March 9, 2012
The LA River, with its rich and diverse ecosystem, was a very crucial part in the development of the city of Los Angeles. Before Spanish settlers came into Sothern California, the river was the foundation for Native Americans that inhabited the land for nearly ten thousand years. Among the many Indian tribes living in the Southern California region, the Gabrielino were the most technologically advanced and prosperous tribes in the area. This was more than likely due to the river and its surrounding ecosystem providing all the necessary raw materials and nourishment needed to expand the extensive trading system they had in place. As the map below shows, these people were spread out through the southland in what is now known as the Los Angeles and Orange counties, including the Channel Islands. Surrounded by other Indian tribes, the Gabrielino were the only tribe that predominately utilized the river, its resources and understood its patterns over the significant amount of time passed since Indians were first there. As a result, their settlement followed the pathway of the river as floods enabled it to erode and meander a new path because it provided a critical foundation for their way of life.
The ecosystem surrounding the LA River was quite extensive, which the Gabrielino made abundant use of. First, Willow trees and large oaks lined the streams and water flow that provided the staple of the Gabrielino food diet- the acorn. The floodplain forest was also extremely useful as it provided the wide range of small animals, seeds and berries that were hunted and gathered for food. In addition, the marches provided raw materials used to build shelters and tools for important use; among these included supportive beams for housing, bows and arrows, and natural bright-colored woods that they would wear to distinguish themselves from prey. However, most importantly, the river was the main source of drinking water and the spot of ritual bathing before sunrise for religious purposes. This was the cleansing ritual supposedly dictated by Chengiichngech, their creator-god that played a central role in their society. Since the Gabrielino settled in association to where water resources were located, they did not utilize agriculture but rather used the native ecosystem for nourishment. This lack of cropping did not tie them to the land and allowed them to be nomadic in nature by re-settling along the river in multiple spots, but were most prevalent in the San Fernando Valley.
The Gabrielino tribe is a great example a community taking full advantage of the LA River and its resources sustainably. Although the LA River was unpredictable after heavy rainfall, changing its water flow many times, the Indians living in the region learned to adapt and thrive in the ecosystem nonetheless. Until the Spanish took over and pushed the Gabrielino out of the area that is current-day Los Angeles, the Gabrielino flourished and prospered on the river that built the largest and most important city of the American West.
There are few people who know that Los Angeles used to be a messy jungle of thorny thickets and oaks, antelope and grizzly bears, marshes, desert washes and quick sand. None alive and only those who read histories remember the days when Los Angeles was known for not only bird watching but bird hunting due to the fact that the air would blacken with migrating geese, ducks and other water fowl like the herons and cranes.
The wandering river, when it was running on the surface, was a meandering river that didn’t have a set path with solid banks to keep it on course. This was due to the fact that it really only ran substantially after the winter rains and with the spring melt from the mountains. During these times it was a raging river that would rip trees out of the ground. At these times there was massive flooding that fed the surrounding marshlands, lakes, and water loving vegetation, and the water followed the path of least resistance to the ocean.
The rest of the year most of the water flow was bellow the surface and the river was no more than a gentle creek and sometimes completely dry. This huge riparian ecosystem with very rich biodiversity was supported by what is now one of the nation’s largest storm drains: the Los Angeles River.
The Los Angeles River is now forced to follow one course to the ocean. This is totally against the natural existence of the river. It is estimated by the City of Los Angeles that 100% of natural wetlands and 90-95% of natural riparian ecosystems have been lost through the urbanization of the Los Angeles River (Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan).The river used to travel miles east or west of its current path and it emptied into different areas on the coast from the Port of Los Angeles to Ballona Creek. Today there is a lot of talk about revitalizing or restoring the Los Angeles River. When people talk about restoring the river it warrants the question, “Restoring the river to what??” The Friends of Los Angeles River state that their mission is to “protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat” (folar.org). The City of Los Angeles claims that the Los Angeles River is a “landmark resource” (larriver.org). Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa says that the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan will create an “emerald necklace” of parks and green spaces surrounding the 32 miles of the river that runs through LA (lariver.org). But what does all this mean for the river itself?
The FoLAR is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1986 with the “utterly attainable” goal of restoring the river and its banks physically but also in the minds of modern Angelenos. The organization aims to change the dismissive view of the LA River as “storm drain” to an idea that the LA River is a place of natural beauty and meditation. Generally the LA River today is thought of as almost a joke and refers in speaking to the LA “River” in quotations. FoLAR however plans to change this image through education of the local LA children and by holding canoeing classes and seminars about the restoration and history of the River.
Obviously restoring to pre-contact times is absolutely impossible. Both sides of the LA River are lined with neighborhoods, 35, 000 businesses, roads and almost 400,000 housing units containing over a million people. To let the river wander like it once did would be the complete relocation of millions of people, cost billions to implement, move more than 80 schools and almost half a million workers with jobs in the Los Angeles River Corridor (lariver.org). Although complete restoration is impossible, current plans bring into question the standards or baselines are for this restoration. The plan shows basically a “bio-engineered” river that consists of rubber dams, concrete eddies, fish ladders and terraced sides (Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan). While these things are necessary in such an overly urbanized area, and will be a great improvement to the current state of the river, the plan also shows green ways and parks that are supposed to provide water clarification, recreational opportunity, and a wildlife refuge corridor. Although there is some mention of using native plant species there are many areas that will be grass to provide areas for soccer fields and such. There are very few to no native grasses outside the bunch grass category in Southern California! While it is impossible to argue that our city neighborhoods don’t need more green space, it would be more reassuring to the conservationist if a bigger emphasis was placed on assuring that large portions of the “emerald necklace” would be dedicated to wildlife.
