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A graphic of water droplets.

It's Complicated: Water and Los Angeles

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Illustrations by Vera Valentine

Elemental L.A.” is an exploration of an Angeleno “sense of place” using the four classical elements — air, earth, water, and fire — as guides.


A yelp came out of her as she stepped off the running board and felt the water around her thighs, and the current almost swept her off her feet. … She slogged on, up the long hill to Glendale, down block after block of rubble, torrents, seas of water. Her galoshes filled repeatedly, and periodically she stopped, holding first one foot high behind her, then the other, to let the water run out.
James M. Cain, "Mildred Pierce"

Runoff

A creek rises at my doorstep. My driveway is a spillway washed by surf 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 laps its streets unseen. The Los Angeles County Flood Control District manages the network of catch basins, laterals, conduits and channels that puts my doorstep one step away from the open ocean. The network is for stormwater, but it also carries the daily runoff from more than 2,000 square miles of watershed.

When it rains, water rises quickly in the open channel along Del Amo Boulevard and as quickly disappears eastward into the San Gabriel River. The next day, it's as if it had never rained, and only a discolored band of daily runoff meanders over the floor of the channel. Unlike the wastewater that passes through treatment plants, almost none of the daily runoff is processed to remove trash, 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 petroleum, and the swells in the blue-gray water will bob with plastic bottles and bits of takeout containers. The pet waste, diesel soot and pathogens that every rain sweeps from the county's streets will be invisible in the ebbing tide.

A wave-shape sweeps over a cityscape background.

The slobber that urban life puts in the ocean could be better managed. Strategies that focus on replacing concrete and asphalt with permeable surfaces and creating bioswales and raingardens would help control runoff and enable natural filtration into the Los Angeles aquifer. "Green infrastructure" projects, even if miles from the coast, improve water quality and bring local benefits in the form of shade trees and open space.

What's needed is recognition of 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 links people and places across the Los Angeles plain. Moving water dissolves distance.

Chinatown

The Los Angeles aquifer is large and deep. Its water is in motion beneath the plain west and south of downtown until it flows invisibly into the Pacific Ocean. Low hills formed by the Newport-Inglewood Fault, running from Culver City to Long Beach, split 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 the extraction of groundwater. Pumpers — particularly petroleum refiners beginning in the 1920s — could take all the water they wanted. By 1953, groundwater extraction from the Central and West Coast basins reached a high of 331,600 acre-feet of water a 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 sank into the aquifer or by directly injecting water into it. And large landowners, public and private water companies and industrial pumpers could mutually agree to an annual limit on the amount of water they took.

How much was determined in a series of court cases brought by the pumpers themselves. They sought court-administered adjudication that confirmed their access to the water and bound them to limits on its extraction. The West Coast Basin adjudication took effect in 1961, the Central Basin in 1965.

A building on top with palm trees on the left overlaid with an image of water and various detritus in the bottom.

Pumpers pay for managing the system, as well as for the water that augments natural recharge of the aquifer. The Central Basin benefits from the stormwater captured behind the Whittier Narrows Dam in South El Monte and pumped onto the spreading grounds that flank Washington Boulevard. These spreading grounds also receive wastewater from county-operated treatment plants. In the West Coast Basin, where natural recharge is limited, treated wastewater is injected into the aquifer.

This legal and hydrological apparatus — in its cobbled together, ad hoc messiness 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 in the form of recycled water from wastewater treatment plants. (The city of Los Angeles is developing its own system to recycle treated wastewater into the groundwater basin beneath the San Fernando Valley.)

Public agencies, elected boards and for-profit companies manage a vast system, unseen by consumers, and mostly knowable only by the wells that dip down into the Los Angeles aquifer. If you thought Robert Towne's "Chinatown" explained water in Los Angeles, you'd be wrong.

The Barrier

A ridge of freshwater runs parallel to the Seal Beach Fault north of the mouth of the San Gabriel River. The river flows into Alamitos Bay through the gap between Bixby Hill in Los Angeles County and Landing Hill in Orange County. The ridge lies across the gap. The ridge is slightly more than two miles long, but you can't see it. It begins a hundred feet below the riverbed.

The ridge of freshwater is a barrier against the sea. The subterranean zone where fresh and saltwater mingle is unstable. Paving over wetlands, confining rivers in concrete and unregulated pumping of groundwater drew the sea even more under the land. By the late 1950s, as a result of over-pumping, wells in the West Coast Basin began to bring up brine. Wells in the Central Basin were affected too. City and county water agencies constructed 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.

Shimmering water graphic bordered by sand.

The sea is rising, and most warnings have been about the threat to oceanfront homes. There is talk is of seawalls to protect them but not about walls made of water — like something dreamed — that keep the sea for now from flowing from kitchen taps.

Dreams for Sale

In Latinx neighborhoods, reluctance to drink municipal tap water is compounded out of habit, preference and rumor. The rumor that tap water is contaminated with chromium 6 and lead, chemical residues and radon gas. Water that promises none of these — not even beneficial minerals and fluoridation — leads families to spend hundreds of dollars a year at water shops and supermarket kiosks. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power insists that its water meets or exceeds state and federal standards, that no one should pay 10% of their household income a month for water, as some families do. The filtered and bottled water industries warn that the standards aren't good enough.

A graphic that shows the Sixth Street Bridge with palm tress and the Los Angeles River.

High-priced water is part of an economy that sends vulnerable Angelenos to payday loan companies and rent-to-own showrooms. In the strip malls where filtered water is sold, the stores have aspirational 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.

Further Exploration

Where to find water and how to control it are perennial 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 attempted to answer those questions.

KCET's Kim Stringfellow suggests forgetting "Chinatown" and learning the real story.

Creeks and streams once flowed across Los Angeles County. KCET's Nathan Masters maps those that are lost. Denise Hamilton of Alta magazine searches for those that remain.

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