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Citizen Forester 

Andy Lipkis speaks for the trees. Now he wants to solve our water problems too.

Thursday, Apr 14 2005
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Page 3 of 3

Work in progress: The Sun ValleyPark and Recreation Centerwill someday be a model ofwater-saving green space.

If Lipkis ever yearned for vindication of his dream to capture L.A.’s rain water, he could not have ordered up better weather than what we’ve received over the past few months, the now-historic winter of 2004–2005. Torrents of water, acre-foot upon acre-foot, have cascaded onto the city’s impermeable asphalt surfaces, backing up storm drains and flooding garages; causing hillsides to slide everywhere from Pacoima to Pomona; littering beaches with garbage flushed from manicured lawns and trash-filled highways 20 miles upstream. The death and destruction has been massive and tragic, but it shouldn’t have been, says Lipkis. “It all comes down to environmental literacy. Were there more literacy about our ecosystem, the loss in dollars and lives would be down to near zero.” He makes such pronouncements with more wonder than judgment; in fact, he talks about everything with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm, as if every sentence were to start with “Can you believe it?” He makes you want to get out and plant trees. It’s possible to see in him the ambitious kid organizing the neighborhood, but it also occurs to me that he would have made a good rabbi — he finds near-spiritual meaning and metaphor in the things most of us dismiss as mundane — like the control panel of his Prius. “Driving a Prius,” he says, gesturing toward the lighted dashboard monitor that tells the driver, among other things, exactly how much gas the car is burning. “It’s living evidence that the technology’s now available to understand each of our contributions to our survival and sustainability, and it gives me tremendous hope to see that concept embodied in a technology as ordinary as a car.” This idea fits perfectly with one of TreePeople’s key missions: “to help people take personal responsibility for the environment.” This is a value that’s been discredited in some environmental circles, where the massive resource-squandering of agriculture and energy companies dwarfs the action of a single person. But a hybrid car, Lipkis insists, reminds us that individuals matter. “Every one of us wants to make a difference,” he says, “but the whole world conspires to tell you that you can’t — the prevailing messages are all about inaction and cynicism. I learned early in my life that not only can you make a difference, you don’t have a choice. You might think that as long as you’re not choosing to do bad, you’re not making things worse. But that’s not true. You’re always making a difference, one way or another, whether you acknowledge it or not.” In a recent experiment at Epson U.K., energy monitors were installed around the office, informing employees exactly how much electricity they were using on the hour. Within a month, company energy consumption dropped 21 percent — without a single lecture or scolding. “We can do the same thing with consumption of fuel and water in homes,” Lipkis says. “I have a very strong belief — and conservatives might embrace this more — that people are well intentioned. If you give them good information and feedback and incentives, they will rapidly choose to make the kinds of changes we need as a society to save ourselves.” The state of California may be divided over many things, but the one thing on which most people agree is that Southern California has managed its water badly. Last fall, the Los Angeles City Council and a coalition of environmentalists and nonprofits, including Mary Nichols (director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and the former California secretary of resources), Heal the Bay and the Natural Resources Defense Council, succeeded in getting a half-million-dollar bond measure on the ballot to reduce polluted stormwater runoff at the beaches. Although Measure O was initially drawn up to comply with EPA requirements for mitigating water pollution as stipulated by the Clean Water Act, many started to envision an epic dream of civil engineering — not just to end runoff but to change the city’s relationship to its natural water. It was approved by 78 percent of Los Angeles voters. The city has yet to distribute the designated funds, but several people involved in drafting the measure have already cited the Sun Valley project as a worthy recipient. Like many local advocates for the environment, Lipkis took the election’s results as a sign that Los Angeles voters have a heightened awareness of the issues. But it’s one thing to punch a hole in your ballot pledging $50 more a year in your property tax (or your neighbor’s) to protect the coast’s fabled beaches, another to make the kind of systemic political and lifestyle changes that would make Los Angeles a truly green city, which despite its star-studded environmental movement, it