Another potential issue with the Revitalization Plan is the fact that one of the goals is to create value in some the poorest neighborhoods that border the LA River. From Downtown LA, through Boyle Heights and Compton these neighborhoods have some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation at an average of 20%. The Master Plan argues that bay creating aesthetically and recreationally valuable land along the river, homes values will go up increasing the economic status of some of our poorest neighborhoods. Historically however this does not work. When state or city money is put into a beautification project, money moves to the areas with rising home values. A perfect example of this gentrification is Downtown Los Angeles. After the 50s and 60s, Downtown was down and out. Old movie houses, banks and hotels were changed into cheap or welfare housing for the poor. With the revitalization of Bunker Hill and Historical Downtown Districts there was an exodus of middle and upper class folk into the city (http://www.downtownlagentrification.com). This eventually raised the rent prices and pushed the poor further east to what is currently and also being gentrified, the LA Arts District. Where will the poor go? Although this plan aims to empower and uplift the lower socio-economic brackets it may actually be back-fired upon.
This post was authored by Sherwood Egbert ’13 and Mariah Gill ’12 who are both pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies.
Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, April 2007
The Los Angeles River, Chapter 1 and 2
March 2, 2012
In December 2005, the Swedish Government drew up a plan to drastically reduce the nation’s dependence on oil, essentially making them an oil-free nation by 2020. There were several reasons for this including the growing price of oil affecting growth and employment, the fact that oil still plays a role in global peace and security, the potential for Swedish raw materials as alternatives, and most importantly, the contribution of burning fossil fuels to climate change (a fact that is of little contention in the Swedish government).
The plan for oil independence stems from a view of the world as a shrinking global village where new information and technology give us amazing opportunities to solve issues of survival, among others, energy and climate problems.
Sweden already gets most of its electricity from nuclear and hydroelectric power. Now it’s turning its attention to transport, and petrol and diesel.
There are a number of alternative transport fuels in use today around Sweden, which is ranked the second most environmentally friendly country in the Environmental Performance Index.
Sweden’s ambitious objectives are as follows:
- Through more efficient use of fuel and new fuels, consumption of oil in road transport shall be reduced by 40-50 per cent.
- No oil shall be used for heating residential and commercial buildings
- Industry shall reduce its consumption of oil by 20-45 per cent.
There are many infrastructure changes that need to take place to allow these objectives to be reached. The Commission for this plan outlined five overall strategies:
- Radically more effective use of energy by the whole society – involving the creation of an energy conservation center to monitor objectives.
- Investment in forest fuels and energy crops – major investments in the production of bioenergy from raw materials from forest and field.
- Electricity for a sustainable supply of energy – cooperation between government and industry to lower usage.
- Role of energy gases – increased use of natural gas in liquid form as well as biogas from biomass.
- Control instruments at EU level – Sweden contribute to a tightening of EU emission trading system and other emissions restrictions.
(Commission on Oil Independence. www.sweden.gov.se)
These strategies strive to encompass all sectors of society and would involve more efficient construction of new buildings, more efficient road transport, increase biofuels, making public transport cheaper and more attractive and other steps to decrease dependency on energy altogether and also decreasing the dependency on fossil fuels. There will also be a heavy investment in new energy technology such as solar, wave power and hydrogen gas.
Oddly enough, Sweden’s high alcohol prices have contributed to the new surge of environmental consciousness. Swedish Customs routinely seizes many thousands of liters of liquor from travellers to neighboring Germany and Denmark who have gone to stock up on cheap spirits. All this alcohol was wasted before, but now is saved and converted into biofuel used to power public buses, taxis, garbage trucks, and even a train. The biogas train has been running for six months and has generated international interest.
Not everyone believes Sweden’s goal to free itself from oil by 2020 is achievable, but even critics applaud the country for setting such a motivating goal, which could also inspire other nations to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels. The people of Sweden seem to understand the problem of oil dependency and are pioneering solutions and setting an example for the rest of the world.
As we’ve seen in our readings this semester, water access and supply have played a crucial role in the history of the Los Angeles region. There have been ongoing issues regarding where to get water from and how to transport and store it.
I’m sure that as an ENST major, you’ve all learned about conservation techniques and the importance of lessening your impact. Specifically in LA, our classes have highlighted the wasteful habits that many Angelenos take part in, such as owning a lawn and keeping it fully manicured – in a desert environment. It just doesn’t make sense.
But I’m not here to talk about the negatives happening here in LA. Instead, I’d love to share some knowledge with you guys about how YOU can make a difference. Even here in LA.
We all know to conserve – to turn the water off while we brush our teeth, to take shorter showers – but a less commonly brought up solution to our water problem is reclamation of water in the household! Wastewater that has already been used for domestic activities can actually be reused or filtered on-site. Domestically used water is called greywater, and it can actually be reused as-is for landscape irrigation or can be filtered and used for gardening or domestic use again. The question is, HOW do you do that?!
Last summer I did research in Brazil on sustainable lifestyles. I learned a lot about water reclamation. Some of the techniques I learned are applicable to LA, while others are not.
