Photos by Tom JohnsonI am the Lorax. I speak for the
I speak for the trees, for the
trees have no tongues.
And I’m asking you, sir, at the
top of my lungs —
he was very upset as he shouted
and puffed —
What’s that THING you’ve made out of
my Truffula tuft?
—Dr. Seuss, The Lorax
High up at the top of Coldwater Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains,
the TreePeople work in yurts, large, round tent-cabins based on a 2,500-year-old
Mongolian design. Wood-plank paths link the yurts, and much like hikers on a
remote trail, everyone who passes on the thoroughfares smiles and says hello.
There is always food somewhere; once a month, there’s a potluck brunch.
“Andy was up here on staff appreciation day last year in his chef’s hat making
pad Thai on a one-burner stove,” says Laurie Kaufman, TreePeople’s director
of public education, about the group’s founder and president, Andy Lipkis. When
there’s coffee on, it’s strong (Lipkis roasts his own beans).
When I visit the headquarters near the end of January, Lipkis has just lost
35 pounds off his short, compact frame.“I tried all the New Age ways of eating,”
he tells me, “but nothing ever worked.” He finally gave into convention and
now uses the Weight Watchers system of counting points for everything he eats.
The science of it thrills him.
“Someone like me, of my height and bone structure, I get 22 points for the day,”
says Lipkis, 50, who has a full head of hair and beard flecked with gray. “A
bagel, an ordinary, plain bagel — do you know how many points that is? Seven!
But if you get the whole-grain Western bagels from Trader Joe’s, those are only
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A young woman comes into the office Lipkis shares with six other staffers and
offers a piece of vegan coffee cake.
“How many points do you think it is?” I ask Lipkis.
“Oh, it’s pretty high fat,” says the woman.
“You put vegetable oil in it?” Lipkis asks.
“Oh, too bad! Next time use fruit-juice concentrate. It cuts the point count
Lipkis does diets the way he does everything else: obsessively, to perfection
and without prejudicial notions about what might be cool or fashionable. He
plants trees with the U.S. Forest Service, plans projects with the Los Angeles
County Department of Public Works and even accepts awards from presidents named
Bush — the first one honored him as the 440th point of light. But through it
all he remains the original unrelenting tree hugger, and every story he tells,
be it about weight loss or individual power, eventually comes back to trees.
“Redwood trees, you know they’re huge — thousands of years old, not vulnerable
to fire,” he says with the same soft-spoken delight he uses behind a podium.
None of his office mates look up as he continues this speech. I wonder how many
times they’ve heard these lines.
“But the redwood seed, when it first germinates,” he goes on, “is tiny. It’s
nearly microscopic; an ant would crush it. And look at what it becomes. The
largest tree in the world.”
Andy Lipkis has been a tree person since childhood. In 1965, when he
was 10 years old, an apple tree in his Baldwin Hills backyard blossomed in the
spring and kept flowering throughout the summer, fall and winter. Young Andy
could not contain the secret. He knew that even in Southern California, where
people sometimes fail to notice distinct seasons, this was an odd phenomenon
and he had to spread the news.
So Andy Lipkis called the newspaper. “[I was] trying to get someone out to come
and see it,” he says. “And I have in my mind the picture of our tree on the
It’s a charming story, but here’s the twist. Lipkis is quick to tell you that
his vision of his apple tree on the front page of the newspaper is just that
— a vision. “I don’t really think it ever happened,” he admits.
It’s one of the few times Lipkis has failed to get his story told. He wrote
his first press release at the age of 12, while working for Eugene McCarthy’s
1968 presidential campaign, and that same year, as a budding environmentalist,
set up a neighborhood recycling center on the sidewalk outside his house with
a friend. In the summer of 1970, three months after the very first Earth Day,
Lipkis joined a leadership program at summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains,
in part to hone his skills as a young organizer. Up in the mountains, a naturalist
told the campers that dirty air was killing the trees. “If something wasn’t
done,” he remembers the naturalist saying, “they’d all be gone in 30 years.”
