By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“The biggest source of water pollution in California is urban runoff,” says David Beckman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which regularly sues the federal government to enforce its own water-quality laws established under the Clean Water Act. But when it passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act had nothing to say about pollution coursing through the circulatory systems of urban aquifers; it only regulated the water discharged from “point sources” — refineries, sewage-treatment facilities and factories. It was a little like making laws about air pollution and excluding cars. “The Clean Water Act didn’t bring urban runoff into its gamut until the early 1990s,” says Beckman, when Congress updated the law to include storm-water and dry-season runoff pollution. “So the focus of environmental advocates and regulators on the number-one source of the problem is only about 12 years old.”
Actually, focus on the issue by regulators came even later. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California’s Regional Water Quality Control Boards were so reluctant to enforce any rules that in the first 10 years of regulating urban runoff — which the U.S. government did by issuing discharge permits to cities — not a single enforcement action was taken.
“Believe it or not,” Beckman says, “for the first 10 years there was no requirement that said storm water was actually responsible for water quality — it was only procedural.” Authorities might have recommended that you stencil all your storm drains to remind people that what goes in them ends up in the ocean, for instance, but they didn’t hold you accountable if everyone ignored them.
Eventually, however, the EPA came up with its Total Maximum Daily Load program, developed in the days of the Clinton administration. Beckman calls it a “pollution budget,” an agreed-upon limit imposed on certain quantifiable pollutants, such as E. Coli, nitrogen and certain toxic salts. “They gave us an overall macro blueprint for what we were trying to achieve,” Beckman says, just a hint of exultation in his otherwise lawyerly voice. “The groundwork has been laid; the structure is now in place.”
Results, however, are still lagging, in part because the Bush-era EPA has been loath to enforce its own rules until some organization — the NRDC, Santa Monica Baykeeper, Heal the Bay — takes it to court.
“Meanwhile,” says Beckman, “as the country urbanizes and creates more hardscape for water to run off from, this source of pollution has been growing.”
“Forty-five acres of ground, now a waste . . . will be reclaimed for use when this slough, which formerly carried away the waters of Sacatela Creek, is filled in. The live stream of this creek now flows through the Sacatela No. 3 stormdrain, leaving no excuse for the gullies and ravine which now exist.”
—Los Angeles Times, 1930
All that’s left today of the once-perennial Sacatela Creek, which ran from St. George Avenue in Los Feliz through Silver Lake and to Koreatown, is the valley under the Shakespeare Bridge in Franklin Hills, from which its headwaters once bubbled up. At Myra and Fountain avenues in Silver Lake, Sacatela Creek is buried 30 or 40 feet under the surface. Hall has talked to longtime residents of the neighborhood who claim that among the material used to fill in the creek were old Pacific Electric Red Cars from the city’s defunct trolley system.
“We’re driving on the creek right now,” says Hall as we sail down Hoover under the Sunset Boulevard overpass. “I took a friend from the Bay Area around, and we were driving down Sunset, and he said, ‘Every time I go over one of these bridges, I keep expecting to see a creek down there.’ And I say, ‘Ah, well, that’s what it was.’ ”
At the Koreatown intersection of Sixth Street and Mariposa Avenue, toward the end of the Sacatela’s reach, is the Creekside Café. “I spoke to the owners,” Hall says, “and they had no idea why the restaurant had that name. They inherited it. They had no idea there was actually a creek there.”
Much of Sacatela Creek’s fate is a mystery. It’s possible that water still runs under the streets built on top of Sacatela Creek; it’s also possible that the creek has dried up completely. Early descriptions of its flows suggest that springs that would have fed the creek have been capped. And the groundwater level may have run so low that the springs are now dead. What’s not uncertain is why Sacatela Creek suffered the fate it did: In a photograph Hall unearthed from library archives, the intersection of Sixth and Mariposa lies under several feet of water.
And here we get to the principal reason Southern Californians hate water: Back when the Los Angeles River was lined with willows, Watts and Compton were marshland and Inglewood was “coastal prairie” (the reason a major thoroughfare bisecting the city from north to south is called “Prairie”), homes, farms and even people were regularly lost to the water.
Los Angeles used to be a land of catastrophic floods. One of the most devastating was the big flood of 1938, after which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to turn the Los Angeles River into the concrete channel it is today. Most Angelenos who complain about the concrete don’t know how often floods happened here, and not just along the big river’s banks: In 1811, 1815, 1822, 1825, 1832, 1842, 1852, 1858 and 1859, Los Angeles County flooded in various places from its southern reaches to the Santa Monica Mountains; in the winters of 1861-62, 1867-68, 1888-89 and 1914, those floods were disastrous. They ripped up buildings and swept away crops and cattle. They made it possible to sail from San Pedro to Compton, and impossible to travel over ground from Compton to Los Angeles.