Top Story: Environment
June 5, 2013
A hotly contested proposal to ban wood burning in Southern California’s iconic beach fire rings appears to be going up in smoke.
An official with the South Coast Air Quality Management District said in an interview on Wednesday that “an alternative proposal” had been developed that would continue to allow bonfires on the region’s beaches so long as certain measures were undertaken by June, 2014, to minimize the known harmful effects of burning wood.
“From our standpoint, we have better and more information than we had two months ago,” said AQMD project manager Tracy Goss. “A one-size-fits-all doesn’t necessarily apply in this case.”
And that’s good news for the popular pits at Dockweiler State Beach, which, under the earlier proposal, would have fallen victim to a dispute flaring 50 miles south, where Newport Beach officials are determined to remove 60 fire rings. Some residents there have complained of respiratory problems and smoke-drenched homes. At Dockweiler, the neighbors include LAX, a sewage treatment plant and an oil refinery, and they’re not complaining.
Restricting fires at Dockweiler for health reasons “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Goss acknowledged, noting that the latest proposal would take a more nuanced beach-by-beach approach based on such things as topography, wind and proximity to homes. Goss declined to provide specifics until the plan’s public release, scheduled for Thursday. Already, the agency has two “public consultation meetings” set for next week on the new proposed amendments to Rule 444, which regulates “open burning.”
Of the national attention the AQMD’s earlier proposal attracted, Goss, a 25-year veteran of the agency, said: “When they make a political cartoon of your issue, that doesn’t happen very often.”
Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director of L.A. County’s Department of Beaches and Harbors, welcomed the news that Dockweiler’s fire pits will likely be spared. “We’re delighted,” she said. But she questioned why they were ever at risk. “On the scale of what’s bad for us,” she said, “fire rings at Dockweiler wouldn’t be the first thing I’d be talking about.”
She said the concrete rings have been there since at least the mid-1970s, when the county began running the beach at the foot of Imperial Highway. As much as 43 percent of Dockweiler’s annual parking revenues, or $570,000, comes from fees after 4 p.m., Silverstrom said—clear evidence of the popularity of the rings. “They provide a low cost recreational opportunity for a diverse population,” she said. “We see it as an access issue.”
So did the staff of the California Coastal Commission when, in February, it recommended denying Newport Beach a permit to remove fire pits that the mayor and city council contended were jeopardizing residents’ health. (Critics accused homeowners of simply trying to discourage undesirable outsiders from flocking to their affluent neighborhood.)
The commission staff stated that the removal of the rings would “deny the public access to this popular form of lower cost public recreation.” It also said the city had failed to demonstrate that the rings were “directly responsible” for health problems.
It was around this time that the AQMD entered the fray at the urging of board chairman William Burke, who also sat on the Coastal Commission—a job from which he’d resign as questions arose in Sacramento over a potential conflict between his positions on two agencies at odds with each other.
More specifically, Burke’s departure came after he said during an AQMD meeting in February that a nighttime aerial picture of the Newport fire rings reminded him of “carpet bombing” in Viet Nam, where he’d served in the armed forces. “This is Viet Nam revisited,” Burke said, but then quickly added: “Now it’s not really that bad because Viet Nam was horrible.”
As the AQMD continued to push for a regional ban, other cities pushed back, most notably Huntington Beach, which said its fire rings were a source of pride and commerce; they help “surf city” reap $1 million annually in parking revenues.
On Tuesday, the city’s community relations officer, Laurie Frymire, appeared before members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “Our fire rings have been enjoyed for more than 60 years by folks from all over,” Frymire said, as she thanked supervisors for passing a motion by Don Knabe, whose 4th District includes Dockweiler Beach. The motion called on the board to oppose any action by the AQMD to ban fire rings region-wide and to leave such decisions to local jurisdictions. The Orange County Board of Supervisors, among other local government bodies, had earlier passed similar measures.
Now, given the shift in position by the AQMD staff, it looks increasingly likely that, at least in L.A. County, fire pits will no longer be a burning issue.
May 9, 2013
When wind-driven flames tore through one of the Santa Monica Mountains’ most scenic canyons last week, hearts sank with visions of another city escape transformed into a smoldering moonscape.