In Brazil, the banana plant is used as a natural water filter for blackwater (water that contains human waste). The water that is ejected from flush toilets flows through pipes until it is underneath a banana plant that neighbors the house – usually planted specifically for this use. Here, the solid waste is separated from the water-waste and the solid waste falls into a septic tank. The liquid waste and water cleanly re-enter the water cycle because the banana plant roots pull the water up, filter it, and release it back into the water cycle through transpiration. What a cool natural water filtration system!
I also learned tactics that we can use here in LA- where we do not have the climate to support banana plants – such as greywater collection and reuse. One way that greywater can be collected is to put a plastic bin in your shower. As you shower, gallons of water go to waste down the drain – so why not get a little use out of some of that wasted water? After your shower, you can use the water that collects to hydrate the plants in your backyard. Other environmentalists have rigged their plumbing systems to directly divert shower/laundry/sink water into their backyard:
(This 3-way valve allows a resident to choose when to send greywater from the washing machine directly into the irrigation system connected to his or her backyard. The sign reads: “sewer” for when the valve is up, or “greywater” for when the valve is flat.)
If you choose to partake in this practice, Greywateraction.org recommends switching to biodegradable shower products such as Dr. Bronner’s soap. However, the site also notes that some people still use their regular shampoo and their plants are fine – it’s just a question of the other effects of the shampoo/conditioner possible pollution.
Check out this website that talks about using your shower water to water your trees and plants: http://greywateraction.org/content/choosing-plants-and-irrigating-greywater
Information collected from personal interviews in Brazil – June 2011. Research supported by USC Summer Undergraduate Research Fund.
This post was authored by Nina Gordon-Kirsch ’12, who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies with a minor in Marketing.
Every five years, the United States Congress must decide the fate of the Farm Bill, a set of federal laws that govern food and agriculture programs (Johnson). The Farm Bill currently in place, which dates back to 2008, must be either renewed or extended by December of this year, so its relative benefits and detriments are high on politicians’ minds (Kuipers). Those in support of the program view the bill as an assurance that our country has consistent access to “the most abundant, safest, and most affordable food supplies in the world” (Johnson). Those who criticize the bill, on the other hand, find supporting its programs to be ineffective uses of taxpayer money. After learning more about the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program of 1985, however, critics may change their minds.
The continued existence of many species of wildlife in the U.S., especially various types of ground-nesting birds, depends on the Conservation Reserve Program. The idea behind this program is fairly simple: in order to conserve water, replenish soils, and provide open space for wildlife, the federal government agrees to pay landowners — mainly farmers — sums of money to set aside acres of their land where grasses can grow or natural habitats can be restored (Kuipers). This program has almost certainly contributed to the recent boost in the abundance of individuals in particular species. For example, from 1984 to 2000 in South Dakota, the number of pheasants increased from 3.2 million individuals to 8.3 million (Kuipers). Recently, however, the CRP has been in jeopardy of not only losing finances and support from the U.S. Congress, but farmers are also less interested in participating due to the increased value of corn and other crops (Kuipers).
Because of the swelled prices of corn, farmers are deciding against receiving a CRP check and instead choosing to convert their set aside acres to agricultural fields. In 2011, the Plains States including Colorado, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma to name a few, removed 800,000 acres from the CRP. With this decrease in land available to wildlife, the animal populations that increased with the implementation of the CRP will not likely remain stable (Kuipers). One can only hope that the pheasants, sharptail grouses, mules, whitetail deer, and ducks can maintain resilience through the upcoming decisions regarding the Farm Bill and Conservation Reserve Program.
A great deal of the wildlife in the Great Plains will probably suffer due to the loss of CRP land. Moreover, increased prices of corn and farmers’ decisions to turn down federal funds for this conservation program have stretched to affect agriculture in California, as well. The Central Valley grows two-thirds of the world’s almonds, which are water-intensive and high-maintenance crops. Besides requiring tons of plentiful fertilizers, almonds need insect pollinators for successful fertilization (Charles). For this reason, beekeepers ship approximately 1.6 million beehives from the Midwest to the Central Valley of California each year. Bees spend several weeks enjoying the almonds’ blossoms to their own delight and the delight of California farmers. After these few short weeks, however, the bees no longer have viable food sources, and therefore, beekeeper must return them to areas in rural, northern United States where they can dine on plentiful, pesticide-free wildflowers (Charles).
These paradises of wildflowers help to sustain bee populations, and unfortunately, farmers are deciding to convert acres and acres of these natural areas, which largely exist due to federal CRP funds, into profitable croplands. To tie together the relationships discussed, the Conservation Reserve Program of the Farm Bill led to the preservation of habitats ideal for bees, and farmers of the Central Valley critically need these bees to pollinate their almond crops. However, as CRP land acreage decreases due to the current prices of corn and possible future alterations of the Farm Bill, bee populations will suffer, and therefore, almond crop abundance will also likely experience drops. The importance of a program such as the Conservation Reserve Program may not seem blatantly obvious, but it certainly has a positive impact on people all over the country.
This post was authored by Adelaide Rowe ’13 who is majoring in Environmental Studies (BS).