is not. While Chicago converted its empty lots and aging airstrips back into habitat, and Portland installed water-absorbing bioswales (sloping, gutterlike landscaping designed to catch rainwater) in its shopping-mall parking lots, Los Angeles has barely managed to fix its potholes. While Sacramento and San Francisco have not just a recycling program but countywide composting, Los Angeles has a recycling program that can’t handle the ubiquitous plastic bag. And as all of those cities aggressively adopt solar and wind power as fossil-fuel alternatives, L.A.’s Department of Water and Power still prefers to find its energy in out-of-state coal plants. Two-thirds of Los Angeles remains paved, and 80 percent of its stormwater pours untreated into the ocean. Some environmentalists in Los Angeles hold Lipkis partially responsible for these shortcomings. They say that Lipkis, with all his clout, could have accomplished more if he didn’t so rigorously avoid conflict. It’s felt that his trademark niceness has allowed public agencies to greenwash what they say are feeble efforts to meet clean energy zones. “Andy has received I don’t know how many millions of dollars for various tree plantings,” gripes one local activist, “and he was always eager to show that trees would save energy. The DWP liked working with him, because it’s good to have someone out front saying nice things about you. Yet L.A. has never managed to divest itself of any of its coal-fired power plants, or do anything aggressive in terms of renewables or conservation. Sometimes you wish he’d use all that political capital he’s stored up to confront some of these people. He’s been in bed with people he should not have been in bed with.” Melanie Winter, the outspoken head of the River Project and a stakeholder on both the Sun Valley project and a new watershed retrofit at the Tujunga Wash, puts it more diplomatically. “If a lot of us are frustrated with Andy, it’s because we recognize that he’s the person with the most power and influence on the inside [of city and county politics], and seven years ago he used his influence to really make things change. But we’re way overdue for another paradigm shift,” she says. “I’m a patient person, but I’m not as patient as Andy. I’m surprised more hasn’t been done by now.” In 1990, after 20 years as the ambassador of the urban forest, Lipkis sat back and thought about what TreePeople had accomplished. “I asked the questions, ‘Are we done? Am I happy? What’s it going to take to be done?’ “We started out to save a forest that was being killed by smog, and we realized that we had to clean up the whole city. But there were other things I knew we should be doing, too. Forestry has always been synonymous with watershed management, so I said, ‘I know we’ve been practicing urban forestry. Does that mean we’ve been practicing watershed management, too?’ “The answer was ‘No, but we could be.’ We know that trees can capture water. “Tree planting is not a random act. As I began to drill down, I realized that random tree planting can’t solve all the problems — it doesn’t yield concrete solutions. We needed to practice strategic tree planting. “Trees,” Lipkis likes to say, “are like acupuncture needles. You put them where you need them for healing. And when I thought ‘Could we do watershed management?’ I thought, ‘Yes. But it would require the right trees in the right places.’ ” The next year, in the winter of 1991–1992, a long period of drought ended in a series of storms that brought flash floods and landslides. Ten people died; many of them drowned in flood-control channels. The city suffered billions of dollars in property damage. Then, in the spring of 1992, seven officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted in a Simi Valley court — and parts of the city went up in flames. “We had always realized that ecology meant social ecology,” Lipkis says. “That we needed to protect kids, we needed to create jobs. Sustainability is environmental, social and economic — you don’t get it without those three legs. And I asked myself again: ‘Are we getting the job done?’ Because if we are, then why are there riots? “We weren’t getting the job done in terms of mitigating human pain, economic pain.” Lipkis spent a lot of time in those days driving around in his car, surveying the destruction. He started to calculate what it would take to turn the city around — not in terms of engineering or watershed management, but in terms of harnessing the city’s human potential. Since its inception, the California Conservation Project had sought to involve inner-city kids in its environmental work; TreePeople continued that work, and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps joined them in the 1980s. “We saw kids who’d come through our TreePeople program die from gang violence whom we’d known in the corps. We’d lost some special kids.” That spring, Lipkis read reports that Los Angeles needed 50,000 new jobs for urban youth. After the city settled down, TreePeople put out a joint proposal with the Conservation Corps to