L.A. activists try to stop woodlands from becoming sediment dumps

  • Oak woodland in Arcadia, California.

    Joshua Link, ecotonesudios
  • Los Angeles County's Santa Anita Sediment Placement Site slopes into the concrete channel of Santa Anita Wash in Arcadia, California.

    Joshua Link, ecotonesudios
  • St. Francis Dam (colorized) after its catastrophic failure in 1928 resulted in flooding that killed more than 450 people.

    Pony Horton
  • Giant stumps from the Arcadia Woodlands that were knocked down to make room for sediment from the Santa Anita Dam

    Emily Green
  • Camron Stone last month in front of a watershed map at the L.A. County Department of Public Works, where the Flood Control District had just released its strategic plan showing sediment outpacing dump capacity over the next 20 years.

    Emily Green
  • The Santa Anita Creek Wash, remade by the L.A. County Flood Control District last winter. To the right (west) is Camron Stone's neighborhood, with its 1950s houses which were marketed highlighting their proximity to the noble oaks of Arcadia. In the background, Arcadia and the L.A. Basin.

    Emily Green
 

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Watching Daryl Hannah pack up climbing equipment -- including funnels that enable tree-sitters to pee into bottles when aloft -- is not the way that most men fantasize about meeting the star of Splash. Yet on the night of Jan. 11, 2011, sitting in his living room, Stone was doing just that. "It was surreal," he said. He was sleepless. Desolation vied with panic. Emails from the campaigners he'd roused flashed across his computer. Every legal option to save the oaks had run out. Then Hannah came to Arcadia to support Stone's cause, along with California's most famous tree-sitter, John Quigley.

Hannah and Quigley were experienced tree-sitters. In 2004, it took officials two and a half months to pry Quigley out of a 400-year-old oak targeted by a road-widening project in north Los Angeles County. Both activists made headlines in 2006, occupying an old almond tree in a South Los Angeles community garden that had been condemned. Climbing with Quigley would be three recruits, Julia Jaye Posin, Travis Jochimsen and Andrea Bowers. Hannah would protest from the gate.

They slipped onto the Flood Control site under cover of darkness. Months later, recounting the events of Jan. 12, Bowers described the depth and softness of the leaf litter beneath her feet as she hoisted herself into an oak. "I had thought of a lot of scenarios of what might happen," she continued, "but them leaving us in those trees and tearing down the trees all around us with big quad bulldozers wasn't one of them." That is exactly what happened, however, when Flood Control workers moved in at daybreak. "The guy operating the machine took the wrong angle on a sycamore tree," said Quigley. "As the tree started to buckle, it was buckling into us." Yelling, he scrambled to the top of their oak to signal hovering news choppers. "Finally, the guy suddenly understood that he was about to kill us, so he backed off."

The woodland's wildlife received no such reprieve. While Flood Control made good on a promise to have a biologist present for the razing, none of the elaborate plans in the environmental impact report to conduct preliminary wildlife evacuation or fencing had been carried out. "There was tons of stuff running up and down the tree," Bowers said. Squirrels leapt from boughs. Clouds of chittering bushtits moved from tree to tree. Sun-blinded bats circled among crashing boughs. By dusk, their roosts were gone. A Search and Rescue team in a cherry-picker removed the tree sitters, who were promptly arrested. As the felled oaks began disappearing into chippers, the tree-sitters were hauled off to jail.

After being charged with criminal trespassing, the "Arcadia Four" were released on bail. Two weeks later, Public Works sent a letter to the county sheriff's office demanding $2,639.69 from the tree-sitters to cover the cost of staff needed to "ensure safety for tree activists and possibly other activists who may have been hiding in the bushes."

Camron Stone didn't hide in the bushes. He didn't go down to the wash at all that day. "I couldn't stand it," he said. Only that evening did he venture out to the locked gate near Highland Oaks Drive. There, he took part in a candlelight vigil.