Sycamore Canyon draws thousands of visitors every month with its gorgeous vistas, canopied trees and a network of trails suitable for everyone from strolling couples to hardcore hikers. So the big question was this: exactly how destructive was the fire that ignited near Newbury Park in the inland valley and didn’t stop until it reached the sea at Point Mugu State Park, about 30 miles north of Santa Monica?
Over the past couple of days, some answers—along with new questions—have emerged, as national and state parks experts have hit the charred ground to begin investigating the fallout from the only spring wildfire in anyone’s memory.
What they’ve found might be good news for people eager for a return to the trails but troublesome for the area’s wildlife, especially its birds, now in their prime nesting season. “Normally, with fall fires, that’s not going on,” said fire ecologist Marti Witter of the National Park Service. “There was probably a significant hit to bird populations.”
The rare early timing of the so-called Springs fire also has raised questions about the regenerative resilience of burned trees, which were in their spring growth period and already were challenged by drought conditions. Deciduous trees, such as the sycamores, had yet to begin moving nutrients from their leaves to their trunks, as they do during the late summer and fall months. Those leaves are now scorched or incinerated. At a minimum, experts predict that damaged trees could remain leafless and unsightly for months longer than if the blaze had erupted later in the year during the normal fire season, when subsequent wetter months help force new growth.
“People are going to be looking at a black landscape much longer than they normally would,” said Witter, of the park service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
For now, the public won’t be seeing anything; officials have ordered a two-week closure of the Sycamore Canyon Trail area until an assessment of the potential dangers can be determined. A key player in that process is National Park Service plant ecologist John Tiszler, who, like Witter, also works in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Earlier this week, he toured the popular lower canyon on behalf of Ventura County fire officials.
“Clearly, the vast majority of it burned,” Tiszler said. “I know people are very worried about this but I don’t think there’s any reason to think that a catastrophe has occurred.”
Tiszler said “the fickleness of the winds” had left some spots unscathed as the flames quickly shifted through the broad lower canyon beyond the undamaged Point Mugu campground. Those scattered green zones, he said, could provide refuge for displaced, nesting birds and such ground wildlife as lizards, which park service staffers are attempting to rescue. (Click here for a satellite image of the “burn scar.”)
Tiszler said that, in the lower canyon, he flagged only 15 sycamores and oaks that had the potential to fall along the fire-road trail. Only three or four of them, he said, should be taken down. But in the canyon’s upper, narrower passages, he said, the toll appears worse because of more intense flames and heat.
The staying power of all those affected trees could be tested in the days ahead, Tiszler said, when high winds are expected to whip through the area again. He also said a looser standard will be applied to damaged trees along hiking trails that don’t have gathering areas, where the public might linger and be at greater risk. “If there’s no person, car or picnic table,” he said, “then the potential of being a public hazard is much reduced.”
Tiszler also noted that trees in Sycamore Canyon had withstood a number of blazes over the decades, including the more devastating Green Meadow fire in 1993. “Trees are like alien beings from another planet,” he said. “They are so different from us, the way they heal themselves, what they tolerate.” He said trees can stand strong even with deep hollows burned into their core because their weight is borne by their outer rings.
Like many veteran hikers and naturalists, Ron Webster of the Sierra Club does not view flames as an enemy of Sycamore Canyon’s trails, a good number of which he helped cut years ago. “You know, it’s just fire. The place greens up and then we’re off again,” said Webster, who, at 78, still leads trail crews in the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Be sure to schedule hikes there in the spring. You’ll see wildflower displays like you won’t believe,” Webster said, noting that seeds have long been lying dormant under the deep chaparral that has been burned away.
Witter of the park service said she, too, has learned to put the area’s fires in perspective. A longtime Topanga resident, she remembers the destruction of property—and the uprooting of lives—from the wildfires two decades ago that cut a fiery path from the mountains around her neighborhood to the ocean’s edge in Malibu.
“Seeing all those burned homes, that was emotionally devastating,” Witter recalled. “This fire has changed the landscape, but it should come back.”
April 11, 2013
Earth Day is all over the map, and not just geographically-speaking. Throughout Los Angeles County, diverse groups are building traditions that shape the holiday—and help heal the planet—in a variety of ways.
In fact, Earth Day has gotten so big that the event can’t be limited to one day. The official observance is Monday, April 22, but events are spilling out across the calendar, with many starting this weekend.