1. Charles, Dan. “Why California Almonds Need North Dakota Flowers (And A Few Billion Bees).” National Public Radio. 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
2. Johnson, Renee. “What Is the “Farm Bill”?” Washington: Congressional Research Service. 3 Jan. 2011. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
3. Kuipers, Dean. “Farm Conservation Program ‘Under the Gun.’” Los Angeles Times. 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
February 23, 2012
The land west of the Mississippi has always been notoriously dry and uninhabitable, even by the nomadic native American tribes in pre-settlement times. The Eastern Colorado Plains, like much of the Westlands, receives little rainfall each year and relies on irrigation for farming purposes. However, these plains are also among the most fertile in the country and consist of “very deep, well drained, slowly permeable soils” (Colorado Agriculture). The South Platte and other such rivers have provided a source of water for agricultural irrigation purposes, but some water is still lost to neighboring states, and the demand for water had led some resource managers to seek out new means of procuring the increasingly valuable resource. The South Platte flows from the Eastern slopes of the Rockies in a northeasterly direction towards Nebraska. The North Platte joins the South Platte in Nebraska after passing through northern Colorado and Wyoming. The two rivers form the Platte mainstem and eventually join the Missouri River in Omaha, NE. Along their journeys, the rivers deliver much-needed irrigation benefits to otherwise parched regions.
In Cadillac Desert, Mark Reisner documents the history of the Narrows Project, a proposed dam project that would flood Weldon Valley and give more water to several large farms. He does not go much into the details regarding which farms benefit, but he outlines the stories of individuals from all walks of life who are for and against the project. Emerging first in 1908, the proposal drifted in and out of the spotlight during the next seven and a half decades, gaining the most attention towards the end of that period. The Narrows was authorized in 1944, and its proponents began their attempt to drum up local support thereafter. It can be assumed, based on Reisner’s later anecdotes on the politicization of water projects, that the beneficiaries of the Narrows Project might be powerful farmers with financial clout. The project was proposed during a time when dams were less associated with environmental degradation and more with development. The Teton Dam had not yet collapsed, and the West was booming agriculturally. Human ingenuity had thus far provided solutions to nature’s impediments, and those with the means to do so fully intended to take advantage of the technology that was available. While farmers may enjoy the direct benefits of a new dam, some of the politicians involved with the project would take advantage of the economic boons.
The graph below tracks the overall increase in agricultural outputs in the USA. It is assumed that big farms in the Eastern Plains wanted to capitalize off this growth in outputs via additional irrigation from the Narrows Project.
The Narrows Project ultimately failed to pass in 1983. A number of factors led to its rejection. Growing awareness of the environment during the 60s and 70s severely hindered the ability of the state government and the Bureau to garner support for the dam. The Endangered Species Act prevented the construction of dams that would negatively affect endangered or threatened species, the Teton Dam disaster occurred in 1976, and further research on the foundation of the proposed Narrows Dam were all important factors in the dismissal of the project. It is unclear why comprehensive geological assessments were not carried out prior to 1976 for the Narrows Project, but C. J. Kruiger and others took note of the porous, disjointed fragments that made up the dam site and were able to recalculate the projected flow figures. Upon finding that the amount of water that reached farmers would likely be maybe a fifth or so of the figures that the Bureau touted, (in conjunction with the fact that farmers would be paying for the amount that left the dam rather than the amount they received) the project lost even more credibility.
The role of ecologists, geologists, and other environmentalists was much larger in the Narrows Project case than in the past. Lessons learned from the Teton Dam, ecological threats, social issues (i.e. relocation), geological surveys, and the growing environmental movement worked together to prevent the Narrows Project from passing. The environmental and political issues that cropped up contributed to the formation of the Platte River joint collaborative, an initiative that sought to provide a politics-based solution to resource issues that plagued the riparian areas around the Platte River. Because the Platte River crosses state borders, the venture could prove useful in creating joint legislative initiatives that aid in managing the whole watershed.
Despite the many environmental risks the dams contained, different stakeholders benefited from the dam project passing in particular Glenn Saunders and Richard Lamm. Glenn Saunders, who was a prominent water lawyer, benefited from the dam projects passing because it allowed him the opportunity to control water from the mountains of Colorado, which is where the water in the state originates. The most particular case of who benefited from the dam project being passed was that of Richard Lamm. Lamm, as stated by Reisner, had established himself as an environmentalist and had taken actions such as prohibiting the Winter Olympics from occurring at Denver (416). However, it can be shown that Lamm benefited from the dam project passing due to the fact that he wanted an increase in agriculture growth. The water that would be gained from passing the dam project would ensure that the agriculture business would flourish and provide Colorado with an economic boost, even if it was at the cost of the environment.
As it is reiterated in the article above, it is these economic benefits and gains that come from the construction of the dam that many proponents, mainly Lamm and Sherman, kept pushing the decision to establish more dams despite the severe environmental ramifications. As Reisner states, the desire to establish a more stable agricultural industry came as a result of agriculture being the the only source if economic gain during the last 125 years in Colorado. In addition to boosting agricultural production, the creation of a dam provided a means by which to prevent development from businesses, in particular, the oil companies, as the particular energy source that was desired was oil shale. The creation of the dam served as a protection against development which would have prevented an economic stability for the state of Colorado.
This post is authored by Annie Guo ’12 majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in International Relations and Mabel Nevarez ’12 also majoring in Environmental Studies.
February 22, 2012
Much of our American history is linked to the way in which our government has chosen, and the people have voted, to control our freshwater resources. Whether it has been through the damming of rivers, the diversion of streams, or the pumping of ground water, countless water control projects have been executed, and as a result the landscape of this nation has undeniably been transformed. These water control methods, generous government subsidies, and the inefficient and indulgent irrigation and water usage practices have contributed to many social, economic and environmental disasters that exist in the California Central Valley today.
