Tag: Environment


Climate and Energy Forecast

by Hugh Hart

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

It will be hotter. It will be drier, at times, and wetter at others. We’ll get less water from the Sierra Nevada snowpack, and the Pacific Ocean will rise and creep inland. But beyond those brute certainties, scientists, futurists, technologists, and entrepreneurs offer competing visions about how climate change will affect California in the decades to come.

Average present-day snowfall in the Los Angeles region. Photograph by Bob Bernal; rendering by Jacob Cooper, Climate Resolve.

“The choice before us is not to stop climate change,” says Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve in Los Angeles. “That ship has sailed. There’s no going back. There will be impacts. The choice that’s before humanity is how bad are we going to do it to ourselves?”

So what will it be? Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

The bad news. OK.

If we choose to do nothing, the nightmare scenario plays out something like this: amid prolonged drought conditions, wildfires continuously burn across a dust-dry landscape, while potable water has become such a precious commodity that watering plants is a luxury only residents of elite, gated communities can afford. Decimated by fires, the power grid infrastructure that once distributed electricity—towers and wires—now loom as ghostly relics stripped of function. Along the coast, sea level rise has decimated beachfront properties while flooding from frequent superstorms has transformed underground systems, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), into an unintended, unmanaged sewer system.

Short of the nightmare, realistically, California, like the rest of the world, will see temperatures rise over the next four decades. The California Climate Change Center predicts a rise in average temperature ranging from 1.8 degrees to 5.4 degrees by mid-century. By contrast, annual average global temperature increased a relatively moderate 1.8 degrees over the preceding 150 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some areas in California, inland and in the deserts, will get much hotter, with many more super-hot days in the summer.

The sea level will rise along the coast. Polar ice melt-off combined with ocean water that expands in volume as temperatures rise will produce sea level increases from 5 to 24 inches south of Cape Mendocino, and up to 19 inches north of this geo-tectonic pivot point, according to recent simulation models produced by the Ocean Protection Council. The rising ocean will wipe away beaches and wreak havoc on some shoreline communities and infrastructure.

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission Executive Director Larry Goldzband warns of the damages that could result from a bad weather trifecta in the Bay Area. “What happens if you get increasing sea level, a huge storm, and king tides, which happen when earth, sun, and moon come into alignment, all at once?” he asks. “Water from the bay spills into the city.” The Adapting to Rising Tides project predicts that the low-lying Oakland International Airport would be exposed to three or more feet of flooding during storm events with 16 inches of sea level rise.

Potential impact of global warming on snowfall in the Los Angeles region by 2050. Photograph by Bob Bernal; rendering by Jacob Cooper, Climate Resolve.

To the flooding, add fires. California’s three worst fire seasons have all occurred within the last ten years, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Higher heat fosters tinderbox-like conditions that exacerbate human- and lightning-caused flames.

California’s water supply, much of it sourced from snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, will decline. UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Director Glen MacDonald points out that roughly 80 percent of the state’s water is used to grow food. “When water becomes more scarce because of higher rates of evapotranspiration, how much water will we shift from our fields to our city?” he asks. Wherever our food will come from, it could be more expensive and there may be less of it.

Warmer temperatures also translate into a shorter winter chill period that farmers count on to grow fruit and nuts in the Central Valley. The delicate balance of sunlight and mild temperatures that fostered ideal conditions for Northern California grape growers could be thrown out of whack. National Academy of Sciences research notes that vintners in Sonoma County and Napa Valley may be forced to relocate farther north as temperatures heat up.

So what’s the good news?

There is a clean, green, utopian scenario. Gasoline-fueled gridlock becomes the stuff of ancient urban legend as freeways set aside zero-carbon lanes for hydrogen-fueled vehicles and bicyclists. Agribusiness responds to arid conditions with hyperintensive farming techniques fertilized by their on-the-farm organic waste byproducts. Houses and commercial buildings generate their own power supplies with solar-paneled roofing, so homeowners happily share kilowatt surpluses with neighbors on a networked energy grid as easily as Facebook users now share online content, restaurant and reading recommendations, and instant messages.

As temperatures rise in California, more optimistic futurists count on green production and consumption technologies to soften the impact. “Cool roofs” and pavement made of reflective materials will improve energy efficiency in buildings, for example. In Los Angeles, 40 percent of the city’s land mass is street, parking lot, or playground, and much of that is paved in asphalt. “That grabs the heat from the sun and keeps it at surface level because it’s black and absorbs heat,” says Climate Resolve’s Parfrey. “If we remake our streets so they’re more reflective, then we could cool down the urban heat island effect, which adds between 3 to 22 degrees Fahrenheit to a cityscape.”

People will abandon their cars for other ways of getting around these green streets. In the Next 10.org study “Unraveling Ties to Petroleum,” UCLA-based lead author Juan Matute points out that public infrastructure has for decades rewarded the one-person-per-gas-fueled car lifestyle with hidden incentives. Envisioning the day when $80,000 parking privileges might become commonplace, Matute notes that the “Lone Driver” model historically flourished because consumers did not bear the true cost of public space devoted to free or cheap parking. In the future, he says, “If we reduce incentives for people to park on the street and decide that parking has a cost, we’ll probably see more transition to transit and ride-sharing.” The “ride share” concept, stubbornly ignored since its origins in the 1970s, is already quickly gaining traction thanks to profit-motivated, peer-to-peer jitney services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar.

Matute’s study projects that by 2050, only about one third of personal travel miles will be attributable to gas-fueled cars. In place of the combustion engine technology that powered Californians’ twentieth century self-image as a free-wheeling, hypermobile society, large gas-fueled vehicles will give way to electric cars, bicycles, scooters, bullet trains, mass transit, and neighborhood electric vehicles described by Matute as “fast golf carts.”

Matute produced a carbon-neutral scoping plan for Hermosa Beach pegged to the year 2075. “We assume a 95 percent transition to electric vehicles over that time period,” he says. “That seems to be the way things are going.” Since 2002, when GM crushed dozens of its experimental electric EV1 vehicles due to insufficient market demand, electric car fortunes have already rebounded, signaling a dramatic reduction in vehicular greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013 Tesla reported record revenues and announced plans for a lower-cost $35,000 electric car to supplement its Model S sedan. IBM’s Battery 500 Project aims to design lithium-air batteries that would boost the ability of electric cars to drive without a charge beyond their current 500-mile limit.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 1970 Clean Air Act dragged car manufacturers kicking and screaming into a forced-innovation mode that put an end to the smog alerts and spared Californians the pollution-clogged scenarios currently facing Mexico City, Beijing, and other exhaust-drenched urban centers. In the twenty-first century, government-engineered carrot-and-stick programs aim to similarly spur private sector ingenuity.

While it’s too late to halt climate change in its tracks, state government policy encourages entrepreneurs, businessman, technologists, homeowners, and consumers to get with the same low- and even no-carbon vision for California. The California Energy Commission’s alternative and renewable fuel and vehicle technology program (created by Assembly Bill 118) invests nearly $90 million during the 2013 fiscal year to develop new transportation technologies, alternative and renewable fuels. California’s renewable portfolio standards mandate that 33 percent of the state’s energy production must come from renewable energy sources by the year 2020. The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 mandates that greenhouse gas emissions be cut to1990 levels by 2020*. University of California, Los Angeles, researchers hope to wean Los Angeles completely from fossil fuels by then.

