By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
But here’s the really crazy thing. Hall doesn’t just want to find the waterways. She wants nothing less than to unearth these buried urban creeks. In landscape-architect-speak, she wants to “daylight” L.A.’s streams. She wants to recharge the depleted aquifers and dried-up springs. She wants to see Los Angeles once again trickling with water.
“When I was growing up here, the idea that there was any nature at all around me wasn’t even on my mind,” says Hall. “My father is from a rural part of Kentucky, so my childhood experience of nature was from there, or from New Mexico, where my mom was from. I had no experience of nature in Hawthorne, or even Los Angeles. It wasn’t part of my consciousness. How can you ask people to be good stewards of the environment when they have no concept of what’s around them?”
Driving around the city with Hall, you can’t help but notice the landscape. “If you follow the curvy sinuousness of Silver Lake Boulevard, you realize that was a creek,” she says. At the confluence of Silver Lake and Virgil and Temple streets, where you can imagine the intersection of the three roads that flow into it as a lakebed or the swamp it was, she adds, “You can sense by the terrain there was once lots of water coming in here.” At Lafayette Park near downtown, she points to a statue, the woman of water, which commemorates what was once a perennial stream, flanked by tar seeps. A car-rental company now occupies the land over the seeps. Hall cases the fence around the lot for possible ways in; at one point, she threads her fingers through the wire and begins to climb. I note the barbed wire at the top of the fence and suggest we simply walk through the official entrance.
Inside the lot, large scraps of carpet and plywood have been slapped over sticky upwellings of sulfurous tar. “I’ve seen things get stuck in them,” Hall says.
“Like what?” I ask. “Mastodons?”
“No,” she laughs. “Just pigeons.”
Throughout the world, engineers have tried to constrain rivers, freeze them in their paths and contain them in their banks, but no one disappeared creeks more efficiently than the people who built Los Angeles. In many other large cities, free-running creeks are something to construct a little paradise around — the desirable “water features” touted in so many development brochures. Here in Southern California, streams are regarded as a nuisance — ditches in the summertime that flood in heavy rains. We run them underground, pave them over and move them aside to install our pools or build our new housing and construct our retail developments.
“We are absolutely unique in that way,” says Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay. “The rest of the country laughs when they see what we’ve done. For Southern California, a stream seems to be a concrete trapezoidal channel.”
Then again, in those other places, little brooks and big rivers babble and flow pretty much all year round. The streams of Los Angeles, taking a cue from the river they feed into, can’t be trusted to shimmer with water for even half the year. In this land of meteorological mood swings, many creek beds turn to dusty ravines for several months, and then roar to life during winter rains, rising far beyond their banks and sometimes messing with the landscape by carving out new routes. In retribution for their inconstancy, Los Angeles has wiped out 94 percent of its streams, creeks and rivers. And we’re trying to get rid of the rest.
Even as efforts to restore the Los Angeles River have become uncontroversially hip, efforts to divert, channelize and drain the Santa Clara River, just 30 miles north, have accelerated. A housing development along its banks, ironically named Riverpark, will require that the Santa Clara’s banks be stabilized with rock and concrete; a cement mining operation scheduled for the river’s upper reaches will deplete the aquifer that feeds its springs along its only perennial stretch.
This has consequences that go beyond aesthetics. City planners and architects now understand that streams and wetlands are excellent cleaning agents. By slowing, spreading and sinking water before it has a chance to reach the ocean, they allow sunlight and soil to act as a natural water-treatment system: The sun’s ultraviolet light helps kill viruses; soil filters bacteria. Cattails and other wetland plants take up nitrogen and other nutrients.
Had Hall’s beloved streams not been turned into fast-moving concrete channels and storm drains, she argues, Southern California’s beaches would never have suffered from the pollution that blights them today. Instead, the toxic accumulation of our lives — our fertilizer, our dogs’ poop, our plastic wrappers — speeds down our streets and through our storm drains toward the sea, only to wash up on our beaches every rainy winter. It also trickles down to the coasts in the summer and shows up in the depleted aquifers that some municipalities depend on for a fraction of their drinking water. Health officials close beaches in Los Angeles County twice as often as they do anywhere else in the country, and the people who monitor beach water quality increasingly target “dry-weather runoff” as a cause of summertime illnesses among surfers and swimmers.
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