The original intent of federal water projects, set out in the Reclamation Act of 1902, was to encourage Western settlement by small family farms. However, over the course of many years this initial motive was lost. The Central Valley Project (CVP) is the largest federal reclamation project in the United States. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWP), as of 2004 the estimated yearly subsidy to farmers receiving CVP water was roughly $60 million. Water subsidies in the Central Valley Project are mainly granted to very large agribusiness operations. The operations are usually under the control of corporations and run by hired farmers instead the small farms for which the project was intended. In this report EWP stated that, “In 2002, the average price for irrigation water from the CVP was less than two percent what Los Angeles residents pay for drinking water and about one-tenth the estimated cost of replacement water supplies.” So not only have the farmers of the Central Valley been getting their water virtually free, they have not even been paying what it costs to deliver and replace the water they have received.
This is a graph showing the price farmers of the Central Valley Project pay for water, in comparison to the costs of water supply replacement and what Los Angeles Residents pay for water. This heavily subsidized water turned out to be an influential factor in many of the water issues California would come to face after the projects implementation. Because receivers of CVP water do not pay for the true cost and value of water, this precious resource has been overused and as a result has led to a host of problems including the inefficient use of water, the devastation of fish and wildlife habitat, severe toxic pollution, and the salinization of our soils. This salinization is a major issue that isn’t always front page news, but is a startling crisis.
Today the most under-recognized water quality problem in California is salinity, the concentration of dissolved solids in water. One of the primary ways salts are added to soil and water supplies is through irrigated agriculture. In the western United States, many soils are classified as saline or alkaline, a direct result of intense agricultural irrigation made possible by cheap water. When water is extracted from the soil, either by plants, evaporation, or irrigation, salts are left behind. Every time a farmer irrigates a field, every time you or I take a shower, every time water is used we contribute to the salinity problem. This is because the water we use has a higher salinity concentration than what it started with. In the case of soil salinization, water-soluble salts build up in the root zones of plants, blocking the absorption of water and nutrients into the plants roots. This problem particularly applies to arid regions, like the western United States, because increased evaporation results in a higher concentration of salt. As the irrigation water evaporates, absorbed by plants, or trapped in overwatered and poorly drained (waterlogged) soils, it increases the dissolved solid content of the soil and water. Eventually this increase in soil salt will inhibit or stop plant growth. Once this happens it is necessary to apply much more water to the field than required for plant growth to flush away salt from the plant root zone. Without proper drainage systems, the soils become waterlogged and the ground water becomes enriched in dissolved salts. Since water is so cheap in the Central Valley there is little to no incentive for farmers to switch to more efficient irrigation and drainage methods, thus the problem of soil salinization is exacerbated. According to the California Water Impact Network irrigation of this land with water exported from the Sacramento Delta and received through the CVP adds an enormous amount of salt to the already-saline soils of the western Valley. As much as 4,000 tons of salt are deposited daily (the equivalent of 40 railroad cars), while only 1,700 tons of salts leave the basin daily in runoff and drainage to the San Joaquin River. Salinization of this magnitude has resulted in the approximately 400,000 acres of saline soils that currently exist in this area. This acreage constitutes approximately 48 percent of the irrigated land within the boundaries of the survey area, up from approximately 33 percent of the irrigated saline land identified in 1985, an increase of approximately 120,000 acres in 18 years. While approximately 113,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have been retired (permanently removed from irrigation) due to regional drainage problems and high salinity content. Salts have toxically poisoned these soils to the point that they are no longer arable. Not only are occurrences such as these detrimental to the environment but they threaten our food security by limiting our ability to produce sustenance, destroy our land resources, and carry negative social and economic implications.
Of course, it would be foolish not to recognize the contributions irrigation has provided for California and many parts of the world. Most of our lives at USC currently depend on the unnatural irrigation of water throughout California. However, the facts do not change, and if we intend to continue living in this desert, we have to be willing to change our practices. It is easy to say that water subsidies should be eliminated, but we have to be willing to accept the consequences of that action. Not only would small farmers probably have to find new work, but also many other people would be displaced vocationally. The cost of any business that uses water or some resource from the corporations that use water would go up dramatically. Our lives would be heavily impacted as well. We’d face much higher prices for water and most goods, many would have to move to locations were the cost and value of water is not as high. The change would be dramatic. But even if it seems unfair or too hard, it is ultimately the only practical way to solve these issues. We’ve seen that technology can’t keep up with these problems, and even if it does it requires a vast amount of energy and resources. As Environmental Studies majors, we have to decide if we would be willing to accept these new living conditions before we expect others to.
Christina Robles ‘12, who is pursing a BS in Environmental Studies and Corey Bustamante ‘13, who is pursing a double major in Environmental Studies and Economics, wrote this blog.
UC Davis, Center for Watershed Science- http://watershed.ucdavis.edu/myths/index.html
Environmental Working Group- http://farm.ewg.org/
Natural Resources Conservation Service- http://soils.usda.gov/survey/online_surveys/california/
California Water Impact Network- http://www.c-win.org/
February 17, 2012
The classic argument against Southern Californian development has always been the issue of water. Many feel that an area of such inadequate resources should never have been allowed to become the economic super power that it was allowed to become. As Reisner stated in his book Cadillac Desert:
“The whole state thrives, even survives, by moving water from where it is, and presumably isn’t needed, to where it isn’t, and presumably is needed. No other state has done as much to fructify its deserts, make over its flora and fauna, and rearrange the hydrology God gave it. No other place has put as many people where they probably have no business being. There is no place like it anywhere on earth. Thirty-one million people (more than the population of Canada), an economy richer than all but seven nations’ in the world, one third of the table food grown in the United States—and none of it remotely conceivable within the preexisting natural order” (Reisner, 333).