Forum for the Future Director Jonathon Porritt, who outlines an “aspirational” view of the year 2050 in his new book, The World We Made, sees California as an exceptionally hospitable environment for photo-voltaic cells, already widely used in solar panel roofing, as well as solar-concentrated plants that deploy satellite-shaped dishes, parabolic troughs, or towers to collect energy from the sun. Porritt says, concentrated solar power is “a phenomenal technology. It is very expensive in that every single one of those reflecting glass panels has to be pretty much handmade, so it’s not a mass technology yet; but once it is, there will be no limit to the amount of sunshine that can be harnessed.”

Smoke from the Rim Fire blowing east, as seen from the International Space Station on August 26, 2013. Photograph courtesy of NASA.

Wind farms will also figure into the mix with more bird-friendly turbines than some of the older models that line California ridges. With an 840-mile coastline, California could also exploit tidal and wave energy technologies. “We will see a lot of small, discrete on-shore plants that capture the power of the wave as it hits the shore,” says Porritt, “although you would have to do that without causing huge visual impairment of that beautiful coastline. People would not take kindly to that.”

One big challenge for renewable energy production is storage. “You need to smooth out the intermittency of renewables such as wind and solar that depend on variable weather conditions,” Porritt says. Assuming that storage systems catch up with production, Porritt figures renewable energy could provide all of humanity’s energy needs by the end of the century. “It won’t be because we’ve run out of oil,” he adds, “but because people have figured out better alternatives.”

Many renewable advocates regard nuclear energy as a dead issue in California, where state law prohibits the building of any new nuclear plants. But a contrarian cadre of environmentalists, including Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, believe in the potential of fourth-generation nuclear reactors. Following California’s now-shuttered San Onofre reactor dysfunction and Japan’s catastrophic Fukijama meltdown, anti-nuke investors, politicians, and citizens will need a lot of convincing. Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger, who produced a feasibility study on “How to Make Nuclear Cheap,” contends that nuclear energy deserves a second look. “New reactors need to be safe, need to be modular, and they need to be efficient,” he says—and he believes they can be.

Department of Energy grant winner Transatomic, run by two MIT-schooled technologists, promises a “walk-away safe” reactor that revives the use of molten salt coolants, introduced in the 1960s, to eliminate radioactive rods that currently bedevil nuclear waste management. Microsoft mogul Bill Gates’s TerraPower start-up markets “traveling wave reactors” as being cheaper and safer than its predecessors. Shellenberger says, “I think you’re going to see a generation of environmentalists who were born after Three Mile Island who don’t remember Chernobyl and grew up worrying about climate change, not about nuclear energy.”

Energy policy at the mid-century mark will not be shaped only by shifting patterns in production and consumption technologies. The stealth game-changer may turn out to be distribution. In place of the long-established central power grid, some seers favor a smaller-is-better paradigm. Kathi Vian, lead author of the “California Dreaming” forecast produced by the Palo Alto–based Institute for the Future, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego, pictures the rise of a “trusted friend” network that enables consumer/producer civilians to share energy with one another. “Our best case scenario is that we’ll develop a smart grid like the Internet,” she says. “You could use a backyard waste digester to generate energy, and if you had a few extra kilowatts you didn’t need, you could plug that in to the grid and donate or lend them to somebody else in the system. Once you get that smart grid hooked up with an open application layer, you could imagine a Facebook app where you assign rights for your energy to someone else. People would start to play with energy in the same way they now play with information on the Internet.”

British futurist Porritt figures that a middle-of-the-road option will gain currency in the decades ahead that would still allow individuals to take better control of their own energy usage and consume less as a consequence. “My hypothesis is that we will move much faster than people would think toward micro-grids. We’ll see small-scale, community-based grids where people won’t go to complete off-grid self-sufficiency as they do in survivalist communities, but they also won’t depend on a central grid system. Instead, people will use distributed energy sources—wind, solar, biomass—to create systems that are just as reliable if not more reliable than the current central systems, and are nearly CO2 free.”

Utopian and dystopian visions of the future can provide powerful motivations. But California’s response to climate change may ultimately succeed or fail on the strengths of another West Coast archetype: the entrepreneurial innovator. A three-person Los Angeles operation called Beehive Lighting, for example, is working right now to revolutionize movie and TV production with a line of plasma lights that reduce on-set energy consumption by 50 percent. As future-casting geologist MacDonald notes, “Americans are ingenious inventors and also good capitalists. If people see climate change as a challenge, there will be opportunities to save the world and make a pretty good profit on it.”

So what will it be? The good news? Or the bad news?

Let’s not sit around waiting to find out.


*An earlier version of this article stated that the California Global Warming Solutions Act mandated greenhouse gas emissions be 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. In fact they are to be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.

Image at top is of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert, shown here with the Primm Golf Course in the foreground. Photograph courtesy of Brightsource Energy.


The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenge of a New Era

For decades a global leader, inspiring the hopes and dreams of millions, California has recently faced double-digit unemployment, multi-billion dollar budget deficits and the loss of trillions in home values. This atlas brings together the latest research and statistics in a graphic form that gives shape and meaning to these numbers. It shows a new California in the making, as it maps the economic, social, and political trends of a state struggling to maintain its leadership and to continue to offer its citizens the promise of prosperity.

Among the world’s largest economies, California is the nation’s agricultural powerhouse, high tech crucible and leader in renewable energy. The state is the most populous and most diverse state in the continental U.S. Yet its infrastructure is coming under increasing pressure. Water supply systems are strained, the legendary highways are over capacity, and the celebrated system of public schooling is unable to offer affordable quality education at all levels. Health and welfare services, particularly for the poor, needy, disabled, and seniors, are at great risk.

Richard Walker and Suresh Lodha’s The Atlas of California shows a new California in the making.


Dances with California

Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 144pp, $22.95)

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Logan

What might a seed utter while talking back to Monsanto?

What would the creative process of a squirrel writing a poem look and sound like?

Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire dances with seeds and squirrels and will inspire today’s “people moaning at gas pumps” and tomorrow’s ecopoets.

Hillman’s poems embrace the layered world of the everyday – of memories, violence, activism, and the encounters we share with other living species even including termites.  She captures topics running through today’s news cycles such as drones, healthcare reform, and “Facelessbook.” But the work also reveals elements of the foundations of her present, be they onion soup flakes, Camus or brothers playing chess at Christmas.

If your reading style is to skip around like the hummingbirds that fill Hillman’s verses, consider reading first the dedication and then “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie.” Within these two sections, Hillman provides a helpful framing of the work’s themes and concerns.

Seasonal Works is a treasure of letters on fire, miniature photographs, and scientific and non-English phrases. Hillman challenges us to more intensive observation and action. Pick up a copy and wander out into California’s noisy landscapes with Hillman as a guide.

Image at top by Chris.


LA’s Thirsty Muse

by Sara V. Torres

Could a poetic form from the 13th century offer new ways to understand our 21st century conflicts over water? The sonnet may be perfectly suited to the task, a group of poets assert. Historically it has been the poetry of power imbalances: between Petrarch and Laura, Shakespeare and his patron, and Donne and his Three-Personed God. Its fourteen compact lines of verse strain to convey conflicting forces and desires that may, or may not, find resolution. What better creative form, then, to explore the history of guilt and guile, of conflict and cooperation surrounding Southern California’s water wars than the sonnet?