Where, you might ask at this juncture, were the firebrands whose activism supposedly put California at the vanguard of environmentalism? The short answer is: ignored, unaware, dead or co-opted by Flood Control's parent agency, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. The region's leading watershed warrior, Dorothy Green, had lost a long battle with cancer in 2008. While the U.S. Geological Survey warned of the potential for catastrophic mudslides after a massive wildfire swept through the Angeles National Forest in 2009, exceptionally mild rains that winter failed to produce them. Complacency had set in. The more Flood Control actually controlled floods, the less people thought about it.

As for the threat posed by Flood Control's tendency to see woodlands as a dumping grounds for sediment, a local pillar of the Audubon Society, Mike San Miguel, had begun to take on the Santa Anita oaks battle when he died in an accident in the summer of 2010. His colleagues didn't learn about the proposed dumping until it was too late, said Pasadena Audubon's Laura Garrett.

If the coalition of county-funded arborists then at work on the first Oak Woodlands Conservation Management Plan knew about the dumping plans, it was largely mute until a few members eventually joined Camron Stone's ranks. The single organization whose purview most squarely included dams and rivers was the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, recently re-branded as the Council for Watershed Health. It had been aware of the backlog of debris and the quandary about where to put it, confirmed its executive director, Nancy Steele, in early January 2011. But her hands were tied when it came to protesting. The watershed council's mission was "strictly scientific," she said. Critics also noted that its board of directors included some representatives of local water companies and the county Department of Public Works, all of whom were pressing for fast dam cleanouts.

So it took building contractor Camron Stone to sound the alarm for what sediment dumping was doing to the Los Angeles foothills. To stop more bulldozers, Stone and his allies created the "Urbanwild Network." Their strategy was simple: Everywhere Flood Control went, they would go, too. "They took something away from me that was very precious," Stone said. "That got me really angry. My goal is to change the culture at the Department of Public Works."

In one early victory, in February 2011, Urbanwilders forced Flood Control engineers into a new two-year environmental review for one dam cleanout, on the grounds that willows sprouting from the sediment choking Pasadena's Devil's Gate Dam provided waterfowl habitat.

By April, freshly radicalized and newly media-savvy, Stone was giving an interview to the Pasadena Star News with Quigley, Hannah and actor-activist Ed Begley Jr., arguing that "local people do care about the wildlands in their back yards that are disappearing at an incredible rate." The next oak woodland in the path of Flood Control's bulldozers lay west of Arcadia in La Tuna Canyon, west of where the San Gabriel Valley gives way to the San Fernando Valley.

Asked for an impartial assessment of what was at risk, Bart O'Brien, a Southern California native plant expert, led a tour through La Tuna Canyon in June 2011. Just 500 yards into the sheltered lowlands, in the midst of reeling off plant names, O'Brien nearly shrieked. "A Humboldt lily! We've gone hardly anywhere, and we're finding this plant that many people take ages to find." As O'Brien sees it, it's essential to preserve these riparian, low-lying oak woodlands, not only for their biodiversity and value as wildlife habitat, but because of the unique adaptations made by the plants that live in them. "When you think about gene pools, if you take out all the plants on flat lands, what do you think you've done?" he asked.

Throughout 2011, faced with a groundswell of protest driven by Stone, the Los Angeles County Supervisors organized yet more outreach from Flood Control. Anyone interested was invited to come to its headquarters south of Pasadena for meetings of the Sediment Management Strategic Plan Task Force. The agency had already had sediment-control plans under way, said Flood Control spokesman Bob Spencer, but for the engineers involved, these politically mandated open sessions were as welcome as the prospect of finding women at the urinal in a Suffragette-era saloon. Outrage over the loss of the Arcadia woodland ran so high at the first meeting in January that by the second one in April, chastened Flood Control officials announced that they had taken La Tuna Canyon's oaks off the list for immediate demolition.