Among those getting an early jump is the city of Calabasas, which is sponsoring its Earth Day Celebration/Green Expo on Saturday, April 13, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Tarzana is also an early bird, with Earth Day festivities this Saturday, April 13, that include a free pancake breakfast, an obstacle course, a poster-making contest and other family-oriented fare.
Volunteers can get their hands dirty working on a restoration and cleanup at Malibu Creek State Park on Saturday, April 13. Jerry Emory of the California State Parks Foundation, which is sponsoring the event, noted that such volunteerism helps chip away at $1.4 billion in deferred maintenance stemming from budgetary problems.
For professional environmentalists, Earth Day, regardless of where it falls on the calendar, is a chance to reach a broader audience.
“I think Earth Day is a way to connect people to the fact that this planet is fragile,” said Meredith McCarthy, director of programs for Heal the Bay. “It’s an opportunity, but it’s also scary because there is so much need to repair what has been done to this planet.”
Heal the Bay will host events throughout April to clean up beaches, creeks and neighborhoods. They’re also throwing a two-day educational festival at the Santa Monica Pier on April 20-21. Also on April 20, fellow water-protectors Los Angeles Waterkeeper will hold their second annual Stand-Up for Clean Water Earth Day Festival and Paddleboard Race to lure even more people to the beach.
Then there’s Earth Day Latino, from April 21 to April 22, which seeks to engage audiences with a mix of entertainment and conservation-minded fare.
Latino Earth Day aims to develop a community of new environmental stewards, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velázquez Institute. He and other producers of the event reached out to 10 high schools with an Eco-Intern program, where students performed tasks like analyzing water samples from the L.A. River.
“Our take is that we need to make it meaningful for a community that thought of it as a white, middle class thing,” Gonzalez said. “It’s our holiday, too. You have to promote that in a different way.”
In a class by itself is Topanga Canyon, where environmental consciousness is a way of life. Topanga Earth Day has everything from yoga and a peace ceremony to native planting workshops and dance activism, all set to live musical performances.
“We’re a living example of day-to-day respect and harmony with nature,” said Stephanie Lallouz, who has organized the event for the last 8 years. “We initiate that lifestyle and invite people from the city to see it.”
March 7, 2013
Step away from that gas tank, Southern California commuters, and prepare for a jolt of good news: By this time next year, Los Angeles County will have more than 100 new charging stations for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.
Last month, Metro announced that five park and ride stations would each soon be installing four Level 2 chargers, enough to accommodate about eight vehicles per station at any given time.
Now the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has set the stage for 93 more stations around the county, approving grants and funding this week for public chargers at 40 more sites from the Music Center to county hospitals.
Tom Tindall, director of the county’s Internal Services Department, says the move will not only help shrink the county’s carbon footprint, but also responds to a growing demand among plug-in and EV owners for places to recharge. Though alternative vehicles have been slow to catch on among commuters in some parts of the country, Southern California’s malls and parking garages have been increasingly jammed with drivers of all-electric vehicles known as EVs (the Nissan Leaf, for example) and plug-in hybrids (such as the Chevrolet Volt or Toyota’s plug-in Prius) competing for too few outlets. (Both types of vehicles need to be plugged in, but EVs are strictly electric while plug-ins have a combustion engine as well as a battery that runs on electricity.) Some automotive bloggers are even reporting that “charging congestion” here has begun to replace “range anxiety” as the chief downside of going electric.
“More than a third of the EVs in the United States are registered in California, and over 40 percent of all the plug-in EVs sold in California are registered in Southern California Edison’s territory,” says Tindall. “This will provide charging areas that are convenient for both the public and county employees.”
Marie Nuñez, who oversees parking and fleet operations for ISD, says the new stations will begin opening in August, with the rollout complete by the end of the year. Some of the new stations will replace old and long-since decommissioned chargers at county garages, she says, but most will be new additions capable of charging up to two vehicles at one time. Locations will be released to web sites that list charging locations as they become available.
“We’re going to replace the three old-style chargers at the Music Center,” she says, “and we’re going to put four in at Walt Disney Hall. The county Arboretum and the Department of Public Works will each have three for the public. Lot 10 under Grand Park will get four chargers. The county hospitals will all get two to four chargers each, and the beaches at Marina Del Rey and Playa Del Rey will each get two. There should be enough to charge at least 150 cars at any given time.”
