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DianeBurroughsisa comedy writer. She wrote for TheDrewCareyShowin the ’90s, and she’s now a producer on StillStanding.These days, however, as a small brook babbles from her front yard down through the hills to the nearest thoroughfare a half-mile away, she’s talking less about joke beats and character development than about geological engineering.
“I’m talking seepage and slippage and water tables,” she says, “and 100-year-old springs reactivated by rain that recharged the aquifer. It’s nuts.”
The rivulet has been running since Friday, February 25 — “right after the big rain stopped,” Burroughs says — when she got out of bed in the morning to find a steady pulse of water forcing its way through her living room carpet.
“I thought, oh shit, holy shit, my house is flooded,” Burroughs remembers. “Right away I got out the WetVac and started to suck it up — uselessly. The water just kept coming.”
The flow from beneath Burroughs’ floorboards did not abate with the end of a week of record rainfall. The sandbags she and five friends picked up from the nearby fire station had no effect. As the skies cleared and neighbors patched their leaky roofs and flung open their garage doors to dry the moss off the walls, Burroughs’ stream continued to run. She then realized that she was sitting on something miraculous in this land of imported water and never-ending drought: A brisk, clear natural spring.
Under other circumstances, a free and local source of running water bubbling up from beneath layers of filtering soil and sediment would be a fine thing, but Burroughs’ spring threatened just about everything she owns. She called a storage company to come and pick up all of her furniture and most of her clothes.
“And then I went on a quest,” she says. “I called the DWP, Building and Safety and the Department of Public Works; I called the city’s civil engineers and the park service.”
No one had any answers. Often she’d find that one agency would refer her to another agency, which would then turn around and refer her back to the people she called first. When she contacted the office of her city councilman, Tom LaBonge, and spoke to chief of field operations Rory Fitzpatrick, she claims all he said was, “I’m really sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Fed up, she even called the fire department. “They did come out,” she says. “But all they could say was, ‘Well, this is bad, but there’s worse than you.’ ”
In the days that followed, a trickle of people from the city knocked on the door: “Some guy came from Building and Safety — he didn’t have a first name, he just said, ‘Hi, I’m Sarkessian,’ came in, looked around a little and said, ‘I’m not going to tag your house.’ Then a man and a woman showed up saying they were from the City of Los Angeles, took some pictures and left.” One day, “three or four men in brown shirts — park something, I don’t know, something to do with the park — they looked around the premises, mumbled a few things and left.” Somebody else came by and said they’d have to fly over her property with a helicopter to diagnose the problem. “I said, ‘Okay, let’s see ’em,’ ” she says, and looks up at the sky expectantly.
“It’s all very shady,” Burroughs says, “these city people. They hardly say anything. They won’t tell you anything. There’s not a single city structure in place to address this.”
Burroughs ended up spending 14 hours on the phone, accumulated enough phone numbers to fill several pages in a spiral notebook, and found no one to offer the slightest hint of a solution. Finally, she called a plumber who happened to know a geologist. “He said, ‘Okay, here’s what you do: Find the lowest point in your property. Dig a pit deep enough to sink a barrel. Punch holes in the barrel, put it in the pit, and install a pump in the middle of it so you can run the water out to the street.’ ”
Now, the spring has been diverted around in back and alongside of the house, where it spews out of a blue hose that sticks out from Burroughs’ front-yard rock garden and rushes downhill to the nearest storm drain. When I visited four days after the spring had sprung, I followed the blue hose into the backyard and peered into the ditch, where a pool was still rising steadily, activating the pump each time it nudged the float. If it weren’t causing Burroughs so much grief, it could have been beautiful.
For the record, Fitzpatrick insists he did everything he could to help Burroughs. “I gave her the names of every city department she should call,” he said in a voice mail. “Our council district” — the fourth, which covers much of the Hollywood Hills — “took these rainstorms really hard. We’ve red-tagged homes all over the place. And we’ve visited every single one.”
But Burroughs’ home is habitable, which is what Sarkessian meant to tell her — and all he’s allowed to tell her. “All we can do is determine whether a property is safe to occupy,” says Bob Steinbach, assistant bureau chief at Building and Safety. “Anything else is beyond the scope of our department.” If it isn’t safe, it’s still the owner’s job to get the work done. “Often the owners will look to us to say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ What do they want us to do about it? What’s next is that you hire an engineer.” Which is hard these days, Steinbach acknowledges. “You’ve got springs popping up all over those hills lately, and only so many soil engineers in the L.A. area. They have a lot of work right now.”
Burroughs’ eventually found a retired architect named Aaron Lott who has a plan for diverting the water elsewhere. “I did it for a family up in Brentwood last year,” he says. “I think they did okay in this rainstorm — I should probably check.”
Meanwhile, water continues to pour from Burroughs’ spring. And what’s maybe most astonishing is not that a whole roster of city officials failed to find a way to protect Burroughs’ house — in the end, it isn’t really anyone’s job but hers — but that not one agency in a city in perpetual drought and water wars was running up the hill to find a way to store it. Burroughs is not insensitive to this tragedy. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons of water,” she says, watching her own small curbside rapids head down the storm drain toward the ocean. “These could be magical healing waters. It’s such a waste.”