In order to meet the incredible demands of city development and agriculture, massive dam and reclamation projects have been undertaken to satisfy these needs over the course of California’s history. Despite their ability to combat water scarcity issues, dams and their construction have brought about a variety concerns. Habitat destruction, the displacement of people, the incredible cost of their construction, and their potential for failure resulting in the loss of human life and property are all commonly held criticisms against damming. Regardless, it is inarguable that extensive measures need to be taken to reconcile human needs with resource scarcity. Having reached the point where our water resources are nearing their limits, we may have to more aggressively consider strategies involving conservation and efficiency as opposed to simple expansion of water systems. However, the traditional path has been the later, bringing water from places of abundance to places in need.
The Central Valley Project is a Federal water project devised in 1933 by the Bureau of Reclamation, to help address the growing water demands of the growers and the depletion of the San Joaquin Valley ground water. Ironically however, by bringing them more water the farmers were enabled to expand their industry and ground waters were even further exploited. This necessitated yet another water development to meet this need, the California State Water Project.
It is interesting to see that in California we are continuing in similar trends whereby our growth leads to increased water needs, and when we eventually address such needs, we respond with further growth and a renewed need for water. A Public Policy report released by the public policy institute of California argues that our current model is largely insufficient to meet California’s growing needs. This scarcity of water they claim has led to increased competition among agricultural and urban water users. This they believe has further contributed to issues of water quality and ecological degradation. The current system also leaves us fairly vulnerable to events such as drought or flood. This report instead proposes that measures be taken to more closely monitor and regulate our water resources with an increased concern for environmental impacts. Conservation efforts also contribute largely to their strategy. Reconsidering how water is priced was one suggestion they made for encouraging conservation on the part of both individuals and industry. Regardless of how we attempt to implement water conservation efforts, it is becoming increasingly clear that unrestricted water consumption and indefinite expansion of water systems cannot be a part of California’s long-term strategy.
The policies implemented by California throughout the 19th century helped to establish a viable and continuous water supply that would be able to support a growing population, especially one that is likely to surpass 38 million by 2012 in an arid region naturally unfit for a community that size. It also coincided with a time when funding needs for water projects were easily met. Damming was initially thought to be an effective solution to providing a sustainable water yield to California because of its ability to provide cheaper electricity, create reservoirs for periods of extended drought, as well as preventing floods and regulating late runoff. It also has the ability to alter the flow-path of major rivers and transport that water across long distances. However, with any project of that magnitude, there are serious environmental repercussions that have surfaced in the past, and with such little room for error in the design and construction phases, it’s not hard to imagine how and why dams have failed and pose such a threat to everything positioned downstream and in the surrounding vicinities.
With dams came a ‘high risk; high reward’ scenario, and the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir in 1963 serves as a good example of the type of risk that creates such controversy over these types of water projects. The effect of the subsidence of a nearby oil field led to the failure of the reservoir, leading to the destruction of 277 homes and 5 lives. Understanding the science is key to lowering the amount of risk, and it has been proven time and time again throughout history to be greatly underestimated. The $100 million dollar loss that came about in 1976 during the filling phase of the Teton Dam in Idaho serves as another perfect example favoring the ‘high risk” scenario. Poor construction led to a face that was easily eroded and eventually compromised the dam’s structural integrity, causing it to collapse. It was a costly oversight that goes to show how little was actually understood about the hydrogeology of the region and what environmental effects would surface in the wake of such large-scale changes to the land. It also shows how unprepared we are and have been in the past for such catastrophic events to occur. It is this lack of knowledge that ultimately allows for the small errors to cause large disasters.
In general, improvements in the design and construction phases of massive water projects in the U.S. have gotten better with time, but after bearing witness to the plethora of negative effects from dams, both ecological and anthropogenic, one can see why the hard path approach to secure higher quantities of water creates more opportunities for problems. By using the soft path approach to better utilize and conserve water, we will improve, as a society, our ability to sustainably use our resources and lower the risks we pose to ourselves and the environment.
This post was written by Jeffrey Nakashioya ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and Genivieve McCormick ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies.
Hannak, Ellen, Jay Lund, and Areil Dinar. Managing California’s Water: From Conflicts to Resolution. Public Policy Institure of California, 2011.
The following link includes the film Cadillac Desert, broken into 6-7min YouTube clips. These videos are also available as VHS cassettes from most public libraries.
As the largest wholesaler of water in the country, the Bureau of Reclamation has been responsible for building various dams across the United States. The bureau now provides water for over 31 million people, and provides irrigation for one in five American farmers (1). However, in an effort to seek more and more sources of irrigation, the bureau began to choose dam sites that were less than desirable. As we read in this week’s reading of Cadillac Desert, all of the logical dam sites have already been built, leaving the Bureau to then begin damming up sites that have previously been rejected some forty years previously. As our population grows, and the sources of water diminish, the pressure on the Bureau of Reclamation to build more dam sites has increased as well. While many of these dams have turned out to be successful, disasters such as the failure of the Teton dam provide constant worry. The potential for a catastrophic disaster has only increased over time as multiple dams have been built on the same waterway. Now if one dam fails, the excess water will proceed to cause the next dam to also fail, with a domino effect capable of causing significant damage.