All will be outfitted with standard connections to accommodate the increasing numbers of Volts, Priuses, Leafs and other EVs and plug-ins being used by the public and the county fleet, says Nuñez, adding that 80 percent of the $384,687 cost of purchase and installation will be offset by two grants.
The rest of the outlay will come from existing budgets at participating county departments, which will pay a net cost of $778 per station. Ordinarily, Nuñez adds, commercial chargers cost about $4,000 each.
Nuñez says drivers can expect to be charged a nominal fee to cover the cost of electricity and maintenance, though details are still being worked out. Payment may be by credit card or smart phone, or may follow a subscription model similar to the one Metro is trying. Under that method, an hour of charging costs about $1.
Tindall expects the new stations to be popular with county employees as well as the public. “These are way stations for commuters, too,” he says.
As it is, he laughs, the alternative crowd has been making its needs known: “I’ve seen Volts parked in a couple of garages where people have plugged them in with extension cords.”
January 8, 2013
It has been a mystery now for almost a decade: What’s polluting the water at Topanga State Beach?
Once regarded as one of the cleanest stretches of ocean in Los Angeles County, Topanga fell from grace around 2003, when high bacteria levels sank its water quality score on Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card.
Although cleanup efforts were diligent, testing methods couldn’t pinpoint the source of the problem. Theories abounded. Was it someone’s leaky septic system? Birds and coyotes? Illegal dumping upstream in Topanga Creek?
“We thought it might be the old septic system at the public restrooms,” says Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist for the Santa Monica Mountains Resource Conservation District. “So that was redone and replaced with a state-of-the-art system. Then we thought it might be the old septic systems in the rodeo grounds upstream from the lagoon, so those were removed, too.”
But the problem remained. “We kept taking out potential sources of bacteria,” Dagit says, “and the beach kept getting these high numbers.” Consequently, even though other types of pollution are markedly low at Topanga, the beach has been more or less a regular on Heal the Bay’s official “Beach Bummers” 10-worst-beaches list.
Now Topanga Beach has become the focus of an in-depth study that will seek to finally nail down the reason behind the chronically high levels of total coliform, fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria, which may make swimmers sick.
Piggybacking on a larger statewide look at beach pollution hotspots that began in 2010, the new, two-year look at Topanga, which began in November, will sample water up to twice monthly from as many as 10 locations on Topanga State Beach and along the lower section of the creek that feeds the lagoon there. The samples then will be subjected to rigorous DNA testing.
The study also will examine the connection between tiny invertebrates and nutrient levels in the water, along with why the generally normal bacteria levels in the creek tend to spike when the water hits the lagoon and ocean, says Dagit. There’ll also be an educational component, with opportunities for school children to visit the testing labs at UCLA and learn how to help keep Southern California’s water clean.
The added scrutiny—expected to cost $550,000 during the study’s two years—is being funded through an allocation from the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The Topanga effort is being jointly overseen by UCLA, which is a local lead on the statewide study, and the Resource Conservation District. Dagit, the county’s point-person on the project, says the tests are complex and relatively new.
“You have to collect the samples before sunlight hits the water,” she says, “because the sun makes bacteria go crazy. So we’ve been getting up at night and going down to the water before sun-up. Our last sampling was December 19, and let me tell you, it was cold.”
The tests also are expensive—about $200 per half-gallon water sample—but have come down markedly in cost over the past few years.
Scientists are enthusiastic about the study’s prospects.
“It’s like DNA fingerprinting of bacteria,” says Dagit. “We’ll be able to find out not only whether the source is human or non-human, but if it’s non-human, whether it’s from gulls, dogs, coyotes or horses and whether it came from a direct deposit on the beach, or from gray water or a septic system.”
That’s important, she says, because bacteria from a natural source, such as wildlife, requires a different set of solutions than does bacteria from the feces of pets and humans. “Suppose those bacteria levels are because of a lot of gulls roosting at Topanga Lagoon,” Dagit says. “We don’t want people swimming in water with high bacterial levels, but we don’t want to get rid of the gulls.”
Dagit says that, by this time next year, scientists should have many more clues to the mystery at Topanga Beach.