“Such an asymmetrical relationship exists between Los Angeles and the remote sources of its water,” writes Christian Reed, a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA, and one of the conveners of 14 poets who took up the challenge of writing sonnets during the LA Aqueduct centenary this fall. “LA and the Owens Valley have been locked in a dynamic dyadic relation since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct one hundred years ago,” Reed writes. Working on the UCLA library’s collaborative Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform, Reed invited  professional writers, artists, and students to create a traditional (or nontraditional) sonnet using archived images of the LA Aqueduct as inspiration.

Reed saw in the sonnet, the Italianate “little song,” an opportunity to bring together a community of writers and of readers who could re-envision the possibilities for inscribing LA’s past and imagining its future—in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.

“Sierra Nevada Headwaters,” Mixed Media, 22″ x 30″, Valerie P. Cohen

Though most closely associated with the Renaissance, the sonnet form is uniquely suited to this modern endeavor. The tightly-structured sonnet form served as an inspiration for creative explorations in formal innovation and artistic experiment. Contributors to the LA Aqueduct sonnet cycle freely adapted the sonnet form, creating “overflowing” sonnets, prose poems, and even multimedia art. Artist Valerie P. Cohen, when invited to write a sonnet based on archival materials about the aqueduct, instead offered to paint a watercolor whose design is based on Mount Morrison, a 12,241-foot metamorphic peak whose runoff ends up in Los Angeles. The history she captures in her mixed-media painting, “Sierra Nevada Headwaters,” is both regional and personal; her father, John D. Mendenhall, made what may have been the first ascent of Mount Morrison in 1928.

In early December, surrounded by archival images and documents preserving the history of the aqueduct’s construction, the entire sonnet cycle was performed aloud in UCLA’s Library Special Collections. UCLA English professor Robert N. Watson, a specialist in the fields of Renaissance literature and ecocriticism, delivered a response to the cycle highlighting the verbal echoes and imaginative motifs that ran through the entire sequence and gave it thematic cohesion.

Like the sonnet form itself, the ongoing water conflicts in California may or may not find ultimate reconciliation. But the efforts to preserve water resources in California may well require the kinds of creative habits of mind, steeped in both tradition and innovation, familiar to poets. As Reed writes, the aqueduct sonnet cycle “opens a space in which meanings can seep, can saturate one another, can be soaked up by a larger audience and offers an invitation to readers that is something like the opposite of Mulholland’s famous line ‘There it is, take it.’ Rather, these sonnets say: ‘Here comes history, awareness, poetry: be taken by it.’”

And here is my own contribution to the sonnet cycle:

by Sara V. Torres

Long sweep of the desert wind across high mesa meadows,

blue-eyed juniper, lilac, sage, cactus scrub, cascara sagrada,

wide-armed mesquite, pale iris, primroses, piñones thick with needles,

resin-glistened rocks, lone enebro, sawabe dusted across cañon slopes,

sky-divided waters, white-blossomed yerba mansa,

crested quail, meadowlarks, beetles moving on the face of desert lakes.

Two iron-ringed arms reach out across the plains, full-veined,

Crushed limestone cut from the valley, desert-baked concrete, captures streams,

plunging deep across a land of water borders retraced in the earth,

of lost mines and rabbit borrows, hawks and unflinching old vaqueros;

Waters drawn towards sunset, towards pillars and light-bathed stars,

towards invisible cities beyond the somber mesa.

The ending: Frontinus runs dusty fingers through a street-well’s trickle

Plumbed Appia, Anio Novus, dammed Aniene above Subiaco,

His fixed gaze mingles with the Tiber among crumbling columns of stone.

We bring a bronze legend to this outstretched map of arid land,

and think on oar-dipped waves and scrolled papyrus,

our familiar genius at home among these abundant ruins.


Growing the California Dream

Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton and Company, 592pp, $35)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Imagining LA conjures a series of well-known images: the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, the sunny seashore. The less enthusiastic might imagine traffic jams on the freeways, a sea of cars roasting in the too-hot sun. And above all of these symbols, both literally and metaphorically, is just one—the palm tree. From postcards and tourist brochures to music videos and movie shoots, the palm marks any scene as quintessentially Los Angeles—and even quintessentially California. Tree and city, tree and state, are imagined as fundamentally interlinked.

Jared Farmer takes on this connection between trees and symbols in his impressively researched Trees in Paradise: A California History. Spanning the state’s history from the Gold Rush to the present, Farmer analyzes the ways in which people interacted with redwoods, eucalyptuses, orange groves, and palm trees in order to create the California dream. Crucially, Farmer’s history is neither strictly environmental nor strictly cultural. Instead, he carefully details the ways in which the people living in California used and abused trees to create a mythological paradise, a verdant land where anything at all was possible. Californians created that mythology on the trunks, leaves, and fruit of trees—and exported it to the rest of the nation. California’s trees came to signal an imagined state where dreams came true in the warmth of the sunshine and the shade of its leaves.

California has more trees now than it has had since the late Pleistocene about ten thousands years ago, but, Farmer argues, this process was far from natural. While Californians—and Americans—imagine the state and its mythology through its trees, those trees and that mythology had to be carefully planted, grown, and cultivated. With the exception of redwoods and a few species of palm, none of the trees Farmer discusses are native to California, and even those that are native have been modified and commodified for human use. But trees, too, are subject to changing tastes and sensibilities. Although non-native trees like the palm and orange remain embedded in the idea of the Golden State, others, like the eucalyptus, have fallen out of favor. Once beloved, the eucalyptus is now demonized as a hazardous non-native – in language eerily similar to the rhetoric used to criticize and exclude people who have come to California from elsewhere.

Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative. If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you.

Photograph at top by Gregory Wass.


A New Water Atlas

by Chacha Sikes

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

A twenty-first-century manifesto.

We are nerds for nature. Our millennial generation is fairly ignorant about the great California water system we are about to inherit, but we have a plan to solve this problem.

Water sustains our humanity, though many of us have no idea where our water comes from. We don’t need toour modern water systems were created specifically so that we wouldn’t have to think about how we get good, clean drinking water and could instead focus on our lives and work.

Some say we are headed for serious water crises and possibly even water wars. Reduced snowpack, changing rain patterns, and groundwater depletion are just a few of the big changes coming our way.

From The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

The New California Water Atlas. Courtesy of ca.statewater.org

We have a project underway to help our generation make sense of the mess we are about to inherit. We are creating a new “Owner’s Manual” for water in the State of California. This will be a citizen-focused, interactive California Water Atlas that will help us understand where, exactly, our water comes from, where it goes, who uses it, how it interacts with landscapes, both natural and built, and how healthy that water is. We will teach ourselves how to care for our water systems and get ourselves connected back into our democratic public resource management system, but upgraded for modern times.

We believe that the days of Chinatown are over for California. Secrecy is dying out in favor of openness, transparency, science, and full accountability. We want to get as much unpredictability out of the way—and understand the unpredictability we can’t eliminate. We believe by sharing information about our natural resources more openly and understandably, we can make smarter choices with water and heal the devastation caused by previous generations.

