By James Brasuell
How refreshing to participate in several hours of discussion about water in Los Angeles without anyone making the mistake of calling Los Angeles a desert.
That’s not to say that the participants in the Making LA event hosted by de LaB on November 7 ignored the daunting challenges of water facing Los Angeles. But when gathered to present their work, these representatives from the public sector, the design professions, academia, and environmental advocacy provided compelling evidence of the city as a leader in 21st century investments in water infrastructure.
The water portion of the agenda was only one of several topics covered by Making LA, but given the location of the event (the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens in Northeast Los Angeles) and California’s ongoing drought crisis, extra elements of both seriousness and celebration contributed to the quality of the discussion.
Chief Deputy City Engineer Deborah Weintraub took the stage first and quickly set aside the familiar refrain about Los Angeles’ history of importing water from sources located to the north and east. Instead, Weintraub focused the session on the challenges presented by the 870-square-mile drainage of the Los Angeles River.
The geography of that drainage defines Los Angeles’ rainwater problem, according to Weintraub. In addition to the historic drought currently facing the city and the state, Weintraub mentioned other potentially catastrophic consequences of the city’s tenuous relationship with rain. “Too much rain and the hills slide,” said Weintraub. “Too little rain and the hills burn.”
Weintraub specifically noted the large impacts made possible by small water projects. She quoted the Book of Ecclesiastes—”There is nothing new under the sun”—to describe the future of water infrastructure in Los Angeles, citing green roofs and underground storage as examples of how intuitive water supply solutions can be.
Deborah Deets, a landscape architect with the city of Los Angeles, was next on stage, in conversation with Sam Lubell of The Architect’s Newspaper. Their discussion also focused on stormwater, but from the perspective of Deets’s work in designing green streets. Deets noted that the process of urbanizing Los Angeles has transformed the region’s streams into different organisms, and now the city must find ways to slow and filter flowing water. Deets challenged the audience to think of green streets as a verb, rather than a noun. “You are all a part of the verb,” she said. As an example of the city’s progress on water infrastructure, Deets informed the audience of an ordinance under consideration by the Los Angeles City Council that would require stormwater infrastructure for all street construction projects.
Much of the discussion during the session’s anchor panel (participants included Juan Devin of KCET, Jan Dyer of Mia Lehrer + Associates, Ashley Atkinson from the Mayor’s Office, Omar Brownson of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, and Alex Ward from the Friends of the Los Angeles River) expanded the concept of the Los Angeles River beyond its role as a stormwater channel. Panelists described the river as open space and a shared asset and asked that the river be considered just as much for the uses along the river as for the water in the river.
Frances Anderton, KCRW radio host and producer, joined Evelyn Wendel to discuss the work of WeTap, an organization dedicated to repairing and installing public drinking fountains and reducing the use of bottled water. WeTap’s success in installing drinking fountains near playgrounds is a particularly poignant example of how easy is to take for granted that the public should always have easy access to high quality drinking water.
Peter Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute was also on hand to provide the final piece of the Los Angeles water management puzzle—a data- and visualization-rich study of the permeable soil in the San Fernando Valley. Arnold and his colleagues are exploring the surface of the Valley for access to the massive groundwater tables that lie underneath. That information can inform a strategic game plan, grounded in science, for infrastructure that takes advantage of the water storage capacity available in those groundwater basins.
A measure of celebration regarding the city’s progress on water issues is clearly warranted. As pointed out frequently during the session, Los Angeles has only just commenced a new era in water policy, most famously exemplified by a recent decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to back a $1 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River. Moreover, the city just celebrated the tenth anniversary of Prop O. At the time of its adoption, the Prop O stormwater infrastructure bond was the first program of that scale to rely on natural infrastructure for water quality improvements, and its positive impacts are now visible all over the city.
Like much of the public discussion about the water challenges facing Los Angeles, much of the discussion at Making LA focused on large-scale efforts in the public realm. The responsibilities of private landowners for repairing the city’s water system, however, are seldom addressed. Many of the city’s millions of property owners have already sacrificed their lawns or have made other, incremental water conservation efforts. But the vast majority of private properties around the city require retrofits of obsolete stormwater and water supply infrastructure to move the city toward water independence. Although the city’s 2012 Low Impact Development ordinance requires construction projects to include water quality and conservation measures, the scale of investment encouraged by such requirements pale in comparison to the potential represented by the remaining sum of private properties in the city.
The future of the water conversation in Los Angeles must include a discussion about how to combine self interest with public interest in the form of permeable pavements and other water conservation technology on private property. Or, asked another way, how can the philanthropic and political mobilization recently focused the banks of the Los Angeles River also inspire individual responsibility for the health of the Los Angeles River watershed?
Where closer, after all, do the challenges of water hit than at home?
Making LA is working to transform Los Angeles by bringing together designers, architects, artists, and city leaders who are making a difference in their neighborhoods across four critical areas of focus. Read more recaps from the November 7 conference on the themes of Transportation, Density, and Community.
James Brasuell is Managing Editor of the planning and urbanism blog Planetizen.