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The Lost Streams of Los Angeles 

Uncovering our wet and wild past. Is it safe, or even possible, to let the water flow again?

Wednesday, Nov 8 2006
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Southern Californians hate moisture like cats.

—Carey McWilliams, An Island on Land

A formidable chainlink barricade surrounds the sunken patch of land wedged between the Los Angeles River along the Golden State Freeway and the far side of Griffith Park, just northeast of Hollywood. But Jessica Hall wants in. She shoves her purse through the slight gap between the fence and the pavement, flips around on her back, and inches under. I lift the ragged bottom of the fence to help her, and then follow.

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Inside, we stand over what most people would call a pond of storm-drain runoff, littered along its banks with lids from fast-food drink cups, Styrofoam to-go boxes, plastic grocery bags and silver birthday balloons. It is stinky with stagnant algae.

None of this disturbs Hall, 38, whose hazel eyes seem as large as a fawn’s. “Look!” she says, ignoring the trash and pointing toward a small black-headed bird in the reeds. “It’s a towhee. It’s got a little towhee head.”

Hall views the unimpressive little swamp called North Atwater Creek as an opportunity to return a piece of Los Angeles turf, most of it rigorously engineered against every whim of nature, back to its native state. Here behind the fence, she sees a natural monument, a vestigial trace of something Los Angeles once had and lost: a vibrant network of free-flowing streams that ran through its basin — and may again if Hall gets her way.

It takes a big imagination to think like this, maybe even a few loose screws.

Officially, Hall works for the state’s Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, coordinating efforts to restore the Ballona Creek Watershed. Less officially, she has appointed herself the keeper of Los Angeles County’s small waterway legacy. She isn’t alone in her interest: Mark Abramson, the Stream Team coordinator for beach-quality watchdogs Heal the Bay, has been working with the state park system to dismantle concrete bridges over the Las Virgenes Creek up in Malibu State Park, with the eventual goal of returning steelhead trout to the creek; Los Angeles City Council Member Eric Garcetti speaks proudly of creating functional green spaces such as Bimini Slough near Koreatown; Council Member Ed Reyes has been deeply committed to the idea of bringing back the freshwater marshes around the Los Angeles River, and the environmental group Santa Monica Baykeeper has filed critical lawsuits. But Hall stands apart. She spends nearly all her free time tracking streams — vaulting over walls, sliding down embankments and squeezing through holes in the locked fortresses Los Angeles has constructed around its remaining inland water in search of natural trickles ample enough to deserve the label “creek.” With a short, sturdy frame that seems suited to this work, she tramples like some sort of native creature through the weeds and muck of the wetlands she finds.

Hall, who grew up in the South Bay city of Hawthorne and emerged from Princeton’s architecture program and Cal Poly Pomona’s graduate school as a landscape architect, has become extraordinarily sensitive to the signs of the city’s buried hydrologic pedigree: The dip in a roadway was once most likely a streambed; the long row of sycamores almost certainly lined a creek’s banks. Sometimes she even finds a remnant of a real, live perennial stream, like the one she calls Wonderland Creek, named by her for the street that runs parallel to it.

“Sweet, isn’t it?” she says, her feet planted sideways to keep from sliding into the creek. “I’m sure it’s fed by runoff from the canyon, but there are probably some springs up at the top, maybe buried.”

This trickle of water gurgling its way down toward Laurel Canyon Boulevard does not show up on any U.S. Geological Survey map, nor on any official Los Angeles city or county inventory of water. Like almost all the streams of Los Angeles, Wonderland Creek has been run underground for most of its length. From where we stand, we can see the pipe the water flows into, and one or two properties up, out of our sightlines, is the pipe that feeds the creek. But if you ignore all that and just take in the natural beauty on this slope lined with coast live oaks and curvy sycamores — native, water-loving trees — it might strike you that everything you’ve been taught about the climate of Los Angeles is wrong. We do not live in a desert, after all. We have water. We just covered it up.

“Do you know why there’s sometimes fog at the intersection of Beverly and Rossmore?” Hall asks. “It’s because there’s a perennial creek that runs through the country club there,” she says. “It goes underground beneath Beverly, and comes up again on the other side.”

Hall has found streams in the backyards of Brentwood and Hancock Park mansions, in unkempt parks dotted with oil derricks, in parking lots, and on golf courses and university campuses. She compares what she finds to archival maps and oral histories she digs up in libraries. In her files are several hundred pages of transcribed stories told by people who lived in Southern California when it was still wild and wet. One 1902 federal map shows the Los Angeles basin, a bowl ringed by mountains from the Santa Monicas to the Santa Susanas to the San Gabriels, shot through with thin blue lines — streams — each of them tracing the thin line of a canyon: Benedict, Coldwater, Laurel, Franklin. Hall is on a mission to find the threads of every waterway Los Angeles has systematically buried since the late 19th century.

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