We will make it possible to use our best facilitation and negotiation skills to rehumanize our connection to water. Our generation’s talented technologists, cartographers, environmentalists, agriculturalists, journalists, water professionals, and community advocates will work together to create a New California Water Atlas for the twenty-first century.

This is not the first time a California Water Atlas has been created as a public work. In fact, we are inspired by the original California Water Atlas.

In the late 1970s, Californians faced severe water shortages during a prolonged drought. But very few Californians understood our highly engineered water systems statewide, making it difficult to understand how to manage water fairly during times of stress and strain. Governor Jerry Brown commissioned an atlas from the California Department of Water Resources. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, chaired the advisory board. Huey Johnson, Secretary of Resources, worked with state agencies to get basic information about water sources, quantities, and uses into a format that could be visualized in the atlas. The atlas makers used the latest technology available at the time to create maps on computers, and they generated truly beautiful, clear maps that made one of the most complex water systems in the world much easier to understand. The original, giant atlas has since been digitized by historical map collector David Rumsey and can be viewed online.

Standing on the shoulders of those who created the original California Water Atlas, the New California Water Atlas will provide a critical update to decades-old data and put it all online, where emerging technologies will make the new atlas an exponentially more powerful resource for citizens, government, water managers, and consumers. For one, the tools for producing maps have become much less expensive and allow more people to tell geographically based stories. Similarly, a massive culture of “makers” has emerged. Makers look for opportunities to create; innovative projects that make a difference inspire them. We are now capable of designing sensitive sensors and launching our own satellites. We are also expert in finding ways of presenting complex data.

Like the technology, the process of collaboration will also be open. Guidelines and templates for new digital maps will be publicly available. New companies and communities will be able to develop innovative interactive maps for all Californians. We also want to encourage the active participation and collaboration of the many water users and water resource managers in California, including farmers, well-water users, orchardists, government staff, city water users, industry, kayakers, environmentalists, and more. We are excited to collaborate with various mapping communities and to leverage remote-sensing and teach a whole new generation how to use the Web to communicate our understanding of water so that we can all do our part to steward our most vital natural resource.

The New California Water Atlas. COURTESY OF CA.STATEWATER.ORG.

Water is a shared resource in California, and we are all in this together. Partnerships and new collaborations will be encouraged, and we will all get to be proud of what we create. We expect this project to be ramping up for a few years, and for a number of new communities to form that will continue to build upon this new way of presenting public information in ways that will continue to be useful for generations to come. This is because we deserve clear, understandable, accurate, public-friendly, useful information about our water systems.

Once we have the information, we can start to change the way we communicate about the issues. In the open government movement, there is a kind of emerging civic collaboration called participatory budgeting. We are inspired by this process, through which the various needs of a city are made public, and carefully facilitated community meetings are held so that those affected by the budget are able to make fair choices. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want, but it does reduce some of the conflict and encourages us all to be creative and work toward a common goal. Imagine if we could apply this process to our water budget. California actually does create a new State Water Plan every five years, and one is due in 2013. Let’s get involved and overwhelm this obscure bureaucratic planning process with our enthusiasm for understanding water and bringing a peaceful resolution to age-old conflicts over water in California.

A prototype of just one interactive map for the New California Water Atlas was launched earlier this year. The California Water Rights Atlas shows all of the approximately 50,000 current and historic water rights holders throughout the state. A color-coded map of water uses—irrigation, stock-watering, power, municipal, fire protection—shows water rights holders’ names and how much water they are allotted. Tallying tools allow anyone to see how much water is used along a river. The data comes from the State Water Resources Control Board, a state government entity that ensures that water in California is allocated for beneficial use and is not wasted. This information had never before been brought together in one user-friendly place. Now that it has, we as Californians can begin to understand for ourselves how our water is being managed and whether it is being managed in our best interests. Because we are working in an open and collaborative way, the data is now on its way to getting better, and advocates of water in communities across the state can make derivative maps that tell more specific stories about water usage in their watershed.

Another abiding mystery in California’s waterscape is groundwater, which is our second New California Water Atlas project. Groundwater usage has never been fully regulated in California. The state of our overused groundwater aquifers has never been fully understood. Our underground aquifers are connected to surface water, and many are being pumped out at rates faster than they are recharged by water percolating back into the ground. This causes the ground to sink, heavy metal levels to increase, the water table gets lower and lower, and streams dry up. But despite potentially disastrous implications, we have no clear picture of our groundwater levels, and no way to understand the practical realities of our groundwater system for all of the watersheds of California. We will create the map that will change that. Working with scientists, governments, coders, designers, writers, community health and environmental organizations, and water users, we will bring in as much real-time data as we can gather to produce an interactive map of where groundwater is in California, how much there is, and where trouble spots are.

From The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

Because a lot of new legislation is happening around groundwater, we are planning to release a digital groundwater visualization kit based on our groundwater interactive, which will make it easier for journalists and policy folks to communicate far and wide about proposed policy changes and why they are important.

Other planned maps can show water pricing, water return flows, and water conflicts. Taken together, these maps will enable us to advocate for responsible management, and at the very least to present challenges in their full complexity back to voting Californians so that we can make more informed decisions about our future. This valuable data will help Californians make critical and informed business decisions where water price and availability are concerned—for farms, vineyards, cities, hydropower, and more.

The availability of water in California is changing. Climate change will accelerate these changes in this century. Our greatest reservoirs for fresh water—the snowpack in our mountains—will diminish. More precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow. The snow will melt faster in the spring, changing the timing of water and requiring us to alter our expectations about the water we can store and deliver throughout the rest of the year. Droughts, floods, and temperature changes will alter the land, water deliveries, and timing of crops. Wastewater treatment, water recycling and reuse, conservation, and desalination will all become even more important. We will try to live sustainably, but will also endure new stresses. Some of us will move away.

For most Californians, the impact of this future is hard to imagine. As it is now, most Californians never really think about where their water comes from or how they use it. For all they know, their water comes from “somewhere in California.” We have handed off responsibility for our water to agencies, which for the most part cannot afford to make big efforts to educate the public outside of urging conservation during major drought years. This has made it far too easy for city dwellers—the majority of Californians—to take no responsibility for the impacts that plans made today will have on our future. We know that California needs to overhaul its entire water system. Dams age. Levees age. Sewer pipes age. It is estimated that California would need to spend $39 billion to catch up on all of its deferred water infrastructure maintenance.

Outside of the cities, water is a much more immediate, serious, and actively political concern. But whether Californians are concerned about their water or not, it has been very difficult for us to learn more about our water, particularly from unbiased sources. When citizens—not to mention lawmakers, policy analysts, institutional ratepayers, farmers, and journalists—try to become more informed to make better decisions, the problem becomes immediately apparent. Data about our complex water system is in disarray, woefully unorganized, inconsistent, and difficult to navigate. Every day that the data remains unorganized and obscured to the public is another day that new platforms for understanding our challenges and new solutions are delayed, to everyone’s detriment.

Now, we could be totally boring, scientific, regulatory, and bureaucratic about this. We can measure our water precisely and manage it wisely. But why be boring when we can be feisty? We can still fight about water. But let’s at least understand what we’re really fighting about—and let’s do it in our own California way, using the best data and interactive social technologies. The New California Water Atlas will present the state of water in California so that we can all see where we are and argue over where we are going and make better long-term decisions together.

