USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

March 19, 2013

LA River: Blast from the Past Goes Natural

Filed under: California Drought — lecollin @ 10:47 am

Fun fact of the day- the last time a native species was caught in the Los Angeles River was 1943. How’s that for a little bit of history? Channelized in 1938 by the Army Corp of Engineers after devastating floods cost the city millions in damages, the 51 mile river was transformed into a manageable waterway with the ability to support human expansion. Consequently, however, this distorted the natural ecosystems and resulted in harm to plant and animal species of native Southern Californian (Gumprecht 221).

Nearly 75 years later, a new initiative has been in development since April 2007 in order to restore the river to it’s previous natural state. Aptly titled, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Project, it is a multi-million dollar project funded with $100,000 from the Obama Administration, $350,000 from The Army Corps of Engineers, and $1 million from the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Additionally, the expected economic impacts as estimated by the L.A. River Restoration committee believe that, “every dollar invested by the public is expected to lead to four dollars of subsequent private investment.” Harder to quantify is the impact on job creation as each project provides both short and long term employment with a multiplier effect leading to further employment opportunities for Los Angeles residents (LA River Revitalization Master Plan Ch. 7- 31)

Two main overarching concerns involved in revitalizing L.A.’s concrete river are water quality and flood control. Untreated urban runoff is a haven for bacteria and viral microorganisms. Being that approximately 2,200 storm drains lead into the L.A. river, marine life and even public health is at risk. The water, in response to an overwhelming influx of nitrogen compounds discharged by treatment plants such as the Donald Tillman Water Reclamation Plant (WRP), the Los Angeles-Glendale WRP, and the Burbank WRP, has undergone mass eutrophication. Additionally, anything downstream of the Sepulveda basin has been made toxic by lead, zinc, cadmium, copper, chromium and nickel metals from pesticide runoff.

The loss of at least 90% of riparian vegetation along the river is also related to this as literally 100% of original wetlands in the Los Angeles watershed have been lost according to the California Coastal Conservancy, creating a weakness in terms of flood control as very little exists to absorb or buffer-cleanse these waters now. The Sepulveda basin and Glendale Narrows are the only two areas that support any natural riparian habitat, but these have been increasingly encroached upon by urban development, trash debris, and exotic species            

While history has been bleak for the area, the future is looking environmentally greener and (dare we say it?) even economically greener. Though the Los Angeles River Revitalization Project is expected to take many years and is quite expensive, there is no doubt in the necessity of such a project. Providing jobs opportunities, creating public and private investments, adding cultural value to the area with envisioned parks and bike trails, the project will be monumental in improving nearly every aspect of Los Angeles county while cleaning the air and water of 3.8 million Angelinos.

By: Rian Downs and Esmy Jimenez

Works Cited & For More Information:
Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore and London. 2011. 221-33.


California Desalination: Economics and Water Savings Trump Environmental Debates

Earth is nicknamed the blue planet, and rightfully so, because the majority of earth is covered in water. So how is it then that we could possibly be running out of our water resources? Mainly, because as our population grows, so does our demand for water. But we are also using groundwater faster than it can recharge and degrading other water resources through pollution. Additionally, about 96% of the world’s water is found in the oceans, and due to its salt content, it is essentially unusable for human activities. The fact that water is not being used sustainably and that much of earth’s water cannot be used at all will make water one of the most sought after resources in the future, not just in the United States, but also worldwide.

Many scientists seek to answer the question of how to combat this water crisis. Some say that we must work diligently to preserve and protect the water sources that we have already tapped into. But others believe that we should try to find additional sources of water.

One such solution to doing this is desalination. Desalination is the process that removes salt from water. Desalinating water would make salty waters, such as the oceans, accessible to humans, adding to water supplies that can be used for our everyday needs.

Desalination is most commonly done in one of two ways, either through distillation or reverse osmosis. To distill salt water, it must be boiled, and the water vapor must be captured in a different container. The water vapor then cools, becoming liquid water again, but the salts are left behind, because they boil at a much higher temperature than water.       Reverse osmosis is much more complicated and much more money and energy intensive. In this process, water moves from high to low solute concentrations, which is the opposite of how osmosis actually works. To do this water is pushed by the force of spinning rotors through a selectively permeable membrane, leaving the salts behind.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the implementation of these processes on large and small scales. To desalinate water for larger areas, desalination plants have been put into place. But with the construction of these energy extensive plants, a new question is posed: are the plants worth their cost?