“It should be pretty amazing,” she says. “We haven’t really had the technology to do this kind of study until now.”
December 6, 2012
The first storm of a Southern California winter can be welcome and even romantic. Not so the aftermath—or as clean-up crews at the beach wryly call it, “The First Flush.”
“Those big storms really clean out the creeks and the catch basins,” says Carlos Zimmerman, assistant chief in the facilities and property maintenance division at the county Department of Beaches & Harbors, and a 33-year employee of the department. “Everything washes down—trees, bushes, firewood, plastic bottles, foam containers. Tons and tons of trash. Dead dogs and cats. Snakes. All kinds of things, you wouldn’t believe it. I saw a BMW come out of Topanga Creek once.”
That’s why, as rainstorms pelted Southern California last weekend, county and municipal crews were hitting the beaches to clean up debris. Their efforts are just one of the ways—from pending litigation to an upcoming Clean Water, Clean Beaches ballot measure—in which runoff will be front and center this winter in Los Angeles County
“Things like education efforts and ordinances against single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers are making inroads, but it’s obviously an extreme problem,” notes Kirsten James, water quality director at Heal the Bay, the environmental advocacy organization.
Debris, she notes, is just the most visible pollution that courses into the ocean after a rainstorm. (This is one reason why health officials recommend staying out of the ocean for 72 hours after a rainstorm.)
“Heavy metals and bacteria are in there as well,” James says. “Some years, [the First Flush] looks like you’re not even in a First World country—more like you’re at a dump than at the beach.”
Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director at Beaches & Harbors, says that county beaches get runoff from more than 200 storm drains, as well as from Ballona Creek, which dumps runoff from miles inland into Santa Monica Bay. Though “trash catchers” installed throughout the system in recent years are intercepting more and more garbage, some still is making it down to the shoreline. Because storm water often continues to flow long after a heavy rainfall, and the debris it carries can churn on the waves for days before being washed up by high tide, the cleanup after a storm usually lasts long after the clouds part.
“That was one of the surprises when I first came to Beaches & Harbors,” says Silverstrom. “I had no idea that there was as much winter work on the beaches as summer work.”
That winter work, done by year-round maintenance crews, can mean anything from tending beach restrooms to piling sandbags to pulling lifeguard towers back from the pounding surf. Kenneth Foreman, chief of the department’s facilities and property maintenance division, says nearly 80 county workers were deployed at a dozen coastal beaches after last weekend’s rain storms, from equipment operators with sand-sanitizing machinery to hand crews who walked the high-tide line, plucking scraps of litter.
The winter crews, he adds, start at 6 a.m. and work every day, rain or shine, including weekends. “We worked Saturday and Sunday, even though it was storming,” he says. “Often by the time the general public hits the beach, they have no idea how dirty it was before they got there.”
There are things the public can do to help limit beach pollution, from proper disposal of motor oil and animal waste to keeping trash out of the storm drains to letting local stormwater coordinators know if flooding occurs in your neighborhood from trash-clogged catch basins.
On a longer-term level, the Board of Supervisors will conduct a January 15 public hearing on whether to seek property owner approval of the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure through a mail-in ballot. The measure, prompted in part by toughened federal clean water standards, would raise $270 million for stormwater projects in Los Angeles County by assessing parcel owners based on the amount of runoff they generate (about $54 a year for a typical single-family residence.)
Meanwhile, cleanup crews will be fighting the good fight on a landscape that, when the storms hit, still too often becomes long on odor and short on scenery. At a Santa Monica city beach near the Pico/Kenter storm drain, a Heal the Bay staffer blogged last Friday morning that the sight and stench were “shocking.”
“I . . . saw runoff flowing fast out onto the Santa Monica beach, carrying along with it strong smells reminiscent of motor oil and gasoline, hundreds of plastic cups, chip bags, soda cans, an unusually high number of tennis balls, plastic bags (some full of pet waste), bits of Styrofoam, bottle caps, and more urban detritus,” blogged interactive campaigns manager Ana Luisa Ahern, who posted some haunting pre-cleanup photos on the organization’s web site.
“It was a saddening and somber sight, to say the least.”
November 14, 2012
Welcome to the dark side, Los Angeles County. This week, the Board of Supervisors officially cracked down on light pollution in the county’s rural areas.