There are no rules. So let’s just do this. Join us. Together we can make a New California Water Atlas that tells us what we really want to know about water in California.

Our hope is that when it is possible for any individual in California to see and understand the complexity of our water systems, it will encourage more direct action to conserve water in cities, to plan the future of our cities considerately, to understand our agricultural economies, and, ultimately, to work together through our climate crisis. We can choose and design healthy cities, farms, economies, and sustainable water systems.

The ultimate goal is a California we can take pride in, with healthy watersheds with happy people and happy fish, clean, intelligent, resilient, water systems for farms and cities, managed using quality science and open, accurate, and useful government data. In the end, we really are all talking about the same thing.

Times really have changed. We are part of a movement of millennials who want to effect practical change and do the less glamorous work to really solve our ongoing problems. We want to have at the future and use our abundant intelligence to make California even greater.

We grew up caring for the environment. We want rural areas to have healthy water. We are passionate about having healthy food systems. We do not want to continue generations of ignorance and apathy, to hand off control of our water resources to whoever happens to be there, to whoever happens to be the most greedy and opportunistic. We want to understand water and know that we are doing our part.

From The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

From The California Water Atlas, 1979. Courtesy of DavidRumsey.com.

The atlas makers used the latest technology to make truly beautiful, clear maps that made one of the most complex water systems in the world understandable.

We can still fight about water. But let’s at least understand what we’re really fighting about.

We need this baseline information because the future itself will be full of dramatic shifts, to the climate, to the rain, but also new technological advances, such as instantly purified water, lower-water footprint foods such as in-vitro meats and chickenless eggs, dam removals, flood plain restoration, new city dwellings on stable ground, water recycling, desalination, and who knows what else. We don’t know which future technologies will catch on, but we do know we need to turn our attention to making the most of what we have. A readily accessible baseline understanding of California’s water system will underlie our success in making California stronger and healthier for centuries to come.

We can’t change history. But we can reclaim our connection to our water and feel that deeply human satisfaction that many of us share that we are protecting one thing we truly cannot live without.

How to Get Involved

The New California Water Atlas is a California-wide, open source, collaborative effort uniting the diverse talents of technologists, designers, cartographers, researchers, water experts, water users, and government entities to build next generation visualization tools for improving public understanding of water for Californians. If you are an organization that works to protect water and healthy communities in California, please reach out to us. We would like to find ways to involve you.

We have seed funding through Patagonia by way of the Resource Renewal Institute, http://rri.org, an environmental think tank in Marin, led by Huey Johnson, the Secretary of Resources for California during the time of the creation of the original California Water Atlas. We are very grateful to him for pushing our thinking and encouraging us to take this to the edge in ways that will have widespread policy implications.

More information about initiatives, sponsorship opportunities, events, meetings, guidelines, workshops, field trips, and more can be found at http://ca.statewater.org.


A More Absorbent Landscape

by Hadley and Peter Arnold

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

Water scarcity as design opportunity

Thirty million people in the American West depend on snowmelt to grow food, slake their thirst, and run their towns, cities, and industries. Twenty-two million of them live in Southern California. As in many parts of the world, western water supplies are over-allocated and populations are growing. Increasing variability in precipitation—the primary impact of climate change on the hydrologic cycle—exacerbates the stress: longer droughts, less snowpack, and earlier snowmelt are already observable. Current climate models estimate that 70 percent of western snowpack will be gone by 2100.

Mapping the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Courtesy of Arid Lands Institute, Cesia Lopez and Eric Ladouceur.

Water scarcity presents a profound challenge and opportunity for designers of the built environment. The questions reach beyond, where do we get more water? And how do we make do with less? Or even how do we build margins of water security into our cities or restore damaged ecoystems in our source ranges and valleys? These are critical questions engaging vast fields of engineers, economists, environmentalists, and policymakers. But the answers do not all lie in policy or technology. For designers, the questions are physical, spatial, qualitative, and experiential—fully vested in the knowledge that space and place matter. How do we craft cities and buildings that consciously and visibly mitigate, anticipate, and even celebrate, hydrologic variability? How would architectural systems, building codes, and zoning laws have to change? What shape would neighborhoods, architecture, and the urban experience take if design fully recognized and exploited the challenges of water scarcity?

Los Angeles provides the quintessential test-bed for answering some of these questions: a progressive, diverse, global city with an intense concentration of creative capital and widespread public recognition of urgent water challenges ahead. Drylands design innovation in Los Angeles has the potential to benefit not only the city’s residents and ecosystems, but those of its broader watershed, a watershed created by epic engineering, stretching from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Even if Los Angeles cannot wean itself entirely from water imports, can drylands design reduce dependence and lighten the city’s impacts on the communities and ecosystems drained by the metropolis? Can design that exploits local urban water more effectively help Los Angeles and the Owens Valley renegotiate a shared water future?

At the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University, our goal is to catalyze drylands design leadership for public benefit, challenging design professionals and educators to marry exacting quantitative data with compelling design vision. With the support of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the World Water Forum, we recently developed a high-resolution geospatial model to strategically identify and quantify the potential for improving stormwater capture within urban areas. Our modeling project, “Where is it? Let’s reuse it,” was designed as a riposte to William Mulholland’s famously callous remark upon opening the spigot of the LA Aqueduct in 1913, “There it is. Take it.” The research recognizes that maximizing recovery and reuse of rain and stormwater will be central to establishing a robust localized water portfolio for any drylands city seeking to buffer the effects of climate change.

Within the Metropolitan Water District’s service area in Southern California, an estimated average of 1 million acre-feet of stormwater runs off from valley floors each year. Less than half is captured in spreading basins or other facilities for groundwater recharge: 520,000 acre-feet of unused stormwater is sent as discharge to the Pacific Ocean each year, enough to support 500,000 families at current usage rates with no conservation measures in place.1 The Met, as the water district is also known, estimates that urban stormwater and recycled municipal supplies combined with increased efficiency could meet up to 82 percent of Los Angeles’ water demand.2 The challenge for us was to identify exactly where stormwater can be harvested and with what results.

Our Arid Lands Institute model focuses on one watershed within the larger Los Angeles basin: the Upper Los Angeles River Watershed Area, also known as the San Fernando Valley. The model builds on a foundational groundwater augmentation model developed by the US Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, and Council for Watershed Health. But our model takes a finer-grain approach. We model the valley at the scale of rooftops, roads, curbs, parking lots, concrete, asphalt, and compacted earthen materials, and analyze three critical datasets and constraint layers. We model surface runoff as a function of precipitation rates and the permeability of different surfaces. Then we model soil types and conditions to understand how much water can move through the soil and where it is susceptible to liquefaction. Finally, we map the location of constraints on storing water in groundwater aquifers: groundwater contamination, the movement of plumes of contamination in the groundwater, where contaminated water is pumped out for treatment, and known underground chemical storage tanks that are leaking or could leak in the future. Putting the three layers together one on top of the other gives us an understanding of how water moves through the basin: where it comes from, where it’s going, at what rate and volume. Soil types and conditions tell us where water can percolate into the ground. And the constraint layer tells us where it is not a good idea to add water to groundwater aquifers.

