Friday, April 17, 2015

Watering the Grass Roots in LA

Excerpt From: Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Volume 2, Brad Lancaster, 2008, 2010.

Thought Seeds
Don't pray for rain, if you can't take care of what you get.”
--  R.E. Dixon (1937) Superintendent, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Spur, Texas

As reported by American Rivers, development and excessive impervious paving in Atlanta, Georgia and surrounding counties contributes to a yearly loss of rainwater infiltration ranging from 57 to 133 billion gallons. If managed on site, this rainwater -- which could support annual household needs of 1.5 to 3.6 million people -- would filter through the soil to recharge aquifers, and increase underground flows to replenish rivers, streams, and lakes.

Volume 2 Foreword by Andy Lipkis

As president of TreePeople, a nonprofit organization I founded 37 years ago, I like to say that we are helping nature heal our cities. Our work is to inspire people to take personal responsibility and participate in making their cities sustainable urban environments. Our prime focus is to support people in designing, planting, and caring for functioning community forests in every neighborhood in Los Angeles (at the time of this writing, one of the world’s least sustainable megacities).

Forests are natural sustainability infrastructure. Trees are THE basic earthwork. Amongst other things, trees and forests, and the highly porous and mulched soil beneath them, capture, slow, filter, store, and recycle rainwater, and thereby recharge streams, groundwater aquifers, and springs. They provide protection from droughts, floods, and pollution — cleaning the water so it’s drinkable and usable. Trees and forests sustain life. Unfortunately, when most cities were created, the land’s original watershed functionality was unwittingly destroyed. The idea behind functioning community forests is to plant trees and manage the land in cities in a way that mimics natural forests, bringing water, protection, and resources back to urban residents. However, since urbanization has sealed so much of the land with buildings, roads, and parking lots, simply planting trees and creating green spaces often isn’t enough to make up for the lost watershed. By adding additional rainwater harvesting technologies that are designed to mimic nature, such as earthworks — infiltration pits, swales, and cisterns — it is possible to replace the watershed and ecosystem functions that were lost.

The magnitude of the water crisis — and the opportunity — became clear to me in 1992, when the US Army Corps of Engineers proposed to spend half a billion dollars to increase the capacity of the Los Angeles River by raising the height of its concrete walls. The Corps determined that the Los Angeles area had been so overpaved that, instead of soaking into the ground, rainwater from a 100-year storm event would rush off all the paved and sealed surfaces so quickly that it would overwhelm the river and flood the nearby cities of southern L.A. County.

It was at that moment that the “How Yur Tanks?” [note: he refers to habitual greeting of rural Australians] lessons clicked for me. I wondered how much of our 14.7 inches (373 mm) of average annual rainfall we were throwing away each year, and whether we could use that half billion dollars for cisterns to capture and use that precious rainwater, just like the Australians.

I asked the county’s flood control engineers and they dismissed the idea, stating that replacing the river walls would require installing a 20,000-gallon (75,800-liter) tank at each of one million homes — an expensive and impossible task. The local water supply and stormwater quality agencies had similar responses to my questions. The idea was too expensive for their individual missions and budgets and would require what they all considered to be completely unacceptable lifestyle changes on the part of the public. In the process of these discussions, however, I learned that our average rainfall, if harvested and used appropriately, could replace the portion of our imported water that we use for landscape irrigation — roughly half of the one billion dollars worth of water the city of Los Angeles IMPORTED every year.

What seemed impossible to the agencies was perfectly logical to me. Having participated in design and deployment of LA City’s extraordinarily successful curbside recycling program that now serves 750,000 households, the magnitude of the task didn’t worry me. I researched and found out that the separate water-related agencies had separate, unconnected plans to spend a combined $20 billion in the next decade or so to upgrade or repair their respective systems, yielding only “band-aids” with no overall improvement in sustainability of the region.

So, I began designing a 20,000-gallon (75,800-liter) cistern that could safely fit in a small urban yard without compromising anyone’s lifestyle or posing any threat during our occasional earthquakes. It turned out to be a modular 2-foot-wide, linear, recycled food-grade plastic tank that could replace the fence or wall that separates most urban and suburban residential properties. Further, I proposed to outfit all the tanks with wireless remote-controlled valves and pumps that would enable flood control, water supply, and stormwater quality officials to centrally manage the multitude of independent tanks as one highly adaptable storage network.

The networked mini-reservoirs could thereby perform at least triple service for potentially less money than all the agencies’ separate projects. By adapting all the areas’ landscapes to become functioning community forest watersheds, my system was intended to produce multiple additional benefits such as creating tens of thousands of new green-collar jobs, saving copious amounts of electricity (by reducing air conditioning needs with well-placed shade trees AND reducing the pumping required to import water over the mountains into Los Angeles), reusing all garden and landscape biomass and prunings on site as mulch, creating a new local plastic recycling industry product and market, and creating a disaster-resilient backup local water supply.

