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Elmer Avenue: A Sun Valley Native Plant Oasis, With a Purpose

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Drought-tolerant Autumn Sage flowers bloom in the parkway of an Elmer Avenue residence in Sun Valley, irrigated by stormwater runoff from the street.
Drought-tolerant Autumn Sage flowers bloom in the parkway of an Elmer Avenue residence in Sun Valley, irrigated by stormwater runoff from the street. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" is based on this story. Watch it here now.

On an uncharacteristically hot late winter weekend in the east San Fernando Valley, the community of Sun Valley lived up to its name. The thermometer surpassed 90 degrees, the streets were dusty, and all evidence of the Southland's largest downpour in two years, which occurred mere weeks ago, had all but evaporated, swirling in the dust kicked up by the Valley winds. Even with the long shadows forming in the late afternoon, the sight of virtually no clouds and the towering sun-baked San Gabriel Mountains to the east, were visual proof alone that this day felt more August than March.

On this particular street, the sound of mariachi, ranchera, Latin ballads, and techno music blast out of household stereos, a common soundtrack for the eastern SFV. But here, amidst sidewalk-less suburban streets, this block looks...rather different: A meandering pedestrian pathway separates the front yards of xeriscaped gardens or severely curtailed lawns from the sunken parkways bearing drought-tolerant bushes and wildflowers, with rocks and stones lining the bottom. And down the street, what appears to be a former alley is a verdant oasis of California native plants, accompanied by a public walkway and colored images of flora, fauna, and a prescient quote from John Muir.

This is the 7700 block of Elmer Avenue, between Stagg and Keswick streets, just east of Tujunga Avenue. It is the site of the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project, a pilot urban stormwater program of The Council for Watershed Health, in collaboration with the city of Los Angeles and other government and nonprofit partners.

The street was chosen for the project due to its vulnerability to flooding due to the lack of sidewalks (many streets in the Eastern San Fernando Valley still lack them, vestiges of the area's agricultural and ranchland era), but the project was also implemented to address the lack of streetlights and community space, and to promote smarter water use. Front lawns were eliminated or substntially reduced. Households were also given rainwater capture systems fed by rooftop rainspouts to aid in municipal water conservation. Most importantly, the project captures and diverts stormwater runoff from the street to both irrigate the native and drought-tolerant flora that decorates the landscape and infiltrate the local groundwater table through bioswales (landscaped ditches designed to capture and filter runoff) and permeable paving.

"Geologically, the soils in Sun Valley make it ideal for infiltration, meaning water would quickly sink in to the earth after being allowed to sit," said Brian Sheridan, the Council for Watershed Health's development and marketing manager.

He also added that the state's Department of Water Resources has designated Sun Valley as a "disadvantaged community," making it an ideal candidate for project funding, which came from the California Strategic Growth Council, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the city of Los Angeles' Proposition O and Department of Water and Power.

According to Sheridan, after much outreach in the community, the residents of Elmer Avenue were most receptive to the proposal, and the street retrofit project was constructed in 2010.

A block south, Elmer Avenue continues as an alleyway, which had its own retrofit in 2012, the second phase of the project.

Despite the recent drought, the Elmer Paseo's native plants are lush and green after the recent rains.
Despite the recent drought, the Elmer Paseo's native plants are lush and green after the recent rains. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Formerly a blighted, poorly-paved concrete canyon, the alley, now known as the Elmer Paseo, was transformed into an attractive pedestrian-friendly walking path, community open space and native plant oasis. The lime-green walls (devoid of vandalism), adorned with silhouette images of plants, animals, birds, and insects, many of which labeled by name, also carry ecological quotations in large print, such as one by John Muir reading, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe."

The west side of the Paseo features a larger bioswale with a number of indigenous trees, like the Western Sycamore, and plants, such as California Buckwheat, California Evening Primrose, California Fuchsia, Deergrass, Douglas Iris, Golden Currant, Mexican Elderberry, Nevin's Barberry, and Toyon -- all of them native to the Sun Valley watershed.

The six seasons the plants have been in existence proved to be a learning experience on the aesthetic value of native vegetation to the residents and project collaborators.

"Some of our partners were fretting because the native plants on the street were looking dormant late into the winter," said Sheridan. "They were practically begging us to water them more frequently to make them look more like the non-natives people are used to seeing. When the most recent rains hit, it was like someone flipped a light on, and now the street looks great! People need to understand the cycles that our natives go through and appreciate them for what they are."

The native plants have also been a benefit to the neighborhood's fine-feathered residents as well. The seeds, fruit, and nectar of the flora have attracted the presence of birds, making their audible presence known through their incessant chirps and calls, which add to the local soundtrack of the blasting music, and jets taking off from Burbank Airport a mile away.

The Elmer Paseo is directly fed by street runoff channels which irrigate the project's native vegetation and recharge the local aquifer.
The Elmer Paseo is directly fed by street runoff channels which irrigate the project's native vegetation and recharge the local aquifer. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

During the rainstorms of late February and early March, the Elmer Avenue bioswales did exactly what they were designed to do, forming swollen pools of water during the downpours, gradually percolating into the ground. Despite having no rain for over two weeks, and even through this summerlike weekend, the soil in the Paseo's bioswale is still visibly moist.

The Elmer Avenue projects are designed to contribute over 13 million gallons of water in an average rainfall year to the San Fernando Groundwater Basin, sorely in need of recharge due to paved urban development and channelization.

The success of the Elmer Avenue project has gotten other neighborhoods clamoring for their own retrofit projects.

"With Elmer in place, we have received feedback from some of our partner agencies at the city of Los Angeles that nearby residents are asking when they will get a version of Elmer on their street," said Sheridan.

Will Sun Valley's Elmer Avenue set the standard of stormwater capture design in Los Angeles? It certainly looks to be in our future as a way to help mitigate L.A.'s second biggest water crime: The flushing out of our stormwater runoff into the ocean, especially in this era of drought.

Imagine if every Southern California neighborhood was designed like Elmer Avenue. We may very well get there someday -- one neighborhood in South Los Angeles is currently gearing up for a similar project.

In just a few years, the Elmer Avenue project has become a welcome and transformative force in the neighborhood. Flooding has been alleviated, water is properly diverted and captured, plantlife grows abundantly, the aesthetics of the area are improved, and even for a visitor like myself, it's created a calming effect for all who experience it.

"For the most part, the residents love it," said Sheridan.

As I sat on a boulder in the Elmer Paseo taking notes on my smartphone, I observed three local teenagers walking through the pedestrian path towards my direction. It was a boy flanked by two girls, with him holding a skateboard upright in his arms. Their conversation about school friends was quickly interrupted by his spontaneous reaction to the environs.

"Look at this -- it looks like a rich neighborhood, in the middle of the ghetto!" he exclaimed.

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