Courtesy of Arid Lands Institute, Ethan Dingwell, Karim Snoussi.

Our model suggests that around 92,000 acre-feet of stormwater runoff could be harvested in the San Fernando Valley, enough to sustain almost 100,000 households at current usage rates. That number has a certain poignancy in the larger context of California’s contested water systems: it is nearly identical to the amount of water that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is currently required to use to keep harmful dust from blowing off of Owens Lake, desiccated in part by LA’s thirst.

Strategies for Capturing and Infiltrating Urban Stormwater, top to bottom: Urban Forests, Infiltration Basins, Dry Ponds, On-Site Detention. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Courtesy of Arid Lands Institute, Ethan Dingwell, Karim Snoussi.

More importantly, the model can guide our efforts to capture local water in precisely identified zones by applying particular landscape design strategies. Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, lot by lot, the model tells us where effort and investment are best targeted for specific hydrologic functions using low-impact best management practices such as vegetated swales to slow and direct the movement of stormwater runoff, detention basins to store water, and urban forests to absorb water. Notably, the model clearly tells us that “infiltrate everywhere” is not an advisable strategy. Some parts of the valley are appropriate for capturing and storing water. Others will work well for moving water from one place to another. Some areas could filter water. Others could be used to allow the water to percolate into the groundwater aquifers in the valley. And others—particularly where groundwater is contaminated—should be avoided until they are cleaned up.

Data-rich modeling has the potential to inspire compelling, high-performance, cost-effective design strategies for transforming the city. As Los Angeles embarks on a comprehensive redrafting of its 1946 zoning laws, our model offers new planning elements and parameters for twenty-first-century drylands urbanism. In partnership with collaborators in the public, private, and academic sectors, the Arid Lands Institute is inviting multidisciplinary design teams to take up these findings and envision a new climate-adapted LA. The challenge could yield new ways of organizing metropolitan landscapes, and the infrastructure, architecture, and agriculture that support them—not just in LA but around the world. Los Angeles could lead the way in creating localized models for living with water scarcity. To do so will require design intelligence rooted in science and design vision as a catalyst for the public imagination.


1 Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Blue Ribbon Committee, Developing New Water Options for Southern California, 8 April 2011, 126.

2 Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Final Report of the Blue Ribbon Committee, 12 April 2011.


Learning to Love LA

by Bob and Rob Sipchen

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

But not stop worrying.

Editor’s Note: We asked noted writer Bob Sipchen and his son Rob, both ardent Angelenos and environmentalists, to defend LA’s right to exist. Here is their somewhat conflicted response.

Water and people flow in interacting currents. It’s important that a father and son keep this in mind as we take on one of the most important tasks ever assigned. For, if we understand our responsibility correctly, Boom has given us the San Andreas–like power to determine whether Los Angeles shall continue to exist.

Some of you living in environmentally sinful Southern California probably got nervous reading that last sentence. Well, it gets worse. Six years ago Bob, the older and more despotic of your judges, moved to San Francisco, where it is simply a given that Los Angeles has no right to inhabit the same planet, let alone the same coast, as the pretty little city by the bay. Abandon not all hope, though, for the younger and more forgiving Rob still lives in the heart of the metastasized megalopolis to the south.

Given the magnitude of our mission, it seems fitting to wade in with the observation that many Southern Californians get their first taste of regional planning as omnipotent child-giants, toes squishing into cool mud on the banks of tiny lakes and streams.

Bob first drove the tunnel-boring machine of his fingers through clotted dirt when he was five or six years old. Missionaries and agri-businessmen had introduced orange trees to Southern California in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and like the Native American corn farmers before them, they kept their sweet crop alive by channeling the water that spilled from the surrounding San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. The trees spread across Southern California’s semi-arid plains and rock-strewn alluvial fans. By the 1960s, Bob and his cousins could wait until water surged from concrete standpipes into furrows of recently plowed soil. Then they’d start burrowing, the scent of blossoms and hum of bees enflaming a beaverish drive.

Left unmanaged, water conspires with gravity and landscape to create patterns simple and complex. But a nimble strategy and decisive action can outpace water’s relentless urge to seek its own course. And so these proto-engineers waded in to construct dams, channels, and reservoirs, even moving water over hills with siphons cut from garden hose. Soon enough, roads, rail lines, and bridges sprouted on the banks and inhabitants followed—green plastic soldiers, mainly, but also red and yellow cowboys and Indians. And the ever-hyperactive Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The kids got a notion of water’s value the first time a farmworker chased them waving a hoe. They learned water politics through disputes that all-too-often led to bloodshed as power-hungry young combatants assaulted each other with oranges, dirt clods, and hand-packed mud balls that left satisfying smudges on sunburned backs. No one had to tell these planners that this is how civilizations emerge and expand. They didn’t need to hear the nasty story of California’s water wars to know that people are drawn to it, play with it, fight for it. They understood that water shapes lives.

By the time Rob the younger and his friends began constructing water worlds in the backyard of his family’s home in Los Angeles’ Mount Washington neighborhood, developers had uprooted the region’s orange groves and tilted up thirsty beige housing tracts and the big box, Bed, Bath and Beyond monoculture to supply them. Nearer the less-homogenized urban core, Rob would gaze down from a plywood fort built on a brush-covered hillside, noting how the streams of cars, trucks, and trains along the 110 and I-5 corridors followed the concrete-lined paths of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco.

Robert Fogelson’s The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850–1930 quotes a British traveler’s famous observation that of all major American cities, only Los Angeles offers “no plausible answer to the question, ‘Why did a town spring up here and why did it grow so big?’   ”

William Mulholland, whose grand water engineering efforts provide at least part of the answer to that question, often voiced the koan-like mantra: “If LA didn’t get the water, it would never need it.” Of course, when Los Angeles did get the water, from local sources, and then the Owens Valley, and then the Colorado River, and then the Sacramento Delta, people did come from all over the country and all over the world to drink it, build with it, plant with it, play in it. But the intersecting and largely segregated ethnic cultures did not always play nicely together.

In the sixties, the Watts Riots’ fiery scent wafted like smog-pot stench into the San Bernardino Valley where the Sipchen family then lived. In the seventies, tear gas broke up brawls between black students who had just integrated San Gorgonio High School and white kids still mired in the type of thinking their parents had carried with them from the South. Twenty years later, while covering the Rodney King Riots for the Los Angeles Times, Bob and a Times photographer floated for hours in a helicopter over the smoldering city, marveling at the destruction. For months, Bob recorded the despair of Angelenos who had largely lost faith in their ability to pull their urban landscape together again.

Rob, born three years before the riots, blossomed in a Los Angeles whose public school children spoke ninety-two languages. Picnics at his magnet school erupted in cacophonous conversation fueled by an aromatic cornucopia of home-cooked dim sum, kim chee, mee krob, borsht, and lasagna, not to mention carne asada burritos.

After college, Rob returned with a renewed interest in the city and its waterways and transportation corridors. The LA River in particular intrigued him. He was bewildered that a city that survived by siphoning water through hundreds of miles of concrete channel allowed the region’s sporadic floods to wash untapped into the sea. The city’s subconscious, it seemed, had conceded to the car and accepted the river as a concrete scar, a sign that harmony with nature was a lost cause.

