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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It took months to get the besieged Christopher Stone out to the Arcadia dam and sediment site. But in late May 2011, he agreed to tour the newly razed landscape. Up close and in person, the man so vilified that many Urbanwilders spit his name -- "Ssssstone" -- was more like Grandpa Walton than Lord Voldemort, right down to the twinkling blue eyes. After viewing the conveyor belt leading two miles up to the dam, and a number of the dream homes backing onto the site, he dealt with the million-dollar question: Why didn't Flood Control leave room for rivers to carry the sediment where gravity wanted it to go, which was of course, down, across the Los Angeles basin to the Pacific Ocean, where it once fed madly fecund wetlands and beaches?

"We aren't involved in zoning," said the man from the department created precisely to ensure that developers never had to encounter any zoning impediments.

Later on, paused at a turnout in the narrow road tracing the nauseatingly steep slope near the top of the Santa Anita Dam, looking down over the Los Angeles Basin, a floodplain formed by sediment from these very mountains, an awful realization dawned. Ralph Bicker battled to save Arcadia Highlands from truck traffic, but the felling of the Arcadia oaks created space not just for Santa Anita Dam's current load of sediment, but for half a million cubic yards more. The need is so great, Christopher Stone said, that while Flood Control won't be trucking sediment out of Arcadia, it may well end up trucking it in.

Irony, you're a bitch.

In March 2012, after a $125,000 price reduction, 1674 Highland Oaks Drive sold for a million dollars, in spite of the dam cleanout taking place behind it. In April, the 15-month listening marathon forced by Urbanwild's campaign ended. The doors of Public Works were flung open yet again for public review of a 524-page summary of L.A.'s sediment-disposal options. The document reveals that Los Angeles County will need space for up to 67.5 million cubic yards in the next 20 years alone.

Existing facilities have capacity for only 48 million. Some seemingly clever ideas -- trucking sediments to replenish beaches, for example -- were thrown out on the grounds that the 40-mile trip from mountain to shoreline was expensive and profoundly polluting. To judge by the endless pages of decision-making matrices laid out for the many dams and debris basins in need of cleaning, the notion of trucking sediment to retired mining pits has gained credibility. The idea of removing some of the misplaced suburbs and letting sediment flow downhill to its old floodplain did not make any of the short lists.

Lovely La Tuna Canyon is still listed as offering some of the largest potential sediment storage capacity among the foothill sites. Other grounds listed as open for dumping are 11 places in the Angeles National Forest, most near dams built in the 1920s and '30s. Once they fill these, Flood Control may look for more forest canyon sites. T.J. Moon, a fresh-faced engineer available to help members of the public interpret the massive report, seemed genuinely excited that another solution might be found, though. "The system was built 100 years ago and we didn't really think about the environmental end," he said, "but now we are. This was due to public outcry."

Jared Orsi hasn't followed the recent sediment debacle. While dams were no doubt steadily silting up when he published Hazardous Metropolis in 2004, that book ended on a bright note, hinting that portions of the Los Angeles River might be unchannelized enough to sustain parks and wetlands, revitalizing urban corridors. To Orsi, who was interviewed by phone at his office at Colorado State University, the sediment dilemma upriver signals a new era. Popular conviction that engineers can fix anything is clearly on the wane. "What policy-makers need to learn from this episode," he said, "is, it's not just the mountains that are dynamic; society is dynamic too, so we need policy that responds to that variability."

With 10 million people next to a tremendously flammable forest, climate change likely to exacerbate the fire-flood cycle, and a mighty backlog of existing sediment, the 15 months of public meetings have produced no answers, only more questions. Los Angeles has built itself into a corner. "The next step is to look at impacts," said Public Works spokesman Dan Sharp. "It's always a matter of trade-offs."

Camron Stone is no longer optimistic. He has given up on the dream that he can change Flood Control or save further woodlands from being razed for sediment dumps. "There's nothing you can do," he said. "It's a freight train."

Emily Green is an environmental writer based in Los Angeles. She has written for the
Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Guardian and UK Independent, and is a former columnist for the New Statesman magazine. Her five-part series on a proposed Las Vegas pipeline from the Great Basin Desert won a 2009 Associated Press Managing Editors Award. She blogs about Western water at chanceofrain.com.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.
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.