Long awaited by unincorporated communities in the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys and the Santa Monica Mountains, the county’s new “Dark Skies” regulations—approved earlier this year, but delayed to hammer out some technical language—mark the county’s first comprehensive effort to restrict outdoor lighting in sparsely populated parts of the county where the sight of the Milky Way at night is as cherished as ocean views are to beach dwellers.
“One of the primary complaints we get from residents is urbanites coming out into their rural communities and brightening their acreage,” says Bruce Durbin, supervising regional planner for ordinance studies with the county Department of Regional Planning. “People understand that there are natural resources to protect, and even in an urbanized county like Los Angeles, there are still rural areas where people want to live that rural lifestyle, and the night sky is a defining element of that.”
The new regulations, which take effect December 13, create a Rural Outdoor Lighting District that encompasses not only the Santa Monica Mountains and the rural areas in the northern part of the county, but also much of Catalina Island and rural unincorporated areas in the East San Gabriel Valley around Rowland Heights and Diamond Bar. (For a map, click here.)
Within that area, outdoor lights will have to be shielded so the light faces downward and doesn’t “trespass” on neighboring properties, and output will be mostly limited to 400 lumens, or about as bright as a 40-watt incandescent bulb. Most commercial and industrial lights will have to be turned off between 10 p.m. and sunrise, and recreational facilities will be encouraged to use high-pressure sodium or metal halide lamps to keep glare down.
Jails, prisons, probation camps and other such secure facilities will be exempted, as will sites such as marinas, aviation facilities, theme parks and petroleum processing plants, which require security lighting. However, most properties—including the county’s—will be covered, although existing street lights will be dimmed only as they’re replaced.
The goal, Durbin says, is to keep the glare from eclipsing the night sky and confusing the nocturnal wildlife that rely on the dark to find their way. The regulations will also bring uniformity to unincorporated communities, many of which had localized outdoor lighting standards that were vaguely worded or unenforceable.
Property owners will have until June, 2013, to come into compliance, says Durbin, although those who want to get a jump on the new rules can click here for this useful interim guide. Official brochures will be available in January at county field offices, libraries and public information counters at the Department of Public Works and Department of Regional Planning, he adds.
Light “trespassers” will have six months from the date of notification to dim their lights. If a light is too bright for the law, but the glare doesn’t “trespass” onto someone else’s property, the grace period could last for as long as three years, he says.
The regulations will be enforced by county planning and zoning inspectors, who will use photometers to measure light trespass complaints. To file a complaint, residents can contact the Department of Regional Planning Zoning Enforcement at (213) 974-6453 after December 12, or dial the County Helpline 211.
Rural Angelenos applauded the measure.
“If the ordinance works as intended, we’ll keep our night skies and views of the stars, owls and other nocturnal hunters will still be able to find their dinner and some of our neighbors can finally get rid of their bedroom blackout curtains,” says Mary Ellen Strote, a longtime resident of the Santa Monica Mountains.
“A lot of us have been waiting for this ordinance since the 1970s, when people started bringing ‘city’ lighting into the mountains. It’s a real gift to the county’s rural residents.”
August 8, 2012
Lauren Bon planted green rows of corn on a once-forsaken brown field in downtown Los Angeles. She enlisted military veterans to help her cultivate strawberries hydroponically on the V.A. grounds in West L.A. And now she’s preparing to make another big statement—in the form of a massive, working water wheel intended to reconnect Los Angeles with its river, its history and its current environmental realities.
The water wheel is the central element in an ambitious artwork/environmental project to be created next year on a sliver of land beside the Broadway bridge over the L.A. River. The site is right next to the Los Angeles State Historic Park at the edge of Chinatown, where Bon’s “Not a Cornfield” transformed the landscape in 2005.
Drawing on the historic water wheels that dotted Los Angeles from 1854 to 1900, this latest endeavor is being timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Los Angeles Aqueduct—November 5, 2013. The project seems destined to spur new discussion of the landmark moment in Los Angeles history when William Mulholland first watched Owens Valley water transported along the 233-mile aqueduct gush into the San Fernando Valley and famously declared, “There it is. Take it.”
While the aqueduct’s legacy has been seen variously—and often simultaneously—as an environmental tragedy, a monumental rip-off and an essential step in enabling the growth that created modern day Los Angeles, the water wheel project seeks less to judge than to inspire fresh thinking about the future.