The bureau’s greatest disaster, the Teton dam, provides an interesting illustration of what can happen when bureaucracy transcends logical science to achieve an economic goal. The Teton dam was built in Northern Idaho, in order to provide irrigation to the many potato farmers in the region. It would provide irrigation to an area that already on average received 132 inches of irrigation a year, which amounts to five times the rainfall in the farmlands of Iowa. The dam’s original selling point was to provide a stable water source for these farmers, after two years of moderate drought (where ironically the crop yields were higher than normal) and a flood. While this certainly doesn’t provide sufficient reason to build a dam on a previously rejected site, everyone bought into the idea, and the construction was quickly underway. Aside from the Geologic Survey report presented to the Bureau, four regional geologists also submitted a statement that did in fact heed caution towards the safety of the dam, especially if an earthquake should arise, due to the semi-solid rhyolitic rock foundation. However, when the bureau calculated the cost and benefit analysis for building the dam, when factoring in the worst possible floods that could result without the dam; they ignored the concerns and decided to continue with construction. The project was officially finished in October of 1975, and they began to divert the river to fill the dam. Less than a year later, the excessively high water level, combined with insufficient outlets, eventually led to failure during the first filling of the reservoir. At 350 feet, this dam was the highest to ever fail, releasing billions of gallons of water. It resulted in 11 deaths, countless lost livestock, and nearly a billion dollars of damage (2).
It turns out that the chapter title, “Those who refuse to learn…,” is increasingly appropriate because just this year the Bureau of Reclamation has completed a study to assess the rebuilding of the Teton dam. While officials say the re-build is still in the distant future, it is certainly in the conversation as a solution to Idaho’s water storage problem. The new cost of the Teton dam is estimated around $550 million, but is compared to the $10 billion Idaho economy that may be in risk without water (3). Unfortunately, this discussion of the dams in this region is still centered primarily on the economic impact, rather than the geological and environmental consequences of another large-scale project. Additionally, many geologists expressed their concerns with the selection of this site for a dam, the first time it was built. Even if they rebuild the dam in a slightly different way, it is concerning to think they may try to rebuild the dam in a geologically inadequate location. It shall be fascinating to see how this plays out in the future, as the aquifer below Idaho is currently running a 600,000 acre feet water deficit, and the Teton dam provides the largest storage area, of 200,000 acre feet of water. Hopefully, regardless of their decisions, the Bureau of Reclamation will be able to avoid disaster this time.
This post was authored by Melissa Krigbaum ’12, a double major in Economics (BA) and Environmental Studies (BA).
- Bureau of Reclamation website http://www.usbr.gov/main/about/
- Teton Dam Failure http://web.mst.edu/~rogersda/teton_dam/
- Years after failure, Teton Dam continues to spark debate
- Teton Dam rebuild still option for water storage
February 10, 2012
The City of Los Angeles like all other civilizations is dependent upon water to continue and sustain life. The difference between Los Angeles and other high population areas is water sources. Los Angeles is located in an arid desert where water is scarce. Currently it has aqueducts and dams all across the state and in neighboring states to provide water to its residents. It is hardly believable that this grand city that we live in today with over 10 million people was once a town that did not have enough water to promote expansion. This week we read about the history of Los Angeles’ source of water and the development of technology and engineering that has allowed this city to grow. Its history dates back to the late 1800’s in the early formations of the city. Considered an area of potential for its sunny climate and ocean-cooled air, the possibilities of agricultural growth seemed unlimited. Its climate could enable a number of different fruits and vegetables to be grown simultaneously. Along with the oil discoveries many began packing there belongings and moving to the west coast in search of the American Dream. The limiting growth would be the access to fresh water to supply irrigation and provide for its residents.
Before Los Angeles could be become a developed and well known city there were a number of individuals who were instrumental in its expansion of water accessibility. Each individual was drawn to Los Angeles for similar reasons but ultimately for its potential wealth. Before describing what is now known as the California Water Wars it’s important to take a look at the direct players most active in its inception and implementation. After arriving in its infancy Harrison Otis Gray took over and became editor of the Times and Mirror and he would eventually be an investor within the San Fernando Valley. Harry Chandler, who believed in potential of the San Fernando Valley as an irrigated agricultural mecca, owned almost all the newspaper circulation routes within the city. William Mulholland immigrated to the United States from Dublin, Ireland and stumbled his way into the authority of the Los Angeles Water Company which eventually would be taken over by the city government. Fred Eaton was born and raised in CA by his family who founded Pasadena and became a self-taught hydrologic engineer. During that time Los Angeles relied on groundwater as its main source and Eaton understood that groundwater was a nonrenewable source that eventually would be depleted as the city began to grow. Eaton knew there was a source of water at in the Owens Valley and was the first to believe that it could be used as a viable prospective of alternative water supply for the growing city.
With an increasing population and water demand Mulholland, superintendent to the Los Angeles Water Company began to search for alternative sources and with the help of long time friend Fred Eaton, Owens Valley was the primary target. The procedures and manner in which Los Angeles claimed authority over the Owens Valley River is largely contested and one that promotes an ethical dilemma. Eaton, Mulholland and engineering consultant Joseph Lippincott began secretly buying land and water rights from Owen Valley residents while giving off the impression that their intentions were unrelated to the water. Meanwhile Chandler and Gray began buying land within Sand Fernando Valley knowing that the extra water from the Owens Valley River would end up irrigating their lands. This entire fiasco ended up blowing up within the press and eventually became a large source of contention between Los Angeles and the Owen Valley. This resulted in protests and vandalism to the water lines that carried the water from to the basin and the city. Ultimately because Los Angeles was larger and deemed more important, the Owens Valley lost water rights and the town was destroyed.