provide some of those jobs in tree-planting projects and other environmental work. They asked for $10 million from the forest service, but it wasn’t nearly enough. “We needed a half a billion dollars a year for those 50,000 jobs, and we had no clue where to get it.” Almost concurrently, Lipkis heard that “lo and behold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was going to bring exactly that — a half a billion dollars — to the city for a flood-control project.” It wasn’t a watershed management project, but merely a plan to raise the walls of the Los Angeles River another four feet along a crucial 12-mile stretch, sealing its fate as a storm drain. Local conservationist groups erupted in protest; TreePeople, known as nonconfrontational bridge builders, not angry activists, joined them. “I said ‘That sounds nuts,’ ” Lipkis says. “It won’t create jobs, it creates more pollution and it just gets rid of the water we need so desperately.” Working with other local groups, he came up with an alternate plan, one that would use that half billion dollars to create jobs, and at the same time capture and filter the water. “That’s when I starting thinking more seriously about what trees do: Trees as lungs. Trees as air filters. Trees as cisterns,” Lipkis says, “and I thought, ‘What if we could use technologies that mimic trees?’ ” It would then be possible not just to stop the floods but to capture and reuse the stormwater when water is once again scarce. For every half inch of rain that falls in Los Angeles, Lipkis points out, 3 billion gallons of water could be reclaimed in a system of networked cisterns or tanks. In an average year of rainfall, “we hemorrhaged 72 billion gallons of water.” TreePeople, Heal the Bay and Friends of the L.A. River got the county to do a supplemental environmental impact report to complement the one being generated by the Army Corps in accordance with California’s Environmental Quality Act. “The Army’s partner in all of this was Los Angeles Flood Control,” Lipkis says. “And they weren’t thinking of the city as a watershed.” In the public-comment period that followed the first environmental impact report, TreePeople proposed slowing and sinking the excess water along the river, spreading it across green swales and collecting it in cisterns. “They said, ‘That’s crazy. That’s a huge undertaking.’ “I said, ‘But look at the cost-benefit analysis — that water’s worth something to the DWP.’ “They said, ‘It’s cheaper for us to import it.’ “I went to flood control and said, ‘Cisterns are a better way.’ “They said, ‘It’s cheaper for us to build the high walls.’ ” Lipkis went away and conducted a cost-benefit study of the short-term, single-purpose solution of walling off the river. He compared that with the multipurpose, long-term solution of cisterns — a countywide project that would also provide jobs — and brought his plan to a public meeting. “They said, ‘Don’t bother us about water supply. We don’t care about water supply. It’s not our business.’ Someone from the Army Corps actually stood up and said, ‘The mission of Los Angeles Flood Control and the Army Corps of Engineers has nothing to do with water supply. It’s very simple: It’s to keep water and people apart.’ ” Even some environmentalists have wondered whether Lipkis’ ambitious plan for a networked reservoir of nearly a million cisterns in backyards all over the city is realistic — and whether it would make a dent in the shifting crises of drought and flood. “It’s not physically impossible, it’s not financially impossible,” says UCLA’s Mary Nichols. “But it will take a massive shift in investments.” Only one person at the public meetings that were held back then listened, says Lipkis, and that was County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “No one else believed us.” Lipkis is not known for losing his temper. “People are always looking for his dark side,” says his wife, Kate, “and I’m always telling them he doesn’t have one. He has a genuine pure heart.” But according to Lipkis himself, he lost it that day. “I opened my heart in those meetings. And when you open your heart, it hurts — it’s scary.” Hearing his ideas dismissed and ridiculed, he gathered his troops and left. Carl Blum, who was then deputy director of the Department of Public Works, followed him out. “He said, ‘Andy! You should be happy about this. You’ll have all these concrete walls to plant trees along!’ And I said, ‘Carl, we are not here to decorate your fucking walls. We’ll see you in court.’ ” The next year, TreePeople joined a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Los Angeles River and Heal the Bay against Los Angeles County, alleging that it had violated Article 10 of the state constitution, which prohibits the wasting of the state’s water. It remains the only lawsuit TreePeople has ever been a part of. “Andy has been very careful,” says Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River. “He’s built his organization in a certain way, that it was not to make enemies.” But once Lipkis committed to the suit, says MacAdams, “He was a great partner; he was there full tilt.” The results of the lawsuit were mixed. “We lost the suit in the way that they went ahead and built the walls,” says MacAdams, “but because they kept altering the design to show we were wrong about how much it would cost, the price dropped by $100 million.” The fight that ensued also provoked both the city and the Corps to think differently about watershed management. “It led to the creation of the Los Angeles San Gabriel Watershed Council, and it led to the Corps agreeing to do a study of the watershed — the first time they actually agreed to anything like that. “Which, of course,” MacAdams adds, “being the Corps, they’re still doing years later.” MacAdams realizes now that “we were never going to stop the project — the momentum was too far along when we started.” But because of the three organizations’ efforts, “there’ll never be another project like it. Now all the focus has shifted to getting them to clean up the mess they’ve created over the last 100 years.” But Lipkis, for a change, stayed mad. “The theme that runs through my life is ‘I’ll show you!’ ” says Lipkis. “And that’s what? I thought – I’ll show you. TreePeople joined that lawsuit as environmentalists, but I was there on the merits of the money. And I wondered, ‘When is that money ever going to become available again?’ ” First, he revised his cost-benefit analysis of the problems he wanted to solve. “I figured County Flood Control’s budget was a half billion dollars. Los Angeles city’s water budget is a billion dollars.” Most of that water is purchased from the Metropolitan Water District, which imports it from upstate and the Colorado River. “How much water are we throwing away? “If you figure that half of the water Los Angeles uses is for irrigation, you can estimate that we’re throwing away the equivalent of a half billion dollars — we’re spending a half a billion dollars on throwing water away. There’s got to be 50,000 jobs in that!” Next, he realized that in order to get that half a billion dollars in the right place, he had to get the Department of Public Works to think about water supply and the Department of Water and Power to worry about floods. That was the genesis of the Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability, or T.R.E.E.S., project. With the help of an environmentalist-engineer named Jeff Wallace, TreePeople created a unique software design to instantly calculate the cost-benefit implications of various conservation and redesign scenarios involving several public agencies. “We brought the skeptics. We brought the engineers. We brought in city planners. We went the most conservative route so we weren’t dismissible as dreamers.” T.R.E.E.S.’s first effort was a demonstration project on a single-family home in the Crenshaw District. When it was done, in August of 1998, Lipkis alerted the media that his organization intended to dump thousands of gallons of water from firehoses onto a single-family home in 10 minutes. The media came, and so did representatives of all the key city agencies, from Public Works to Building and Safety. As anticipated, the deluge disappeared into the ground and collected without incident in a cistern installed on the lot. The event made the evening news — and helped convert Public Works’ Carl Blum. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that as more and more people move to L.A. we have to get more water from somewhere,” says Blum, who’s now retired, “and that we don’t have an endless supply in the Colorado River or Northern California. But that was the first time I saw how you could get at that challenge with a single-family home. “Obviously, you’d need several hundred thousand of them to get the job done,” says Blum. “But it was impressive.” The following November, when the first stakeholders on the Sun Valley Watershed Project had their first meeting, it was Carl Blum who organized the proceedings. “If water is retained in the watershed,” he said in his speech, “additional benefits may also be achieved, including water conservation, groundwater recharge, and stormwater pollution reduction.” Suddenly, the DWP, as well as Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors, seemed fully supportive of storm-drain alternatives. T.R.E.E.S., continues Lipkis, “brought an economic sensibility to the conversation. The argument for so long was, ‘Is it the environment or the economy?’ We wanted people to see we could have both.” So far, design teams assembled by T.R.E.E.S. have installed water-caching cisterns under green swales at two local schools, including Broadus Elementary in Pacoima and Open Charter Elementary in Westchester. The unveilings of both projects, as expected, were well-attended by the media. “People have been down on TreePeople because we’ve involved the media a lot,” Lipkis says. “But if Los Angeles needs 10 million trees, how are we going to get them in the ground? What’s needed is to have millions of people planting them.” He points out that planting trees is physically demanding, painstaking work; each person matters, but no one can do it alone. The same goes for large-scale ecological change. To prove what he means, Lipkis picks up a 1,160-page copy of General Accounting Procedures and Practices 2005 and proceeds to tear it to pieces. “Look, you can’t tear 100 pages at once,” he says. “But 20, well that’s a little easier. One at a time, it’s easy. In time, you could tear up the whole book that way.” The San Gabriel Mountains rise up in the distance behind the haze, descending gradually into the San Fernando Valley as we get out of the car at the Sun Valley Park and Recreation Center, site of the watershed project that Lipkis has been talking about. Ground has already been broken on one small segment of the project: two gaping pits that will serve as filtration and storage basins for incoming rainwater. “Water from a whole range of neighborhoods will be collected here,” Lipkis explains, by diverting storm drains. “Over here is going to be a brand new soccer field,” Lipkis says proudly, pointing to a pit already fitted with black filtration devices. “Lighted, so they can play at night.” A group of homeless men have set up an encampment with a shade structure and a small sound system perched on adjacent shopping carts at one of the park’s picnic tables. They watch curiously as we walk across the mucky sod toward the holes in the ground. Although TreePeople is now only one of many stakeholders in the watershed project, none of it would likely have happened without Lipkis and his metaphorical trees. It was Lipkis who promoted the idea of “tree-mimicking technologies” to filter and store water, and Lipkis who promised to send his bilingual “citizen foresters” out into the neighborhood to educate residents in backyard water retention. “It simply would not have achieved its current scope had it not been for Andy’s effort,” says UCLA’s Nichols. “The whole thing is emblematic of a new way of doing business in this county.” Not long after we leave the Sun Valley Park and Recreation Center, on a nondescript stretch of roadway, Lipkis pulls up to a taco stand. He’s never been there before, and I wonder about the wisdom of two vegetarians with only rudimentary Spanish skills ordering burritos from an untested roadside stand. But in a few minutes, two four-dollar burritos come packed with rice, beans, lettuce and creamy avocados. They’re fantastic. I wonder what Lipkis knew about the stand that I didn’t. Then I wonder about the burritos’ Weight Watchers’ point count. “I’ll only eat half,” Lipkis promises, and then tells me a scene he witnessed on a fast-moving street in Van Nuys during a rainstorm in 1992. “Traffic was slowing down and backing up and no one knew why,” he remembers, “and then I saw this man running crazily back and forth on the roadway, waving his arms and shouting. No one could hear what he was saying because of the traffic and the rain, and nobody cared – they just wanted to get going. So finally someone gets out and grabs the man and pulls him into a car, safe and out of the way. Traffic starts moving again – until the people behind the first few cars realize something horrible: The Sepulveda Basin has flooded, the road has been washed out, and the cars in front are trapped. “The man everybody thought was crazy was actually trying to save everybody, and they stopped him.” “Wow,” I say. I notice Lipkis has come down to his last few bites of burrito. “It looks like you’re going to finish that.” I’m done with mine. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll steam some broccoli for dinner.” When he’s done eating, he returns to the story of the flood. “I have to tell you something,” he says. “That story about the man trying to save the cars? It isn’t true.” The incident – 50 cars stranded at the Van Nuys intersection of Burbank and Woodley in February of 1992 – really happened. “But there was no man running around on the road trying to stop people. Cars just went over into the basin.” Lipkis tells the story from time to time because, he says, “it has to do the level of disconnect from nature, and the lack of environmental literacy among urban dwellers.” He added the fictional character “because the other part of the story is that the people who are nature literate, the people who are aware and see the dangers, are almost always judged at first to be crazy, or odd, or threatening. And there were many times before all this happened,” he says, “that I was that man.” Those days would seem to be over. “It’s almost as though the things TreePeople proposes,” MacAdams says, “no matter how preposterous they might have seemed once, aren’t even controversial anymore.” On the way back to the TreePeople offices, Lipkis takes a conference call. On the other end of the line are two local bureaucrats. They aren’t working on a project; it isn’t a negotiation. The city officials merely want his advice. Andy Lipkis has figured out how to make himself heard.

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Reach the writer at judith.lewis@laweekly.com

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