“I think it’s really critical for us to take a pause and think about our definition of the city,” Bon says. “My position is that it’s time to look at the next hundred years. This work is about saying we need to do a lot better very quickly with figuring out two things: how to retain our water and how to send the rest of it out to sea cleaner.”
Indeed, the water wheel—to be known by its Spanish name, “LA Noria”—is expected to play a hard-working role that goes well beyond its aesthetics. Powered by the flow of the L.A. River, the turning wheel would lift river water in buckets high above the ground. The lifted water would be filtered, transported via a flume or pipe and used to irrigate the 32-acre state park while the rest rejoins the river on its way to the ocean. The project team estimates the wheel could provide 28 million gallons a year for park irrigation, potentially a $100,000-plus annual savings.
Mark Hanna, an engineer with Geosyntec Consultants who is working on the project, says the river, with 80 cubic feet of water per second flowing through “at the lowest point in the driest season,” is perfectly capable of powering the wheel.
The project to build the 60-foot wheel, with 30 feet visible above ground, is being developed and designed by Bon and her Metabolic Studio, a philanthropic endeavor of the Annenberg Foundation, of which she is a vice president and director. Exact costs aren’t yet known but are expected to reach several million dollars by the time the project is finished.
Building the wheel is one challenge. Navigating the complex maze of official permissions needed to make it a reality is another.
The public affairs lobbying firm Kindel Gagan has been hired to obtain the approvals and permits, and the firm’s Michael Gagan says he’s encouraged by initial meetings with the vast array of agencies involved.
They include the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the land, and the county Department of Public Health, which must issue a permit allowing use of the river water for irrigation. No fewer than four city departments also must sign off on different aspects of the plan—Water and Power, Planning, Building and Safety and the Bureau of Engineering—along with the state parks department, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the county Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Metrolink, whose trains run right past the site regularly, also is an interested party.
The Los Angeles River Cooperation Committee, a joint city-county working group that evaluates upcoming river projects, gave the water wheel its blessing at its July 9 meeting. “We think it’s super-exciting,” said Carol Armstrong, who heads the L.A. River Project Office of the city Bureau of Engineering.
At the moment, the clock is ticking—literally—inside the studio, where an electronic red countdown sign marks off the time remaining until the aqueduct’s 100th anniversary.
Still, Bon doesn’t doubt for a minute that her project will be able to beat the clock.
“It’s gonna happen,” she says.
Bon, who always likes to introduce what she calls a “device of wonder” into her projects, including “Strawberry Flag” at the V.A. and “Not a Cornfield” in the State Historic Park, sees the water wheel as a natural extension of that work. “These aren’t just surprising little projects that are popping up,” she says. The water wheel is “part of three signature projects that all share a definition of the city.”
The wheel also relates to another project currently underway called “Silver and Water.” That expansive, multimedia work-in-progress aims to tell the story about how the “alchemy of photography and Hollywood,” fueled by silver mined in the Inyo ranges and water from the Eastern Sierra, helped create the movies—and Los Angeles itself. One of the project’s elements is a traveling “liminal camera”—basically a massive pinhole camera capable of taking huge photographs—that has been built in a reclaimed container on a flatbed truck.
On a recent day, the liminal camera, which Bon dubs “the largest pocket instamatic camera in the world,” was parked outside the studio, close to where the water wheel would be built.
Inside, another machine, in the form of a working, aluminum prototype of the proposed water wheel, stands ready to make a public debut this week. While the model doesn’t show exactly how the water wheel will function in its final incarnation, it will be Exhibit A at a community open house on Thursday, August 9. The gathering runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Metabolic Studio, 1745 N. Spring St., Los Angeles, with the parking and entrance located off Baker Street.
Even before the open house, Solano Canyon resident Alicia Brown said awareness of the water wheel project is building in the area. “Most of my neighbors, they know. Some have taken it lightly; others are amazed,” says Brown, who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1939.
Brown dropped by Bon’s studio recently with her own tabletop model of the historic water wheel that in the 1850s served her community, not far from where Bon’s project is to be installed. An architecture student built the model and gave it to her years ago; now she thinks it could help inspire the new incarnation. Although it’s likely that the new water wheel will be made of metal, Brown is holding out hope for wood, to more closely replicate the original.
“I’ve always loved this neighborhood so much,” says Brown, a neighborhood activist and history buff who for years has been fascinated by Solano Canyon’s vanished water wheel. “There was one there, and people should know.”
June 14, 2012
Summer is almost here, with news from the coastline: More than 80% of the county’s beaches are clean.
Or are they?
Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, says he views beach grades and report cards as a rough-but-useful guide to a beach’s overall cleanliness and history. Beach grades aren’t same-day evaluations, he notes, and they don’t yet say enough about why a beach’s bacteria level may be elevated.
“Any given beach can be clean on any given day, but these kinds of report cards look at the average,” says Nelsen. “They can tell you if a beach is chronically polluted or typically clean.”
Beach grades are culled from ocean water samples collected from hundreds of coastal locations. In Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Health samples the water weekly at 40 sites between the Ventura County line and the Redondo Beach Pier, plus five sites between April and October at Avalon Beach on Catalina Island.
In addition, the department reviews monitoring results from scores of samples taken by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, the Hyperion water treatment plant and the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.
Those samples are tested for total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococcus bacteria—so-called “indicator” bacteria that signal the presence of agents that can make swimmers sick. The results are compared to state water quality standards and updated each week by the Department of Public Health. Then they are turned into a rolling 30-day online “report card” that grades the water quality at each beach from A to F.
The test results also are shared with Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group that analyzes water quality at hundreds of beaches along the West Coast and posts its own weekly beach-by-beach assessment, as well as a comprehensive annual report published in May.
Surfrider’s Nelsen compares beach grades to “a spelling class, with a bunch of weekly quizzes.”
“You might get an A or a B or even an F on a given week, but if the scores average out to an A at the end of the month or the end of the year, you’re probably doing pretty well.”
This year’s Heal the Bay report had mixed reviews for L.A. County: Some 82% of the county’s beaches had earned dry-weather grades of A or B last year, a 7-point improvement over the prior year. But the county was still below the statewide average, and trouble spots persisted in places like Avalon and Malibu.
The reasons for those scores tend to defy simplification.
Ken Murray, who directs the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Environmental Protection, says the test results, and therefore the grades, are impacted by all sorts of factors—weather, water depth, whether the sample was taken near or far from the mouth of a storm drain, even the number of birds in the area.
Pollution control efforts inland can make a big difference. Malibu’s new Legacy Park, for example, is essentially a grassy, state-of-the-art system for capturing urban runoff. And Murray says a new rainwater harvesting system at Penmar Park in Venice “is really going to help the water quality in the beaches because runoff there is going to be captured and treated—and used to water the Penmar Park golf course—before it can hit the bay.”
Precipitation is also a major factor. A beach that is Grade A in dry weather can be rendered unfit overnight by a heavy rain and the ensuing runoff, and be perfectly swimmable again in less than a week as bad bacteria are dispersed by waves and killed by sunshine.
Long Beach, for instance, was a coastal success story this year, partly because of big projects upstream that diverted runoff, upgraded sewers and reduced the tons of debris that the Los Angeles River dumps out onto its beaches. But city officials noted that part of that sharp improvement—93 percent of the city’s beaches recorded A or B grades on the Heal the Bay scorecard—may also have simply stemmed from a relative lack of rain.
Avalon, meanwhile, has been a chronic low scorer and officials have spent years trying to pin down the reasons. “We had thought the problem was sewage lines around Avalon Harbor,” Murray says. “But they spent millions to repair that, and the bacteria levels are still high.”
More tests—these ones on boats—were similarly inconclusive. Now Avalon’s antiquated sewers are undergoing a new, multi-million-dollar round of repairs, and the city is under a cease-and-desist order from the state to clean up its water. Also, Murray says, a team of UC Irvine researchers is studying Avalon “to give us a new set of eyes.”
Amanda Griesbach, a Heal the Bay water quality scientist, says the science is evolving. Someday, she predicts, beachgoers will be able to tell the cleanliness of the water with a single, same-day dipstick test that will be posted at each beach and may even suggest a pollutant’s origin.
“When that happens—and that’s where the science is heading—it will be awesome,” says Griesbach. “But right now, the existing methods are the best we have.”