In class a couple weeks ago we discussed the oil boom within Los Angeles and the corruption of political leaders siding with capital over the health of there residents. The incident with Owens Valley reminds me of the political schemes and plots to become wealthy and is a clear example of how greed and pride are motivating forces behind many of the decisions that were made regarding Los Angeles’s source of water.
This post was authored by Jasmine Davis ’12 who is pursuing a BA in Environmental Studies.
February 8, 2012
Southern California’s moderate, semi-arid climate helped Los Angeles to become the thriving city that it is today. As present-day residents, we never have to worry about severe rainstorms, let alone harsh snow falls. We don’t even experience the blistering hot temperatures that desert cities endure. On top of having near-perfect weather almost everyday of the year, we don’t even experience the hardships that come along with droughts! How is this possible? We don’t get enough rain to make our lives uncomfortable, but we also don’t feel the repercussions of being in a constant drought. I guess we have William Mulholland and Fred Eaton to thank for the manufactured Utopia we live in.
Each man arrived in Los Angeles for different reasons: Mulholland for curiosity and Eaton for his strong family ties. Each man later played a major role in tapping into a water source that changed the way of life in Los Angeles forever. The building of the Los Angeles aqueduct diverts water from the Owens River all the way to the city. Eaton, an engineer and superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company, determined that such a feat was not only possible but would also make him and his successor, Mulholland, wealthy for a lifetime and notorious for even longer.
A key obstacle in the quest for Owens Valley water would be the resistance from Owens Valley landowners. For this reason, Eaton determined that the best way to obtain the water he desired would be to work closely with a small number of Owens Valley landowners and engineers and deceive the rest. He took several crucial steps towards the construction of the aqueduct. First, he persuaded the Reclamation Service engineer, J.B. Lippincott to help him to receive the deeds he needed for his project. This included cajoling Lippincott into choosing a reclamation project proposed by the Nevada Power Mining and Milling Company. Thomas Rickey, the owner of the reservoir site necessary for the aqueduct, ran this company. Finally, Eaton bought up many plots of Owens Valley land for seemingly overpriced sums. Though deceptive, all of Eaton’s actions were legal, and to the dismay and outrage of Owens Valley residents, the Los Angeles Aqueduct would be built and slowly suck the valley’s water supply dry.
After a brief filibuster in Congress, construction began. The aqueduct was then built over six years on a tight budget. The city could barely afford to pay the workers, but Mulholland, the new superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Company, was able to win the workers’ dedication. On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened, and water cascaded down the sluiceway into the San Fernando Valley.
The building of the aqueduct led to an influx of new Los Angeles residents from all over the country. The city thrived on its borrowed, or stolen, water. Not even a severe 1920s drought could crush the thriving city, thanks to the aqueduct bringing water from 233 miles away. To sustain further growth, Los Angeles would need water storage. Frustrated, Mulholland realized that he would need to dry out, or rather buy out, Owens Valley. Mulholland worked to obtain water rights to the valley from small irrigators: farmers and ranchers. This land grab led to a small series of battles, including the demolition of an irrigational diverter, the destruction of aqueduct pipes, and seizures of aqueduct gates.
Adding to Mulholland’s ruin, his reckless and careless engineering finally caught up to him, and his Saint Francis Dam collapsed. The resulting flood caused an estimated 450 deaths, causing bodies to wash ashore as far away as San Diego. His character was ruined, but his legacy was not. It has lived on in Los Angeles’s continued search for water for almost a century. As Los Angeles has grown in both population and size, it has reached farther and farther for water, even to the Colorado River.
Negative effects from Mulholland’s legacy can still be seen today. The valley has reached an appearance akin to Salt Flats, complete with toxic dust storms, and Owens Lake has dried up. The mineral-laced basin has been the single largest source of particulate pollution in the country. In 2007, restoration efforts succeeded in getting water flowing along the Lower Owens River again. Under the “Inyo/Los Angeles Water Agreement” Inyo and LADWP have committed to restoring the 60-mile reach of the river. To control dust storms, there is a plan to construct a pump system at the north end of Owens Lake, utilizing automated gates at the point where the river veers into the aqueduct to steer some water into the original riverbed. This flow would help sustain the growth of cottonwood trees, waterfowl, and other plants and animals. Although past wrongs can’t be undone, this project may steer Owens Valley back on course. There is already enough water for kayakers to enjoy the Lower Owens River area once again.
This restoration effort has had some setbacks, however. By 2011, tules and cattails had grown much quicker than anticipated—choking off portions of the river and limiting recreational activities. Mark Hill, the lead scientist of the Lower Owens River Project points out that the project has been a success for wildlife. 3,000 acres of water and wetland have been created, and there are an estimated 4,000 largemouth bass per mile, 2,000 bluegill per mile, and 108 species of birds. Although the restored river is not as accessible to recreation as people had hoped, the great ecological strides are at least steps to be proud of.
Inyo County Water Department
LA Times: Tule vegetation infests Lower Owens River http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/25/local/la-me-tules-20110725
Just Add Water The Owens Valley Land Grab
NYT: A Century Later, Los Angeles Atones for Water Sins
This post was written by Adelaide Rowe ’13 and Christopher Miranda ’12, who are each pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies.