead are to stage a comeback, they’ll need to breed in the deep pools of streams like Malibu Creek, where the young must survive for a couple of years until they’re old enough to head to sea.
Dagit and others believe that the Malibu Muck is at least partially responsible for the carnage. They hope the new study will provide clues to why the muck can be so bad in some years and not in others. At its worst, it’s a carpet of black and white ooze a foot deep in places, coating the entire creek bed. Composed of rotting algae, bacteria and smelling like sulfur, the muck was “ubiquitous” at the time of the die-offs, Dagit says.
Whatever connects the muck to the fish kills, it’s not as simple as the presence of a simple toxin in the water. An earlier chemical analysis of a muck sample turned up nothing that would account for the deaths, says conservation biologist Sandra Albers.
Today, steelhead can only travel two miles upstream, where a dam built in the 1920s blocks their path. So the scientists placed two sondes in the steelhead pools in the lowest parts of the creek. Two more will be placed in similar deep pools above the dam to see if conditions in the lower creek are significantly different. The sonde in Topanga Creek—a stream that also supports a small steelhead population—was placed there as a way to compare its healthier waters with those of Malibu Creek.
Albers and others will download the data every month via handheld devices that plug into the sondes, four of which are on loan from the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project and the other from the Las Virgenes Water District. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office has committed $8,000 to help cover the project’s costs.
No one is expecting a simple fix. But the hope is that scientists can develop a new hypothesis by combining the data with ongoing studies of steelhead counts, algae populations and the proliferation of a tiny invasive pest called the New Zealand mud snail.
Still, the scientists believe they’ll find useful information that will someday allow steelhead to grow up in Malibu Creek once again in significant numbers.
“There are a couple of pieces of the puzzle that we don’t have a handle on,” says fish biologist Carl Demetropoulos, an environmental consultant who volunteers his time to help with the study and fondly remembers catching small steelhead with his dad in Malibu and Topanga in the mid-1960s. “Steelhead are really adaptable and the best hope is that they are already able to come back.”
May 7, 2009
For decades, the Tujunga Wash was little more than an eye-sore, a concrete flood-control channel snaking through Valley subdivisions, a tributary of the equally blighted Los Angeles River. Its one purpose: to move runoff to the ocean.
A stretch of the Tujunga Wash between Vanowen and Oxnard streets in the Third District has now become a model for urban environmentalists, complete with hundreds of new trees and plants, a bike path and a stream that allows rainwater to seep into the aquifer rather than run straight to the sea.
It is, in sum, a beautiful blend of conservation and recreation.
The effort has been so successful that a second greenway project for the Tujunga Wash is now being launched by the Army Corps of Engineers with nearly $4 million in stimulus funds from Washington. Los Angeles County is expected to contribute an additional $1.25 million.
Scheduled for completion in early 2011, it will run from Vanowen to Sherman Way—a 3,000-foot mirror-image extension of the earlier greenway and stream restoration project that Supervisor Yaroslavsky has praised as “a template for the rest of the Los Angeles River.”
The greening of Tujunga Wash is, in fact, just one facet of an ambitious makeover
of the 51-mile-long L.A. River that was adopted in 1996 by the Board of Supervisors and involves a partnership between the city and county of Los Angeles, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and non-profit community groups that have raised money and supplied labor to replant sections of the river. The mission: to protect the river’s flood capabilities while enhancing adjacent communities with parks, recreational opportunities, environmental restoration, economic development and civic pride.
Already, segments of the river—near Griffith Park, for example—have been transformed with popular bike paths and thick natural vegetation that has attracted migratory birds and other wildlife. Some plans call for the removal of concrete along certain sections of the river to restore it to an even more natural state.
Work on the latest segment of the Tujunga Wash, which feeds runoff from Hansen Dam to the L.A. River, is expected to begin in summer, 2010, and be finished in six months. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the project will bring an additional 14 acres of open space and native habitat to the area, as well as extend the stream that was earlier created by the county to cleanse runoff and replenish the aquifer.
“Continuing the work on this project is important to helping restore degraded habitat along the channel, providing nesting opportunities for migratory birds and establishing a corridor for wildlife movements,” said Col. Thomas H. Magness IV, commander of the corps’ Los Angeles District.
The project received federal stimulus dollars, according to Army Corps of Engineer officials, because it’s expected to create an estimated 32 jobs directly related to the work and an additional 55 jobs in industries supplying or supporting the construction, performing operations and maintenance and selling goods and services to the workers and their families.