But water has an almost magical power to inspire, and so Rob also watched, impressed, as the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco became focal points for a pent-up collaborative energy among ethnic communities with the urgent need to improve their interdependent lives.

Back when developers alone ruled, there was no hope for Central Park designer Fredrick Olmstead’s grand plans to turn the course of the LA River into tranquil parkways. Today, thanks to the tenacity of local activists, artists have replaced these drainages’ protective chain link with inviting cut-metal gates depicting herons and cranes. Children wade into the muck to hunt pollywogs. Soccer players sing “olé-olé” on fields along the banks. And a few pioneers raft and kayak the river, sometimes outpacing the eighteen-wheelers that roll alongside on I-5.

In his twenty-three years, Rob has watched a light rail system struggle to life along the Arroyo Seco and has seen people flock to new housing near the stations to take advantage of the route. A small hillside solar farm now converts energy from a sky that’s far less gritty than when his father was a boy. In 2003, Occidental College professor Robert Gottlieb persuaded authorities to close the 110 freeway to motorized traffic for an event called Arroyo Fest. Rob and Bob joined thousands of other bicyclists and rode the euphoric multiethnic current straight down the fast lane, from Pasadena to downtown and back.

Back around the first Earth Day, Bob sometimes simmered in gridlock on the city’s edges. Feeling the smog-cloaked claustrophobia pressing in, he would imagine brushing Los Angeles off the earth with a few quick sweeps of his hand, just as he and his cousins periodically razed their orange grove civilizations to begin anew. Fixing the problems seemed too daunting. Better to wipe the slate clean and start moving earth, turning dystopia to utopia in one week, tops.

Having matured in some ways since then, Bob has come to see that resource allotment is more intricate when a place is inhabited by real people instead of the molded plastic soldier kind—who, conveniently, would follow any narrative he and his cousins concocted for them.

Years ago the Sipchen family visited Disney’s Celebration, a master planned community outside Orlando, Florida. Designers had started from scratch there and created a ground-up cityscape complete with winter soap flake “snow flurries.” The antiseptic order gave Bob and Rob the willies.

Los Angeles is the organic antithesis of this architectonic approach to planning. And yet, in its unruly exuberant way, the polyglot city is pulling itself together around its use of water and other resources. A growing body of literature explores how constituents who used to punch each other in the face or worse are now cooperating to build a civic culture, in spite of the region’s Gordian knot of governance and dearth of civic vision. For example, in his 2007 book, Reinventing Los Angeles, Gottlieb details how Latinos, Asians, and Anglos conspired to revitalize swaths of land near the confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco as they flow through Glassell Park, Cypress Park, and into Chinatown and downtown LA. And a story in the Summer 2013 On Earth magazine details how area activists and maverick leaders have persuaded the city to recapture significant amounts of the wastewater it had been squandering.

In April, Bob joined a diverse throng of community leaders outside the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to celebrate the conclusion of many years’ political finagling over energy. Standing beside a burbling fountain-lake that reflects the environmental hubris of Los Angeles’ past, then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that the city would, by 2025, end its use of coal-fired power completely. Former Vice President Al Gore was on hand to praise the initiative, which will significantly slow the flood of greenhouse gases that are disrupting Earth’s climate and hastening environmental catastrophe. “This is a big deal,” Gore said. “A big deal! Only five cities in the world are leaders in this…and Los Angeles is the only city in the United States.”

Gore’s comment hints at why Rob and Bob have, unanimously, come to a decision that some will see as sentimental sacrilege. We have decided that if the vast, semi-functional city of Los Angeles can’t find the gumption to take on the challenges of twenty-first century urban life, all the earth’s other mega-cities—and thus our species—are doomed.

Back in the days of rampant Chamber of Commerce boosterism, the Los Angeles Times predicted that the blossoming City of Angels would someday become “the center of tomorrow’s universe.” Perhaps naively, your judges believe that Angelenos, like children playing in a grove, may have just the combination of cantankerous spirit and irrepressible imagination to make this unlikely prophecy come true. And so we hereby spare you, Los Angeles, for, unsettling though this is to say, you probably represent the world’s last best hope to save itself.


Bob Sipchen, who shared in two Pulitzer Prizes while a reporter, editor, and columnist at the Los Angeles Times, is Communications Director for the Sierra Club, editor in chief of SIERRA magazine, and an adjunct professor in the Writing and Rhetoric department at Occidental College. Rob Sipchen, a recent graduate of Cornell University’s Regional and Urban Planning Department, conducts data analysis for a software company and creates urban design-oriented art. The views in this essay are solely those of the authors and not necessarily their employers.

Images of dioramas constructed and photographed on location in Los Angeles by Rob Sipchen.


For the Birds

by Graham Chisholm

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

Remaking a place for nature at Owens Lake.

The Owens Valley and adjoining Mono Basin are intimately connected to places far away, not just through the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but also through bird migrations that flow through the valley twice a year. Each spring and fall for millennia, hundreds of thousands of birds have moved along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada using the Owens Valley as a north-south flyway.

Bounded by dramatic mountain ranges—the Sierra Nevada to the west and the mountains of the Basin and Range Province to the east in Nevada—the valley is also a transition zone between the shadscale shrubs of the low elevation Mojave Desert to the south and the sagebrush of the high elevation Great Basin to the north. Despite the transformations that resulted from the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and exporting much of the water that used to flow from the mountains down to Mono Lake and Owens Lake, the Owens Valley remains a rich string of feeding, resting, and nesting spots for birds, many of which are designated as Important Bird Areas by Audubon California.

Owens Valley. Photograph by Chad Ress/Center for Social Cohesion

On the northern end, Mono Lake—home to over one million eared grebes, red-necked and Wilson’s phalaropes, and other waterbirds—has come to represent a remarkable environmental success story. The legal notion of a “public trust doctrine” was born of the legal battle to limit water diversions from the lake’s tributaries to the Los Angeles Aqueduct and has resulted in a long, gradual restoration of an astonishingly beautiful aquatic ecosystem in an arid environment. The sagebrush flats and grassy meadows of the Mono Highlands south of the lake remain a stronghold for greater sage grouse, Brewer’s sparrow, and other sagebrush species.

The Owens River links the highlands to Owens Lake. This snowpack-and-spring-fed river has received new life thanks to a 2006 court order mandating that the Los Angeles Department of Water put water back into the lower 60 miles of the river. The department takes some of that water back out of the river for the aqueduct at the lower end of its run, but the river is now a ribbon of life again. Cottonwoods and willows shade this green corridor in the dry desert landscape. Sadly, the Owens pupfish and Owens tui chub, two native fish, have disappeared from the river, though nonnative trout thrive there; and floodplain wetlands full of cattails and tule provide cover for birds and other aquatic life.

The valley’s southern end is anchored by Owens Lake. Water diversions had dried up the ephemeral lake until recent rewatering projects were begun to keep hazardous dust from blowing off the desiccated lakebed. The results have been dramatic and demonstrate the nearly instant power of putting water out on the dry lakebed. Invertebrate populations explode and the birds respond. The 100 square-mile desert lake had long been a magnet for ducks, gulls, shorebirds, and other waterfowl, and they have returned with the water. A one-day bird count this April tallied 115,000 birds, including twenty species of shorebirds. The lake also has spring-fed alkali meadows of sacaton and saltgrass that provide fresh water inflows into the otherwise saline lake, attracting amphibians, mammals, more birds, and other wildlife.