Lipkis, who had already suffered from the effects of L.A. smog in the days before
air-pollution laws (“If you took a deep breath, your lungs burned,” he remembers,
“and you couldn’t see the mountains for months”), was determined not to let
that happen. He’d found his “personal life mission.”
“There were 12 guys and 12 girls in that program, and together we decided to
take a piece of dead forest and bring it back. We spent three weeks cultivating
a meadow. We took a piece of land in camp that had oil spread on it to keep
the dust down. We tore up four inches of turf and planted smog-resistant trees”
— incense cedars and Jeffrey pine — “and we made life come back.”
Three years after that first tree planting, Lipkis orchestrated an even more
ambitious effort he called the California Conservation Project. He ordered 20,000
sugar-pine seedlings from the California Department of Forestry and got several
summer camps to agree to plant them. But the plan hit a snag: 18-year-old Lipkis
didn’t have the $600 to pay for them, and state law prohibited the forestry
department from giving trees away. Quixotically optimistic, Lipkis did what
he had been doing off and on since he was a child: He alerted the media. An
article in the Los Angeles Times reported on Lipkis soliciting
50-cent contributions for each tree; within three weeks, he’d raised $10,000,
and the forestry department managed after all to donate another 8,000 saplings.
The California Conservation Project had scored its first fully funded mission.
The experience taught Lipkis that if he could inspire the right allies — and
get the media on his side — he could mobilize a force for the benefit of nature.
When you put a living thing in the ground and watch it grow and change the landscape,
you have material proof of the consequences of your actions; when you do it
with 10 other people, you suddenly grasp the meaning of “What if everyone did
After that initial success, however, Lipkis fought his destiny. “I spent
three years in conflict with myself,” he says, “because I had this passion, but
I thought I was a freak. I thought I was meant to grow up and be something professional.”
He did a few semesters of college at Sonoma State, but the drive to plant trees
— and the opportunities to secure funding for his California Conservation Project
— exerted too strong a pull.
Early on, Lipkis and his band of citizen foresters had been dubbed the “tree people”
by the camper volunteers and others who worked with the group; the name stuck
and Lipkis officially changed the group’s name. TreePeople quickly became the
nation’s pre-eminent motivating force in the urban forestry movement, and now
when Lipkis calls the papers, he gets a quick response.
Today he has gotten me to come out and see one of his latest obsessions. But
we are not in a forest or wooded urban park. There is barely a tree to be seen
here in Sun Valley, on the far northeastern edge of the San Fernando Valley,
at first glance a barren landscape of concrete, telephone poles and abandoned
gas stations, pockmarked with spent gravel pits and landfills that receive 80
percent of Los Angeles’ trash. If Westsiders come to this predominantly Latino
neighborhood for anything, it is to visit Sun Valley’s Theodore Payne Native
Plant Nursery on Tuxford Avenue. But they’d be wise to shop on sunny days: Unlike
most of the rest of Los Angeles, where devastating floods were largely eliminated
by a single-minded U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late ’30s and early ’40s,
Sun Valley can still be cut off from the world by too much water. Its miles
of rain-damaged surface streets occasionally collapse into sinkholes, like the
one that swallowed Rory Shaw, the director of L.A.’s emergency sewer repair
division, in February.
“This is a community built without storm drains,” Lipkis tells me as we ride
in his cornflower-blue Prius. “There are homes here built in creeks.”
At Tuxford and San Fernando Road, a bleakly sunken intersection that makes the
papers nearly every time it rains — usually with a car submerged to its windshield
— Lipkis maneuvers his Prius into a U-turn and says, almost apologetically,
“I used to have a joke. I used to say that if 100 dogs urinated here at the
same time, there’d be a flood.”
He’s not joking anymore. Like the proverbial Dutch boy up all night with his finger
in the dike, Lipkis has spent the better part of the last seven years trying to
help fix Sun Valley’s flooding problem with an ambitious flood-management project.
The idea centers on the notion that water in Southern California is an expensive
and precious resource, and if some of the 30 or so inches that fall here in a
wet winter could be filtered and stored for drier months, the watershed system
would eventually save the city money. If it turns out the way he imagines, the
watershed plan will not only drain, filter and store the water that collects in
the streets between the Tujunga Wash and the Burbank Airport but also improve
the living conditions of this chronically neglected community with acres of recreational
green space at the Sun Valley Park and Recreation Center.
Certainly, Lipkis’ project is a far cry from the $42 million storm drain the
Los Angeles County Department of Public Works had in mind just a year before
he turned up. Back then, Sun Valley’s water was scheduled to be disposed of
in the tradition established by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1938: into
the ocean as quickly as possible, ferrying whatever bacteria and trash it picked
up along the way in concrete channels.
The new plan involves years of engineering, large- and small-scale urban forestry
projects and replacing miles of asphalt with “permeable” concrete. The water
will percolate back into the Valley’s cavernous basin, the source of 15 percent
of the city’s water. When all its phases are completed, its budget may top $300
million — six times the original county plan, but with six times the sources
of funding. Says Lipkis, “It’s attracting a lot of resources.”
But what does all this talk of flood management have to do with trees?
The roots of the initiative go back to 1978. It was a particularly heavy rain
season, and TreePeople volunteers went out into the storm-ravaged streets to support
overwhelmed rescue crews. “We organized an army of 900 volunteers,” Lipkis says,
“everybody from ham-radio operators to environmentalists to students and carpenters.
They practically hated each other, but they all managed to work together because
they were saving people’s lives.” They worked for three days in 1978 and returned
for another 10 days in 1980, sandbagging homes, diverting mudslides and coordinating
evacuation efforts. They saved 1,200 homes and acquired a new nickname: the MudPeople.
“[Those days] gave us firsthand experience with flood management,” Lipkis remembers.
“We saw the pain, we saw the loss, we saw the cost management.”
Lipkis began seeing trees as more than smog-clearing, aesthetically pleasing shelter.
“Trees are our superhero multitasking partners in fighting pollution, global warming,
flooding and drought. We have not made pumps powerful enough to move water as
far as they can. And they move it every day. They are water-caching, self-mulching
ecosystems unto themselves.
“If you were to go under a native oak tree like Old Glory and dig,” he says
of the Santa Clarita oak that treesitter John Quigley tried to save a couple
years back, “you would find five feet of highly conditioned soil. That whole
area functions like a tank, like a sponge, like a water-purification system,
like a groundwater-recharge system.”
An oak 100 feet in diameter can store 57,000 gallons of water in one 12-inch
flash flood, or one rainy season. “But you take that tree away,” Lipkis says,
“and many things happen — you lose the mulch, the water all runs off, you have
a flood. You have to build major flood-control systems — major concrete channels.
You’re also robbing that water from our water supply. Instead of recharging,
it carries valuable soil and pollution to the river and to the bay where it
can harm human health, from swimmers to people who eat the fish.
“That one tree,” Lipkis concludes, “is very, very powerful.”
If Lipkis ever yearned for vindication of his dream to capture L.A.’s rain
water, he could not have ordered up better weather than what we’ve received over
the past few months, the now-historic winter of 2004–2005. Torrents of water,
acre-foot upon acre-foot, have cascaded onto the city’s impermeable asphalt surfaces,
backing up storm drains and flooding garages; causing hillsides to slide everywhere
from Pacoima to Pomona; littering beaches with garbage flushed from manicured
lawns and trash-filled highways 20 miles upstream. The death and destruction has
been massive and tragic, but it shouldn’t have been, says Lipkis. “It all comes
down to environmental literacy. Were there more literacy about our ecosystem,
the loss in dollars and lives would be down to near zero.”
He makes such pronouncements with more wonder than judgment; in fact, he talks
about everything with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm, as if every sentence were
to start with “Can you believe it?” He makes you want to get out and plant trees.
It’s possible to see in him the ambitious kid organizing the neighborhood, but
it also occurs to me that he would have made a good rabbi — he finds near-spiritual
meaning and metaphor in the things most of us dismiss as mundane — like the control
panel of his Prius.
“Driving a Prius,” he says, gesturing toward the lighted dashboard monitor that
tells the driver, among other things, exactly how much gas the car is burning.
“It’s living evidence that the technology’s now available to understand each
of our contributions to our survival and sustainability, and it gives me tremendous
hope to see that concept embodied in a technology as ordinary as a car.”
This idea fits perfectly with one of TreePeople’s key missions: “to help people
take personal responsibility for the environment.” This is a value that’s been
discredited in some environmental circles, where the massive resource-squandering
of agriculture and energy companies dwarfs the action of a single person. But
a hybrid car, Lipkis insists, reminds us that individuals matter.
“Every one of us wants to make a difference,” he says, “but the whole world
conspires to tell you that you can’t — the prevailing messages are all about
inaction and cynicism. I learned early in my life that not only can you make
a difference, you don’t have a choice. You might think that as long as you’re
not choosing to do bad, you’re not making things worse. But that’s not true.
You’re always making a difference, one way or another, whether you acknowledge
it or not.”
In a recent experiment at Epson U.K., energy monitors were installed around the
office, informing employees exactly how much electricity they were using on the
hour. Within a month, company energy consumption dropped 21 percent — without
a single lecture or scolding.
“We can do the same thing with consumption of fuel and water in homes,” Lipkis
says. “I have a very strong belief — and conservatives might embrace this more
— that people are well intentioned. If you give them good information and feedback
and incentives, they will rapidly choose to make the kinds of changes we need
as a society to save ourselves.”
The state of California may be divided over many things, but the one thing
on which most people agree is that Southern California has managed its water badly.
Last fall, the Los Angeles City Council and a coalition of environmentalists and
nonprofits, including Mary Nichols (director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment
and the former California secretary of resources), Heal the Bay and the Natural
Resources Defense Council, succeeded in getting a half-million-dollar bond measure
on the ballot to reduce polluted stormwater runoff at the beaches. Although Measure
O was initially drawn up to comply with EPA requirements for mitigating water
pollution as stipulated by the Clean Water Act, many started to envision an epic
dream of civil engineering — not just to end runoff but to change the city’s relationship
to its natural water. It was approved by 78 percent of Los Angeles voters. The
city has yet to distribute the designated funds, but several people involved in
drafting the measure have already cited the Sun Valley project as a worthy recipient.
Like many local advocates for the environment, Lipkis took the election’s results
as a sign that Los Angeles voters have a heightened awareness of the issues.
But it’s one thing to punch a hole in your ballot pledging $50 more a year in
your property tax (or your neighbor’s) to protect the coast’s fabled beaches,
another to make the kind of systemic political and lifestyle changes that would
make Los Angeles a truly green city, which despite its star-studded environmental
movement, it is not. While Chicago converted its empty lots and aging airstrips
back into habitat, and Portland installed water-absorbing bioswales (sloping,
gutterlike landscaping designed to catch rainwater) in its shopping-mall parking
lots, Los Angeles has barely managed to fix its potholes. While Sacramento and
San Francisco have not just a recycling program but countywide composting, Los
Angeles has a recycling program that can’t handle the ubiquitous plastic bag.
And as all of those cities aggressively adopt solar and wind power as fossil-fuel
alternatives, L.A.’s Department of Water and Power still prefers to find its
energy in out-of-state coal plants. Two-thirds of Los Angeles remains paved,
and 80 percent of its stormwater pours untreated into the ocean.
Some environmentalists in Los Angeles hold Lipkis partially responsible for
these shortcomings. They say that Lipkis, with all his clout, could have accomplished
more if he didn’t so rigorously avoid conflict. It’s felt that his trademark
niceness has allowed public agencies to greenwash what they say are feeble efforts
to meet clean energy zones.
“Andy has received I don’t know how many millions of dollars for various tree
plantings,” gripes one local activist, “and he was always eager to show that
trees would save energy. The DWP liked working with him, because it’s good to
have someone out front saying nice things about you. Yet L.A. has never managed
to divest itself of any of its coal-fired power plants, or do anything aggressive
in terms of renewables or conservation. Sometimes you wish he’d use all that
political capital he’s stored up to confront some of these people. He’s been
in bed with people he should not have been in bed with.”
Melanie Winter, the outspoken head of the River Project and a stakeholder
on both the Sun Valley project and a new watershed retrofit at the Tujunga Wash,
puts it more diplomatically. “If a lot of us are frustrated with Andy, it’s
because we recognize that he’s the person with the most power and influence
on the inside [of city and county politics], and seven years ago he used his
influence to really make things change. But we’re way overdue for another paradigm
shift,” she says. “I’m a patient person, but I’m not as patient as Andy. I’m
surprised more hasn’t been done by now.”
In 1990, after 20 years as the ambassador of the urban forest, Lipkis sat
back and thought about what TreePeople had accomplished. “I asked the questions,
‘Are we done? Am I happy? What’s it going to take to be done?’
“We started out to save a forest that was being killed by smog, and we realized
that we had to clean up the whole city. But there were other things I knew we
should be doing, too. Forestry has always been synonymous with watershed management,
so I said, ‘I know we’ve been practicing urban forestry. Does that mean we’ve
been practicing watershed management, too?’
“The answer was ‘No, but we could be.’ We know that trees can capture water.
“Tree planting is not a random act. As I began to drill down, I realized that
random tree planting can’t solve all the problems — it doesn’t yield concrete
solutions. We needed to practice strategic tree planting.
“Trees,” Lipkis likes to say, “are like acupuncture needles. You put them where
you need them for healing. And when I thought ‘Could we do watershed management?’
I thought, ‘Yes. But it would require the right trees in the right places.’
The next year, in the winter of 1991–1992, a long period of drought ended in a
series of storms that brought flash floods and landslides. Ten people died; many
of them drowned in flood-control channels. The city suffered billions of dollars
in property damage. Then, in the spring of 1992, seven officers accused of beating
Rodney King were acquitted in a Simi Valley court — and parts of the city went
up in flames.
“We had always realized that ecology meant social ecology,” Lipkis says. “That
we needed to protect kids, we needed to create jobs. Sustainability is environmental,
social and economic — you don’t get it without those three legs. And I asked
myself again: ‘Are we getting the job done?’ Because if we are, then why are
“We weren’t getting the job done in terms of mitigating human pain, economic
Lipkis spent a lot of time in those days driving around in his car, surveying
the destruction. He started to calculate what it would take to turn the city around
— not in terms of engineering or watershed management, but in terms of harnessing
the city’s human potential. Since its inception, the California Conservation Project
had sought to involve inner-city kids in its environmental work; TreePeople continued
that work, and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps joined them in the 1980s.
“We saw kids who’d come through our TreePeople program die from gang violence
whom we’d known in the corps. We’d lost some special kids.”
That spring, Lipkis read reports that Los Angeles needed 50,000 new jobs for urban
youth. After the city settled down, TreePeople put out a joint proposal with the
Conservation Corps to provide some of those jobs in tree-planting projects and
other environmental work. They asked for $10 million from the forest service,
but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“We needed a half a billion dollars a year for those 50,000 jobs, and we had
no clue where to get it.”
Almost concurrently, Lipkis heard that “lo and behold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
was going to bring exactly that — a half a billion dollars
— to the city for a flood-control project.” It wasn’t a watershed management
project, but merely a plan to raise the walls of the Los Angeles River another
four feet along a crucial 12-mile stretch, sealing its fate as a storm drain.
Local conservationist groups erupted in protest; TreePeople, known as nonconfrontational
bridge builders, not angry activists, joined them.
“I said ‘That sounds nuts,’ ” Lipkis says. “It won’t create jobs, it creates more
pollution and it just gets rid of the water we need so desperately.” Working with
other local groups, he came up with an alternate plan, one that would use that
half billion dollars to create jobs, and at the same time capture and filter the
water. “That’s when I starting thinking more seriously about what trees do: Trees
as lungs. Trees as air filters. Trees as cisterns,” Lipkis says, “and I thought,
‘What if we could use technologies that mimic trees?’ ” It would then be
possible not just to stop the floods but to capture and reuse the stormwater when
water is once again scarce.
For every half inch of rain that falls in Los Angeles, Lipkis points out, 3
billion gallons of water could be reclaimed in a system of networked cisterns
or tanks. In an average year of rainfall, “we hemorrhaged 72 billion gallons
TreePeople, Heal the Bay and Friends of the L.A. River got the county to do
a supplemental environmental impact report to complement the one being generated
by the Army Corps in accordance with California’s Environmental Quality Act.
“The Army’s partner in all of this was Los Angeles Flood Control,” Lipkis says.
“And they weren’t thinking of the city as a watershed.” In the public-comment
period that followed the first environmental impact report, TreePeople proposed
slowing and sinking the excess water along the river, spreading it across green
swales and collecting it in cisterns.
“They said, ‘That’s crazy. That’s a huge undertaking.’
“I said, ‘But look at the cost-benefit analysis — that water’s worth something
to the DWP.’
“They said, ‘It’s cheaper for us to import it.’
“I went to flood control and said, ‘Cisterns are a better way.’
“They said, ‘It’s cheaper for us to build the high walls.’ ”
Lipkis went away and conducted a cost-benefit study of the short-term, single-purpose
solution of walling off the river. He compared that with the multipurpose, long-term
solution of cisterns — a countywide project that would also provide jobs — and
brought his plan to a public meeting.
“They said, ‘Don’t bother us about water supply. We don’t care about water supply.
It’s not our business.’ Someone from the Army Corps actually stood up and said,
‘The mission of Los Angeles Flood Control and the Army Corps of Engineers has
nothing to do with water supply. It’s very simple: It’s to keep water and people
Even some environmentalists have wondered whether Lipkis’ ambitious plan for
a networked reservoir of nearly a million cisterns in backyards all over the
city is realistic — and whether it would make a dent in the shifting crises
of drought and flood.
“It’s not physically impossible, it’s not financially impossible,” says UCLA’s
Mary Nichols. “But it will take a massive shift in investments.”
Only one person at the public meetings that were held back then listened, says
Lipkis, and that was County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
“No one else believed us.”
Lipkis is not known for losing his temper. “People are always looking for his
dark side,” says his wife, Kate, “and I’m always telling them he doesn’t have
one. He has a genuine pure heart.”
But according to Lipkis himself, he lost it that day. “I opened my heart in
those meetings. And when you open your heart, it hurts — it’s scary.” Hearing
his ideas dismissed and ridiculed, he gathered his troops and left.
Carl Blum, who was then deputy director of the Department of Public Works, followed
him out. “He said, ‘Andy! You should be happy about this. You’ll have all these
concrete walls to plant trees along!’ And I said, ‘Carl, we are not here to
decorate your fucking walls. We’ll see you in court.’ ”
The next year, TreePeople joined a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Los Angeles
River and Heal the Bay against Los Angeles County, alleging that it had violated
Article 10 of the state constitution, which prohibits the wasting of the state’s
water. It remains the only lawsuit TreePeople has ever been a part of.
“Andy has been very careful,” says Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the
Los Angeles River. “He’s built his organization in a certain way, that it was
not to make enemies.” But once Lipkis committed to the suit, says MacAdams,
“He was a great partner; he was there full tilt.”
The results of the lawsuit were mixed. “We lost the suit in the way that they
went ahead and built the walls,” says MacAdams, “but because they kept altering
the design to show we were wrong about how much it would cost, the price dropped
by $100 million.” The fight that ensued also provoked both the city and the Corps
to think differently about watershed management. “It led to the creation of the
Los Angeles San Gabriel Watershed Council, and it led to the Corps agreeing to
do a study of the watershed — the first time they actually agreed to anything
“Which, of course,” MacAdams adds, “being the Corps, they’re still doing years
MacAdams realizes now that “we were never going to stop the project — the momentum
was too far along when we started.” But because of the three organizations’
efforts, “there’ll never be another project like it. Now all the focus has shifted
to getting them to clean up the mess they’ve created over the last 100 years.”