Yet as the meetings progressed, even oak lovers began to understand the problems involved in disposing of the sediment stacked up in Flood Control's network of dams and debris basins. Most had read John McPhee's writings about Southern California's fire and mudslide cycle. The new wrinkle was that until Aug. 26, 2009, when an arsonist in the San Gabriel foothills started what became the biggest wildfire in Los Angeles history, nobody had thought of mud in quite such vast and dangerous quantities. After the Station Fire left more than 160,000 acres charred, Flood Control Engineer Christopher Stone (no relation to Camron) reckoned that rains would send 20 million cubic yards of sediment downhill. As Flood Control translates it for laymen, that's the amount of space it would take to stack 20 million washing machines. McPhee never put the sheer load of mountain debris building up around the basin in terms quite so comprehensible to the average homeowner. Yet citizens at the Flood Control sediment management meetings were full of ideas. Truck it to the beach! Use it as landfill cover! Dump it in retired mining pits! Sell it as decomposed granite to landscaping companies!
Subscriber
May 14, 2012 05:37 PM
HCN you have done us all a great service publishing a very important story about the oak woodland and the sediment dump. I consider myself a member of the "environmental" community in southern California, and I am a avid HCN reader. It is good to see a piece focused, not only on southern California, but actually zeroed in on the belly of the beast... L.A. The cover story at that! Emily Green is a superb writer and her treatment of the history of land use, policy, real estate development, and population explosion, as they relate to our ecology, climate, weather, and mind-set was truly enlightening.

This story was all the buzz when the bull dozers were a-rollin', but no one gave it the perspective you did over a year later, with the narrative explaining how it is we got 10 million people to fit at the base of erosive mountains, and the after-story... where to go from here. How do we deal with a flawed old plan, based on our new values?

Yours is the first, and to my knowledge the only, big-picture piece on this. Once again HCN provides excellent journalism coming technically as an "out-of-town" outfit, (and by the way, there's no shortage on news outlets in L.A.), but right on the mark for evocative accuracy. Congratulations.

Of course we're talking about much more than a few acres of old oaks & sycamores. Ms. Green put real people, emotions, even motives into the story. Great symbolism as well... all you planners, advocates, thinkers, students of policy and environment, take heed of what's' going down in L.A. Stuff happens pretty fast out here.

I will definitely be pointing many people to this article, and for some of them it will be their first glimpse at HCN. Keep up the good work and thank you.

Mike Evans
Tree of Life Nursery
San Juan Capistrano, CA
garry george
garry george
May 15, 2012 09:19 AM
This is a great article by Southern California's best writer on the ongoing complicated disconnect between our unique natural ecology and our desire to control it. She doesn't just see the issue as dams versus trees, but weaves humans and their actions into an ecology that includes soils, flowers, leaves, roots, bats and birds and a history of the growth of our region. Think Chinatown written by E.O. Wilson. My takeaway is that activism is best served early before the decisions are made, and we can't assume anything around us is protected until we see it in writing.
Cynthia Barnett
Cynthia Barnett
May 15, 2012 12:31 PM
Only western water journalist Emily Green could explain the sediment dumps of Los Angeles with flair & show readers so clearly & irrefutably the ecological and human impacts of our paved rivers, bulldozed lands, reliance on storm drains. She's right up there with John McPhee in her ability to uncrack the codes of compliance and engineering and show us what they have really wrought. Good for you, High Country News, for supporting this depth. Pls hire her to dig into Cadiz next.
Joshua Link
Joshua Link
May 17, 2012 11:08 PM
By publishing such an indispensable, comprehensive account of an issue that has been all but forgotten by local news organizations, HCN has filled a critical role in keeping an accurate narrative of the sediment management issue in Los Angeles alive and well. As Emily Green has so eloquently explained, despite its hardened reputation, L.A. still has wild places worth fighting for. This overdeveloped, resource-hogging, behemoth of a metropolis has lessons to share and many to learn from its Western neighbors. Thank you HCN for including us in the conversation and thank you Emily Green for yet another compelling piece.

