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
Sutkin remembers when she believed that if people knew that Hazard Creek was a stream, they’d treat it with more respect. “We put up signs saying ‘Please don’t dump’ and all that, but they were all tagged. Kids do stuff like that. They might appreciate that we’re trying to restore the stream, and they might think it’s cool. But it’s their stream too, and if we restore it, we have to do it with that in mind.
“It’s a paradox to have this stream in an urbanized area,” she says. “It can’t be a pure stream, wetland habitat sanctuary. It can’t just be a place for clean water and wildlife. There are just too many people passing through, and in a densely populated urban area, open space is contested. We need to work as park designers to make sure we consider who the users are. This will be a compromised design.”
Sutkin estimates that North East Trees and its collaborators need $1 million to begin construction, and $5 million to $10 million to complete the restoration. They also need approval from the county, the city, the Army Corps, and California Fish and Game. And in the end, she worries that the project will fail not on its own merits, but “on forced definitions” of nature.
“The environmental movement has an idea of nature as this pristine thing, and a lot of it is based on the coast,” she complains. “Look how many watershed studies have been done of Malibu Creek. But here, we tried to do an East Los Angeles watershed study, to understand what was happening in all these culverted channels and streams — because they’re not daylighted, it makes it hard to understand where the water-quality problems are — and we had a hard time generating any interest at all.”
There’s certainly more awareness of water issues on L.A.’s Westside and in the Valley, but activists have a hard time there too. On the banks of an intermittent stream in a steep canyon near the eastern edge of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, river-restoration expert Tom Moody is talking to Los Angeles city engineers looking for ways to repair aging bridges, representatives of the Army Corps who insist the corps thinks about stream restoration as much as it does about flood control, and paid environmental activists. Moody’s grandfather devoted his life to damming rivers; Moody has in turn devoted his career to taking them out, and teaching others how to follow his lead. His family history matches the Army Corps’ own evolution: “Fifty years ago,” he says, “all they talked about was flood control. Now it’s habitat, water quality and groundwater recharge.”
Moody is a tall man, with a woodsman’s gray ponytail and beard, and a way of delivering dry information so good-naturedly you mistake it for entertainment. Today he’s teaching what’s known as “stream morphology,” a scientific method to understand the way water works when it runs in a natural channel. But the place where we’ve come to observe what streams do, Devil’s Canyon, is dry when we visit. It’s also harder to reach than anyone anticipated; public routes have been blocked off by heavy machinery grading the slopes in preparation for a housing project. One of the workshop’s participants, Mary Locquvam of the Wetlands Recovery Project, is livid. “These are the headwaters of the Los Angeles River,” she says. “And they’re burying them.”
She takes my notebook and draws me a crude little diagram, a generous half circle, representing the Los Angeles River watershed. She draws lines coming down out of it into another line that runs down its middle. “From Topanga to the Arroyo Seco, they’re all tributaries of the Los Angeles River,” she says. “And we’re still tearing them up, developing on top of them.”
Early last spring, Hall had taken me to see Stone Canyon Creek, a perennial stream that runs out of the Brentwood Hills through the Westwood campus of UCLA. It’s a beautiful sight, a stone-lined brook tumbling through a little woodsy area, hardly noticed by the people who sit in the nearby buildings with their backs to the creek. A few months later, I got a panic-stricken e-mail from her with pictures of large black pipes laid alongside the creek. “Here’s an ominous sight,” she wrote. A developer had bought the property and planned to pipe the stream to complete his backyard landscaping. He had not cleared his plans with any public agency that watches over streams or watersheds; he had only obtained a permit for his plans from Building and Safety. Hall quickly got on the phone and alerted every available agency, and managed to get Jamie Jackson from Fish and Game to call the owner and inform him that he couldn’t culvert the stream without permits from Fish and Game and the Army Corps. But Hall remained worried. Jackson had made it clear that once the permits had been obtained, it would be perfectly legal to bury the stream. Her hopes sank deeper when she learned that the developer had been granted a subdivision permit by the city’s Planning Commission that declared the development would have no impact on the creek. “But then the pipes showed up,” Hall says.