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
A coalition of local residents, including Beverly Hills realtor Jon Douglas, appealed the decision, and on October 4, the Planning Commission heard their complaints. Douglas paid for a scientist to testify that containing the stream with a 6-foot pipe would intensify downstream velocity to the point that it would tear it apart. Paul Herzog of the Ballona Land Trust talked about how culverting more tributaries to Ballona Creek — as Stone Canyon Creek is — would impair already-troubled waters downstream.
But by Herzog’s own estimation, “The person of the day was Jessica Hall.” She couldn’t speak as an employee of the state, only as a citizen, but, Herzog recalls, “She did a little history and went into what would happen in a worst-case scenario — that the downstream stretches of the creek would be ruined.”
In the end, the developer was barred from any activity that might affect the creek — even driveways have to be built as bridges. Stone Canyon Creek was saved.
But even as a handful of local activists protected one stream, other natural waterways still remain embattled. A small perennial stream in West Los Angeles, Kenter Creek, has already had a section diverted so one resident could build a swimming pool. Neighbors are up in arms, but no one seems to be able to stop him. Though springs bubble up to feed its year-round flow and minnows swirl in its step pools, the stream does not exist on county maps. And if no one knows it’s there, no one can protect it.
Last spring, Los Angeles City Council Member Bill Rosendahl filed a motion asking that the Septic Tank Policy Review Task Force, a coalition of several city agencies, including Building and Safety and the Legislative Analyst’s Office, provide “a revised definition of a stream for the City’s regulations which is all inclusive and protective of the City’s diverse watercourses.” Rosendahl also called for a “stream-protection ordinance” of the sort some Northern California cities, including Oakland and Santa Cruz, have already adopted, defining streams, requiring their preservation, and providing funding for the daylighting and restoration.
The possibility makes Hall giddy. “Can you imagine? It would change everything.”
In the same year the Los Angeles Times celebrated the infilling of Sacatela Creek, John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., sons of the renowned landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park, proposed a city plan for Los Angeles that would have kept development out of floodplains and opened hundreds of acres of park space along Ballona Creek. If city planners persisted in their plans to build walls around the city’s rivers, wrote the Olmsteds, creeks like Ballona would “become a very ugly feature in the district, standing empty and dry most of the year; a receptacle for papers and rubbish.”
The Olmsteds were overruled in Los Angeles. But down in Orange County, of all places, their anachronistically progressive ideals were heard.
The headquarters of the Irvine Ranch Water District sits on the former site of a duck-hunting retreat, part of which is now managed by the local chapter of the Audubon Club. If you squint into the horizon, you can spot shiny office complexes a few miles a way, but mostly it feels like summer camp here. Somewhere off in the distance you know there are grocery stores and hospitals and restaurants if you need them, but, as I walk the grounds with Irvine Ranch’s director of environmental affairs, Norris Brandt, all that matters is counting the number of avocets and stilts — black-necked water birds with extremely long red legs — fishing at the center of the marsh.
On the surface, the San Joaquin Marsh, a 320-acre network of wetlands connected by a network of dirt hiking trails and trickling streams, could just be a very nice park where cool birds hang out. But it’s actually an extremely sophisticated water-treatment system that captures flow from the adjacent San Diego Creek, removes many of its toxic substances, and returns it, much improved, back to the creek. The water then flows into Upper Newport Bay and into the ocean.
“Its main purpose is to improve urban runoff,” says Smith. “But it has a nice side benefit in that it provides habitat, and an amenity for the community to come out and enjoy nature, and forget that they’re in a big urban area.” But remnants of what Los Angeles would have been had they prevailed linger in unexpected places.
At Wilmington Park and Nature Preserve, better known as the Wilmington Slough, Hall and I take turns hoisting ourselves over a wrought-iron fence and onto a dirt road. The air smells of methane gas from nearby oil wells, and industrial sounds rumble in the background — trucks beep as they grind into reverse, rusty cranes squeak as they lift pallets from flatbeds to stacks on the ground, engines of various torque and size rev. Homeless encampments line one side of the road.
But if you turn your back on the fence and face inward, face the water and the willows, you could be in a pristine glade where flora and fauna live in perfect balance. Two large turtles bask on a rock in the afternoon sun; scoters, small black water birds with bright white beaks, skim around on the surface. Native primrose grows along the banks near where we stand.
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