Joshua Link
Los Angeles
Jessica Hall
Jessica Hall Subscriber
May 27, 2012 10:09 AM
I'm really grateful to HCN and Emily Green for this thoughtful piece. This round of the sediment management plan won't provide a sustainable solution to the problem - but now is a good time to make the case for long-term solutions, and for that we're going to have to rethink the flood control system, or rather, remember it as a functioning riparian ecosystem - and find some managed middle ground that lets gravity do its emissions-less and free work of moving sediment downstream, and regain the attendant benefits of a natural or at least semi-natural stream (a nice place to hang out! aquifer recharge! fish! improved water quality!). There are channelized reaches of rivers and streams that maintain basic riparian functions already around (Glendale Narrows/LA River, San Jose Creek, Las Virgenes Creek to name a few) demonstrating that we can do it technically. Enough people are going to have to understand and see the relevance of this to LA's sustainability (the key: water resources) for it to gain traction politically.
Emily Green
Emily Green
May 27, 2012 12:22 PM
To follow the inch-by-inch struggle to restore LA's waterways, please check out Jessica Hall's and Joshua Link's website LA Creek Freak.

http://lacreekfreak.wordpress.com/

Whereas I took a deep breath to do a big piece, Jessica and Josh have followed this issue blow by blow, in real time, for years. I recall from one of their posts the wonderful headline "It's sedimentary, my dear." Hall is such a basic source that she was the first person I called when considering taking on this story.

To appreciate the monumental challenge any environment writer or activist bloggers such as Hall and Link face in getting Los Angeles to consider restoring at least some flood plain function to the flood plain, it helps to know that due to the inversion layer and LA's famous smog, on most days, most Angelenos can't even see the mountains surrounding their basin. This even though the distance from Los Angeles Harbor to LA River headwaters in the Rio Hondo tributaries is only 40 miles. Fewer still of LA County's 10 million and counting are aware that LA even has rivers, albeit radically altered ones. The channels are rarely glimpsed from freeway overpasses and downtown bridges. Is the woodland/river/sediment cause a winnable battle? Ultimately, the mountains will prevail but at what cost and when are by no means clear. It does not look good. But the only uncynical act is to hope that LA County and 88 cities on the flood plain work with landscape ecologists such as Hall and Link to make LA's lost rivers an ecologically functional and beneficial amenity rather than hopeless menace whose backlog will turn the foothills and National Forest into an ever-increasing network of sediment dumps.
Kent Lucas
Kent Lucas Subscriber
May 31, 2012 07:46 PM
Wow, this is some outstanding reporting. I was unaware of this dilemma facing Los Angeles. Nice job HCN and Emily Green. HCN is an invaluable resource.
Emily Green
Emily Green
May 31, 2012 08:03 PM
The Arroyo Seco Foundation, led by former Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Chairman Tim Brick, today issued comments on the draft strategic sediment management plan that

A) appears to have forced LA County to extend the comment period on the plan for another 90 days and

B) argues that "Sediment is not a waste product that should simply be disposed of, yet that is the approach taken by the Strategic Plan. Neither is storm water, another neglected resource. Six hundred thousand acre feet of storm water each year flow to the ocean from Los Angeles County, an invaluable resource that we need to better utilize. The management of the dams, debris basins and flood channels in Los Angeles County is critical to recovering some portion of that storm water."

When Tim Brick thunders, it should rain. He knows his H2O better than most engineers in LA County. MWD is the largest western water wholesaler outside of Reclamation. To read the entire statement, which also calls for a longer term, more holistic approach to sediment as part of overall watershed stewardship, follow this link

http://www.arroyoseco.org/ASFSedimentComments.pdf
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jun 01, 2012 08:49 AM
High Country News once again casts the light of consciousness across the landscape, and notes the shadows thrown as well as the sunshine. I await your words with eager anticipation. There is steel in your words of life.