But Lipkis, for a change, stayed mad. “The theme that runs through my life is
‘I’ll show you!’ ” says Lipkis. “And that’s what? I thought – I’ll show
you. TreePeople joined that lawsuit as environmentalists, but I was
there on the merits of the money. And I wondered, ‘When is that money
ever going to become available again?’ ”
First, he revised his cost-benefit analysis of the problems he wanted to solve.
“I figured County Flood Control’s budget was a half billion dollars. Los Angeles
city’s water budget is a billion dollars.” Most of that water is purchased from
the Metropolitan Water District, which imports it from upstate and the Colorado
River. “How much water are we throwing away?
“If you figure that half of the water Los Angeles uses is for irrigation, you
can estimate that we’re throwing away the equivalent of a half billion dollars
— we’re spending a half a billion dollars on throwing water away. There’s got
to be 50,000 jobs in that!”
Next, he realized that in order to get that half a billion dollars in the right
place, he had to get the Department of Public Works to think about water supply
and the Department of Water and Power to worry about floods.
That was the genesis of the Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic
Sustainability, or T.R.E.E.S., project. With the help of an environmentalist-engineer
named Jeff Wallace, TreePeople created a unique software design to instantly calculate
the cost-benefit implications of various conservation and redesign scenarios involving
several public agencies.
“We brought the skeptics. We brought the engineers. We brought in city planners.
We went the most conservative route so we weren’t dismissible as dreamers.”
T.R.E.E.S.’s first effort was a demonstration project on a single-family home
in the Crenshaw District. When it was done, in August of 1998, Lipkis alerted
the media that his organization intended to dump thousands of gallons of water
from firehoses onto a single-family home in 10 minutes. The media came, and
so did representatives of all the key city agencies, from Public Works to Building
As anticipated, the deluge disappeared into the ground and collected without incident
in a cistern installed on the lot. The event made the evening news — and helped
convert Public Works’ Carl Blum.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that as more and more people
move to L.A. we have to get more water from somewhere,” says Blum, who’s now
retired, “and that we don’t have an endless supply in the Colorado River or
Northern California. But that was the first time I saw how you could get at
that challenge with a single-family home.
“Obviously, you’d need several hundred thousand of them to get the job done,”
says Blum. “But it was impressive.”
The following November, when the first stakeholders on the Sun Valley Watershed
Project had their first meeting, it was Carl Blum who organized the proceedings.
“If water is retained in the watershed,” he said in his speech, “additional
benefits may also be achieved, including water conservation, groundwater recharge,
and stormwater pollution reduction.” Suddenly, the DWP, as well as Los Angeles
County’s Board of Supervisors, seemed fully supportive of storm-drain alternatives.
T.R.E.E.S., continues Lipkis, “brought an economic sensibility to the conversation.
The argument for so long was, ‘Is it the environment or the economy?’ We wanted
people to see we could have both.”
So far, design teams assembled by T.R.E.E.S. have installed water-caching cisterns
under green swales at two local schools, including Broadus Elementary in Pacoima
and Open Charter Elementary in Westchester. The unveilings of both projects,
as expected, were well-attended by the media.
“People have been down on TreePeople because we’ve involved the media a lot,”
Lipkis says. “But if Los Angeles needs 10 million trees, how are we going to
get them in the ground? What’s needed is to have millions of people planting
He points out that planting trees is physically demanding, painstaking work; each
person matters, but no one can do it alone. The same goes for large-scale ecological
change. To prove what he means, Lipkis picks up a 1,160-page copy of General
Accounting Procedures and Practices 2005 and
proceeds to tear it to pieces. “Look, you can’t tear 100 pages at once,” he says.
“But 20, well that’s a little easier. One at a time, it’s easy. In time, you could
tear up the whole book that way.”
The San Gabriel Mountains rise up in the distance behind the haze, descending
gradually into the San Fernando Valley as we get out of the car at the Sun Valley
Park and Recreation Center, site of the watershed project that Lipkis has been
talking about. Ground has already been broken on one small segment of the project:
two gaping pits that will serve as filtration and storage basins for incoming
“Water from a whole range of neighborhoods will be collected here,” Lipkis explains,
by diverting storm drains. “Over here is going to be a brand new soccer field,”
Lipkis says proudly, pointing to a pit already fitted with black filtration
devices. “Lighted, so they can play at night.”
A group of homeless men have set up an encampment with a shade structure and
a small sound system perched on adjacent shopping carts at one of the park’s
picnic tables. They watch curiously as we walk across the mucky sod toward the
holes in the ground.
Although TreePeople is now only one of many stakeholders in the watershed project,
none of it would likely have happened without Lipkis and his metaphorical trees.
It was Lipkis who promoted the idea of “tree-mimicking technologies” to filter
and store water, and Lipkis who promised to send his bilingual “citizen foresters”
out into the neighborhood to educate residents in backyard water retention.
“It simply would not have achieved its current scope had it not been for Andy’s
effort,” says UCLA’s Nichols. “The whole thing is emblematic of a new way of
doing business in this county.”
Not long after we leave the Sun Valley Park and Recreation Center, on a nondescript
stretch of roadway, Lipkis pulls up to a taco stand. He’s never been there before,
and I wonder about the wisdom of two vegetarians with only rudimentary Spanish
skills ordering burritos from an untested roadside stand. But in a few minutes,
two four-dollar burritos come packed with rice, beans, lettuce and creamy avocados.
I wonder what Lipkis knew about the stand that I didn’t. Then I wonder about
the burritos’ Weight Watchers’ point count.
“I’ll only eat half,” Lipkis promises, and then tells me a scene he witnessed
on a fast-moving street in Van Nuys during a rainstorm in 1992.
“Traffic was slowing down and backing up and no one knew why,” he remembers,
“and then I saw this man running crazily back and forth on the roadway, waving
his arms and shouting. No one could hear what he was saying because of the traffic
and the rain, and nobody cared – they just wanted to get going. So finally someone
gets out and grabs the man and pulls him into a car, safe and out of the way.
Traffic starts moving again – until the people behind the first few cars realize
something horrible: The Sepulveda Basin has flooded, the road has been washed
out, and the cars in front are trapped.
“The man everybody thought was crazy was actually trying to save everybody,
and they stopped him.”
“Wow,” I say. I notice Lipkis has come down to his last few bites of burrito.
“It looks like you’re going to finish that.” I’m done with mine.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll steam some broccoli for dinner.”
When he’s done eating, he returns to the story of the flood.
“I have to tell you something,” he says. “That story about the man trying to
save the cars? It isn’t true.”
The incident – 50 cars stranded at the Van Nuys intersection of Burbank and
Woodley in February of 1992 – really happened. “But there was no man running
around on the road trying to stop people. Cars just went over into the basin.”
Lipkis tells the story from time to time because, he says, “it has to do the
level of disconnect from nature, and the lack of environmental literacy among
urban dwellers.” He added the fictional character “because the other part of
the story is that the people who are nature literate, the people who are aware
and see the dangers, are almost always judged at first to be crazy, or odd,
or threatening. And there were many times before all this happened,” he says,
“that I was that man.”
Those days would seem to be over. “It’s almost as though the things TreePeople
proposes,” MacAdams says, “no matter how preposterous they might have seemed
once, aren’t even controversial anymore.”
On the way back to the TreePeople offices, Lipkis takes a conference call. On
the other end of the line are two local bureaucrats. They aren’t working on
a project; it isn’t a negotiation. The city officials merely want his advice.
Andy Lipkis has figured out how to make himself heard.