Illustrations by Vera Valentine
“Elemental LA” is an exploration of Angeleno’s “sense of place” using the four classic elements – air, earth, water and fire – as guides.
A yelp came out of her as she stepped off the step and felt the water around her thighs, and the current almost sweeping her off her feet. … She climbed the long hill to Glendale, descending block after block of rubble, torrents, seas of water. Her clogs filled up repeatedly, and periodically she stopped, first holding one foot high behind her, then the other, to let the water run off.
James M. Cain, “Mildred Pierce”
A stream rises at my doorstep. My driveway is a weir washed by waves I’ve never heard. An estuary of the Pacific Ocean flows between the basketball courts and the picnic shelter in my neighborhood park. Where I live is seven miles from the coast, but the sea bathes its streets without being seen. the Los Angeles County Flood Control District manages the network of sumps, laterals, pipes and canals that puts my doorstep one step away from the open ocean. The network is intended for stormwater, but it also carries daily runoff from more than 2,000 square miles of watershed.
When it rains, the water rises rapidly in the open channel along Del Amo Boulevard and disappears just as rapidly eastward into the San Gabriel River. The next day, it is as if it had never rained, and only a discolored band of daily runoff meanders on the floor of the canal. Unlike wastewater that passes through treatment plants, almost none of the daily runoff is treated to remove waste, chemical byproducts, and biological contaminants.
After a day of rain, the air at the mouths of the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers can smell of oil, and the swell in the blue-gray water will sway with plastic bottles and bits of take-out containers. The pet waste, diesel soot and pathogens that every rain sweeps off the streets of the county will be invisible in the receding tide.
The slime that city life puts in the ocean could be better managed. Strategies focused on replacing concrete and asphalt with permeable surfaces and creating bioswales and rain gardens would help control runoff and allow natural filtration into the Los Angeles Aquifer. “Green infrastructure” projects, even miles from the coast, improve water quality and provide local benefits in the form of shade trees and open spaces.
What it takes is recognizing the connection between your lawn and the ocean. We tend to think of Los Angeles as a landscape of disconnected islands. It’s not. Urban runoff connects people and places across the Los Angeles plain. Moving water dissolves distance.
The Los Angeles Aquifer is wide and deep. Its water is moving under the plain to the west and south of the city center until it empties invisibly into the Pacific Ocean. The low hills formed by the Newport-Inglewood Fault, running from Culver City to Long Beach, divide the aquifer into the West Coast Basin and the Central Basin. (There are other basins; of particular importance to Angelenos is the Upper Los Angeles River area basin in Tujunga.)
California had no basic law regulating groundwater extraction. Gas station attendants – especially oil refiners from the 1920s onwards – could take all the water they wanted. In 1953, groundwater extraction from the Central Coast and West Coast basins peaked at 331,600 acre-feet of water per year, twice the amount naturally recharging the aquifer from winter rains and spring snowmelt.
A partial solution came in two parts. The aquifer could be recharged, either by spreading stormwater where it naturally entered the aquifer, or by injecting water directly into it. And large landowners, public and private water companies and industrial pump attendants could mutually agree to an annual limit on the amount of water they withdraw.
The amount was determined in a series of court cases brought by the attendants themselves. They asked for a court order confirming their access to water and obliging them to limit its extraction. The adjudication of the west coast basin came into effect in 1961, that of the central basin in 1965.
The pumps pay for the management of the system, as well as for the water which increases the natural recharge of the aquifer. The central basin benefits from stormwater captured behind the Whittier Narrows Dam in South El Monte and pumped to the leaching lands that line Washington Boulevard. These leaching grounds also receive wastewater from county-run treatment plants. In the West Coast Basin, where natural recharge is limited, treated wastewater is injected into the aquifer.
This legal and hydrological device — in its cobbled-together, ad hoc mess secures — about 40% of the water for customers in 43 cities in Los Angeles County. The remaining 60% comes from Northern California and the Colorado River and as recycled water from sewage treatment plants. (The City of Los Angeles is developing its own system to recycle treated wastewater into the underground basin below the San Fernando Valley.)
Public agencies, elected boards, and for-profit corporations run a vast system, invisible to consumers, and mostly known only to the wells that plunge into the Los Angeles Aquifer. If you thought Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” explained water in Los Angeles, you’d be wrong.
A freshwater ridge parallels the Seal Beach Fault north of the mouth of the San Gabriel River. The river empties into Alamitos Bay through the gap between Bixby Hill in Los Angeles County and Landing Hill in Orange County. The ridge crosses the gap. The ridge is just over two miles long, but you can’t see it. It begins one hundred feet below the river bed.
The freshwater ridge is a barrier against the sea. The underground zone where freshwater and saltwater mix is unstable. The paving of wetlands, the confining of rivers in concrete, and the unregulated pumping of groundwater has drawn the sea deeper underground. In the late 1950s, due to overpumping, wells in the West Coast Basin began producing brine. Wells in the central basin were also affected. City and county water agencies have built three saltwater intrusion barriers — two for the west basin and the Alamitos Gap barrier for the central basin — against what the sea can do. Nearly 300 injection wells maintain the three barriers with water purchased from the Metropolitan Water District and with treated wastewater.
The sea is risingand most of the warnings concerned the threat to the houses by the sea. There is talk of dikes to protect them but not of walls of water – as we dreamed of – which for the moment prevent the sea from flowing from the taps of the kitchens .
dreams for sale
In Latinx neighborhoods, reluctance to drink municipal tap water is compounded by habits, preferences, and rumors. Rumor has it that tap water is contaminated with chromium 6 and lead, chemical residues and radon gas. Water that promises none of that – not even beneficial minerals and fluoridation – causes families to spend hundreds of dollars a year at water stores and supermarket kiosks. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power insists its water meets or exceeds state and federal standardsthat no one should pay 10% of their household income per month for water, as some families do. The filtered and bottled water industries warn that the standards are not good enough.
High-priced water is part of an economy that sends vulnerable Angelenos to payday loan companies and rent-to-own showrooms. In malls where filtered water is sold, stores have ambitious names: House of Living Water, Sion Water, Lucky Pure Water, Super Water and Wonder Alkaline Water. Los Angeles has always sold dreams that money can’t buy.
Where to find water and how to control it are constant concerns. “Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers – 1900-1941” (University of California Press, 2016) by William F. Deverell and Tom Sitton explains how modern Los Angeles has attempted to answer these questions.
KCET’s Kim Stringfellow suggests forgetting “Chinatown” and learning the real story.
Streams and creeks once ran through Los Angeles County. KCET’s Nathan Masters maps those who are lost. Alta magazine’s Denise Hamilton look for those who remain.