This was a lovely and compelling vision, but no one in an official capacity took it seriously. I realized I’d need to do something to prove that the idea was feasible, both technically and economically. That notion turned into a six-year program of design, feasibility, and cost-benefit analysis that became known as the T.R.E.E.S. Project (Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability). It involved hundreds of engineers, landscape and building architects, foresters, scientists, and economists who collaborated to create a book full of designs and specifications (Second Nature, TreePeople, 2000) to retrofit or adapt every major land use in Los Angeles to function as urban forest watersheds. Other team members spent two years conducting a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. And finally, we built a demonstration project, adapting a single-family home in South Los Angeles. An overview of the story of the T.R.E.E.S. Project can be found at

The demonstration site, known as the Hall House (named for its owner, Rozella Hall), had a relatively simple set of interconnected earthworks designed to capture, clean, store, and use rainwater from a massive storm event, and prevent any of the rainwater or biomass from leaving the property and thus being wasted. We built berms around the lawns, installed a mulched swale, put in a diversion drain to pick up driveway runoff and carry it to a sand filter under the lawn, fabricated and installed two modular 1,800-gallon (6,822-liter) fence-cisterns which were fed by rooftop rain gutters through a filter, then connected to the irrigation system, and finally, planted a trellis “green wall” of climbing roses to shade and cool the house’s sun-heated south-facing wall. We also removed 30% of the lawn and replaced the remaining turf area with drought-tolerant grass.

Then, on a hot  August day in 1998, we invited our agency partners, numerous public works officials, and the news media to see the demonstration house. We handed them umbrellas and unleashed a 1,500-year flood event, pumping and spraying on that one house 4,000 gallons (15,160 liters) of water in ten minutes. Officials huddled in stunned silence as they watched the water fall and flow, pooling in the bermed lawns and cistern. They saw that none of the water flowed to the street and stormdrain system. They saw how, in that one instant, their annual billion-dollar burden of separate infrastructure systems and needs were elegantly bundled and handled. The result: no stormwater pollution, no street flooding, no greenwaste, dramatic water and energy savings, more attractive landscape, and potentially thousands of new jobs.

The head of LA County Public Works’ flood control division couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and proclaimed that the simple elegance meant this demonstration could be easily replicated. A day later, after he and his staff reviewed both our engineered designs and cost-benefit analysis, he called me: “I’m sorry. We didn’t understand. We think you’ve cracked it. Your idea needs to be deployed throughout the whole county, but it’s going to cost more and take more time than you think. But despite that, we need to begin scaling this up immediately. We’d like to try this idea to solve one of the county’s most persistent urban flooding problems.”

That was the beginning of the Sun Valley Watershed project, located in the City of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. After a successful two-year feasibility study, the County Public Works Department launched a thorough “stakeholder-led” watershed management planning and environmental impact analysis. Six years later, both the plan and environmental report were approved; construction of the first project began within a few weeks. The plan calls for the retrofit of 20% to 40% of the watershed’s 8,000 homes, and installation of a diverse network of earthworks. The earthworks mix ranges from simple to complex, beginning with tree planting, pavement removal, mulching, and berming. On the more complex end, the projects will include installing street swales, and school watershed parks that replace asphalt play yards with permeable greenspaces above large underground infiltration systems and cisterns. Details of the Sun Valley Watershed Plan, progress and planning process are available at

The Sun Valley Watershed planning process informed and transformed many of the participating agencies and organizations and inspired others who followed the process. For example, Los Angeles County Public Works formed a new, integrated Watershed Management Division. The City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation launched and completed its first ever Integrated Resources Plan for Water. And among several cities outside the Los Angeles area, the City of Seattle initiated its Salmon Friendly Seattle program, which seeks to restore viable salmon habitat throughout the metropolitan area by revitalizing watershed and forest functionality in all the city’s neighborhoods.

There are several keys to the projects’ successes so far:

1) we demonstrated that these adaptations represented acceptable and attractive lifestyle changes that would be politically palatable;

2) we demonstrated with rigorous engineering that they were technically feasible, safe, and capable of solving pressing problems;

3) we demonstrated that they were economically feasible by identifying multiple outcomes and benefits that altogether would over time save money for the assembled funding partners; and

4) we engaged and educated all the stakeholders from both the community (including children) and relevant agencies.

This story is far from over. As it continues to unfold it presents a variety of political, jurisdictional, and regulatory issues and problems that we work to resolve. My initial vision was that so much water and money could be saved by local governments that agencies would help individuals and businesses cover the costs of installing and maintaining the systems on their properties. That is now happening in some cities, such as Santa Monica, Seattle, and Houston, that are giving grants for cisterns and water-saving landscapes.

As we confront growing water-quality and supply issues, plus the increased threat of flooding and weather-related calamities, it is increasingly urgent that we find ways of adapting our homes, neighborhoods, towns, and cities to become climate change and disaster resilient. You have a huge role to play in protecting your household and region by personally implementing some of the water-harvesting practices detailed in this book. If you do this, and make yours a demonstration project, you will help prove that it is feasible and attractive for your region. You will make it more politically palatable, so your local politicians can pass laws, change ordinances and codes, and make resources available to help others implement on a wide scale. And then, collectively, we just might tip the balance and put our nation on the road to a healthy, just, and sustainable future.

Dig in and have fun.
-Andy Lipkis

Andy Lipkis is president of TreePeople, a Los Angeles-based social-profit organization that he founded in 1973. Andy collaborates with leaders, cities, businesses, and agencies to identify and implement natural-systems-based solutions to human, social, and infrastructure problems. He co-wrote, with his wife and partner Kate, “The Simple Act of Planting A Tree: A Citizen Foresters’ Guide to Healing Your Neighborhood, Your City and Your World”, and has been recognized and honored as one of the founders of the Citizen Forestry movement.

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