Over the past two years, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has been negotiating a master plan for controlling dust and providing habitat at Owens Lake. The department has recently floated a conceptual master project to enhance habitat while minimizing the water used for controlling dust in favor of using other dust control methods on the lake. This certainly makes sense—conserving water while providing habitat and mitigating hazardous dust—but the project still has to undergo a rigorous environmental impact review. A binding enforcement mechanism remains to be worked out.

The city of Los Angeles and its Department of Water and Power have a historic opportunity at Owens Lake. The public trust doctrine is a legal doctrine that established that some water should remain in our rivers and lakes as a matter of public trust. In a very real sense, it states that rivers and lakes have some legal right to exist and without a minimal right to water they may not survive. The public trust doctrine saved Mono Lake. Returning water to the Owens River was an extension of the spirit of this public trust, although it was done without resorting to the legal doctrine. Ensuring the long-term viability of aquatic habitat at Owens Lake would be a fitting way to extend the spirit of the city’s public trust to the rest of an amazing ecosystem, whose most precious resource, water, gave life to Los Angeles.

Spring shorebird migration peaks in the second half of April at Owens Lake. Fall migration peaks late in August through September. The Eastern Sierra Audubon Society coordinates bird counts during the migrations. The “Owens Lake Big Days,” as these events are called, began in 2008, seven years into the Los Angeles Owens Lake Dust Control Project when thousands of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, attracted by the water used for dust control, were being observed each spring and fall.

A “bubbler.” Courtesy of Mike Prather.

Shallow flooding to control dust and create habitat. Courtesy of LADWP.

Survey days start with an orientation at dawn and can extend well into the afternoon. Fifteen to twenty local birders and others from around the state work with biologists from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to form survey teams that spread out and cover the entire lake, recording all birds seen and their locations. Good bird identification skills are essential, as well as the ability to count groups of birds numbering in the thousands. Up to 22 different shorebird species may be seen on an Owens Lake Big Day. Large flocks of American avocets as well as least and western sandpipers flock back and forth over the lake making counting a challenge. Occasionally a peregrine falcon will streak through a surveyor’s location causing birds on the ground to flush up into the air. It isn’t unusual for counters to have to begin all over again once the birds settle back down.

Collecting population numbers is crucial for understanding, managing, and protecting the wildlife attracted to the new habitat created by the dust mitigation program, as well as figuring out how best to manage the water to provide habitat. Data from the Owens Lake Big Days is shared between Eastern Sierra Audubon, Audubon California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California State Lands Commission.

Canada Goose 2

Gadwall 782

American Wigeon 57

Mallard 54

Blue-winged Teal 3

Cinnamon Teal 560

Northern Shoveler 1,003

Northern Pintail 64

Green-winged Teal 107

Unidentified Anas species 3

Redhead 137

Ring-necked Duck 12

Lesser Scaup 2

Bufflehead 55

Common Merganser 4

Red-breasted Merganser 1

Ruddy Duck 3,265

Eared Grebe 15,510

Western Grebe 5

Clark’s Grebe 1

Snowy Egret 3

White-faced Ibis 193

Osprey 2

Northern Harrier 1

Prairie Falcon 1

Peregrine Falcon 3

American Coot 1,095

Black-bellied Plover 6

Snowy Plover 26

Semipalmated Plover 36

Killdeer 5

Black-necked Stilt 353

American Avocet 9,730

Greater Yellowlegs 221

Lesser Yellowlegs 8

Willet 10

Spotted Sandpiper 3

Whimbrel 53

Long-billed Curlew 2

Marbled Godwit 7

Sanderling 2

Western Sandpiper 3,279

Least Sandpiper 11,514

Dunlin 138

Unidentified Calidris sandpiper species 36,637

Long-billed Dowitcher 296

Dowitcher species 348

Wilson’s Phalarope 521

Red-necked Phalarope 69

Phalarope species 260

Franklin’s Gull 27

Bonaparte’s Gull 39

Ring-billed Gull 37

California Gull 27,545

Forster’s Tern 2

Common Raven 89

Horned Lark 176

Tree Swallow 57

Northern Rough-winged Swallow 2

Cliff Swallow 178

Barn Swallow 117

Unidentified swallow species 1

Marsh Wren 1

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1

American Pipit 131

Yellow-rumped Warbler 3

Brewer’s Sparrow 5

Black-throated Sparrow 2

Savannah Sparrow 58

White-crowned Sparrow 8

Red-winged Blackbird 47

Yellow-headed Blackbird 5

Brewer’s Blackbird 19

American avocets. Courtesy of Mike Prather.

Conceptual drawing of future habitat. Courtesy of LADWP.



How it Works

Chris Plakos, as told to Kim Stringfellow

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

The Los Angeles Aqueduct

The Upper Owens River is the top end of the watershed that William Mulholland and his crew of engineers tapped into to take water to Los Angeles. The headwaters are giant springs that come out of the canyon called Big Springs. There is a Forest Service campground right adjacent to where the springs are; and if you go to the end of the campground and walk down a little hill, there’s all this volcanic rock. And from that rock, you’ll see water bubbling up all over the place.

From here, it flows to Crowley Lake—originally named Long Valley Reservoir—the largest reservoir on the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. It has a huge capacity of 183,000 acre-feet, which can supply half a million people a year. That water is stored in Crowley until it’s needed and, of course, it’s let out constantly, raising and lowering the level depending on what’s coming into it.

From there the water goes into a pipe and tunnel and into three hydroelectric plants because Crowley Lake is about 2,400 feet above the Owens Valley floor, and that’s a great way to generate electricity. They run the water through three hydroelectric plants built in the 1950s and put the water back into the river just above Bishop, at a much lower elevation.

Then from there it flows in its normal river channel until it comes to the intake, about thirty miles south of Bishop, where Mulholland determined he needed to take the water out of the original Owens River channel and put it into an artificial conveyance system—the aqueduct—so he could take it all the way to Los Angeles via gravity. There’s no pumping on the system; it all flows downhill via gravity. The other way to think about it is that the aqueduct intake is the one place where, from there south, everything is at a lower elevation. Water is taken out of the river and put into the aqueduct. It’s amazing. For a stretch of about 10 miles, it only drops about a foot per mile; it’s a very gradual flow. Most of the section in the Owens Valley is open to air.

We have an unlined stretch—I call it the “big ditch”; it’s just a 40-foot wide ditch—that the water flows in. The groundwater is so high in that portion of the Owens Valley that it makes water. More water comes in than is lost to groundwater infiltration.

Then it goes into a lined concrete channel that’s open to air for about another 35 miles and in the south end of the valley. Once the aqueduct skirts around Owens Lake, it spills into Haiwee Reservoir. There are actually two reservoirs there; both are fairly long and narrow.

From there south, the water is all in conduit tunnel and pipe, all the way to Los Angeles; and it first appears at the LA Aqueduct filtration plant at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 14, just above Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct.


Transcribed from Kim Stringfellow’s There It Is—Take It! project. Chris Plakos is a public relations officer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Photograph by Chad Ress/Center for Social Cohesion.