To substantialize the argument of whether or not these plants justify the cost, two Southern California plants in particular will be investigated, the Carlsbad Desalination Project and the Huntington Beach Seawater Desalination Facility.  These two plants are both in the vicinity of Los Angeles and neither of these plants are active currently.

The Carlsbad Desalination Project is projected to be the biggest desalination plant in the nation. Both the Carlsbad and the Huntington plants use reverse osmosis techniques, which as stated above, are very expensive and energy and intensive. However, this source of water does give the San Diego area water stability that is not subject to drought and that does not rely on diversion from the Colorado River. The plant, when it’s fully up and running should be producing 50 million gallons a day, reaching 7% of the region’s demand.

Unfortunately the cost to build the plant alone is around $734 million. On top of these costs, it will be approximately $2,014 to $2,257 per acre-foot of water produced. As of now, it only costs about $1,000 per acre-foot of water through the Water Authority. The desalination plant shows a clear increase in price per acre-foot of water. Another cost that needs to be taken into account is the fact that these plants are at sea level because they are using the salt water from oceans. This means that to transport the water anywhere, it most likely needs to be pumped uphill from the sea level plant. Though no concrete numbers could be found for how much it would cost to pump this water, it will be high, because water in large quantities can be quite heavy.

The Huntington Beach Seawater Desalination Facility will have much of the same benefits and costs of the Carlsbad facility. It too should supply about 50 million gallons of water to its surrounding region once it is up and running. Due to the smaller size, this plant is projected to cost only $350 million dollars to build, but this is still a significant sum of money. It will also cost around $2,000 per acre-foot of water, which is more than it currently costs.

The downside to all of these costs is that at least some of the money has to come from the people that are receiving water from the plants. Clearly some of the money for these costs will come from the state of California, or even from the cities and counties of the respective plants. However, most people will see an increase in their water bills to account for the greater cost of their water.

Some might say that these plants are worth the costs, because it gives reliable, fresh water to many people in the surrounding areas. And with the fact that large amounts of water are being diverted away from other bodies of water, such as the Colorado River, it would make sense to get water from local sources. If there were no viable alternatives to desalination, the building of these plants and future plants would make a lot of sense.

However, water conservation and water recycling are much more cost efficient ways to obtain more water. Conserving and recycling water allows for water that is already being utilized to be used again and prevents the need for finding new sources of water, such as the ocean. This then eliminates all of the expenses that come along with desalination plants. Conserving water is straightforward; it is just simply using less water, or using the same amount in more effective ways. For example, taking shorter showers is a way to use less water. Watering plants and lawns at night is a way to more efficiently use water, so not as much of it will evaporate and more of it will make it to its intended targets, the plants or grass. The possibilities of using less water are endless; people just have to be willing to change their routines.

Recycling water would be a process of taking used water, treating it, and reusing it right away instead of putting it back into natural water ways or ground water. Many people have issues with using this “grey water,” but it is actually cleaner after being treated, and it saves money and water. If the stigma of using this water can be overcome, then this could be a very efficient way to use water.

These alternatives to desalination force us to recommend against the high costs of these plants. There are more cost effective and environmentally friendly ways to obtain water; they just have to be utilized. Overall, research shows that desalination plants are very expensive and that the rewards may be too little to justify the steep costs.

By Ashley Erickson and Devin Grigsby.

Ashley is a sophomore from Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently an environmental science and health major at the University of Southern California and hopes to one day have a career as a pediatric oncologist. As for now, she loves taking her environmental science classes, and wants to continue to learn about ways to make the earth a better place for everyone to live.

Devin is a sophomore, undeclared major. He went to high school in Seattle, WA. He is particularly interested in sustainability and agriculture. He enjoys traveling, athletics, and music. Believer in Karma.


Works Cited

Barringer, Felicity. “California, What Price Water?” The New York Times 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2013.

“Carlsbad Desalination Project.” San Diego County Water Authority. San Diego County Water Authority, 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

Elimelech, M., and W. A. Phillip. “The Future of Seawater Desalination: Energy, Technology, and the Environment.” Science 333.6043 (2011): 712-17.Web.

Fletcher, Jaimee L. “H.B. Desalination Debate Heats Up Again, This Time Over Costs.” Orange County Register. 29 Nov. 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Popper, K., R. L. Merson, and W. M. Camirand. “Desalination by Osmosis-Reverse Osmosis Couple.” Science 159.3821 (1968): 1364-365. Web.

“Proposed Desalination Facility in Huntington Beach Wins Permit.” Web log post. L.A. Now. The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Szytell, Jeff. “Supply from the Sea: Exploring Ocean Desalination.” American Water Works Association 97.2 (2005): 54-57. JSTOR. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.

Wesner, G.M., and Russel L. Culp. “Wastewater Reclamation and Seawater Desalination.” Journal (Water Pollution Control Federation) 44.10 (1972): 1932-939. Web.


California Making Strides in Water Clean-Up Efforts

Filed under: California Drought — Tags: , , — lecollin @ 10:44 am

Minerals found in Los Angeles’ coastal waters are now being used to determine the extent of pollution from stormwater runoff. These minerals provide evidence that the Clean Water Act is effective, though more needs to be done to protect water resources.

The Clean Water Act was amended from the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972 and has since become one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation. The amended act allowed the EPA to implement pollution control programs around the country by setting water quality standards and managing stormwater and factory runoff. The goals stated in the 2008-2010 report ( included reducing primary pollutants by managing stormwater runoff.

Stormwater runoff is the largest source of water pollution in Los Angeles. Over 90% of stormwater runs off into the ocean without treatment of any kind. Runoff accumulates from off rooftops, agricultural lands, roadways, and urban areas. Pesticides, petroleum products, metals, and acids are among the common pollutants found in stormwater runoff. These chemicals negatively impact the health of wildlife living in coastal waters. Furthermore, these chemicals pose a risk to organisms drinking water contaminated with runoff.

Among these contaminants are heavy metals like cadmium, nickel, and lead. Due mainly to anthropogenic sources, these metals are frequently carried by runoff into coastal waters. There they are taken up by small marine organisms and stored in the animals’ fatty tissue in a process called bioaccumulation. As larger organisms consume contaminated prey, more metals accumulate up the food web. Contaminated fish may eventually reach our plates.

Scientists use these metals to track the presence of other contaminants and to quantify any changes in contaminant levels as a result of clean water legislation.

In a study published in 2012, data of coastal contaminants off California before the enactment of the Clean Water Act was compared to the data from after its enactment (Smail). Samples taken in the 1970s showed high concentrations of toxic metals including cadmium, silver, nickel, copper, lead, and barium (Image 1). The study found a significant decrease in metal contaminants found off the coast of California after the implementation of the Clean Water Act.

The decrease in contaminants was a result of California monitoring anthropogenic sources of metals and employing policies to reduce stormwater runoff that has the potential to carry the metals into coastal waters.

A significant amount of metal-laced runoff comes from California’s extensive highway system. Degraded pavement is a leading source of metals in highway runoff, along with metals leached out of asphalt and metals deposited by vehicles (Minervini). Copper-containing residue from brake pads is another significant source of metal contamination on highways (“Stormwater Runoff Management at Caltrans”). When inundated with rainwater, metals and other pollutants are carried quickly off the roadways and directed toward the ocean.

Another common pollutant in stormwater runoff is suspended particulate matter. The fact that metals easily bind to particulate matter provides a window of opportunity for a solution. A 2007 study by Kayhanian et al. estimated that at least 50% of metals could be removed from runoff—and kept out of the oceans—by managing and removing particulate matter.

Beginning in 1994, California’s highway agency, Caltrans, was ordered by a federal court to better manage large volumes of runoff from highways and other sources to comply with the Clean Water Act. Contracting with the environmental engineering group Brown and Caldwell, Caltrans developed a series of water-retention basins fitted within the highway system. These clay- and concrete-lined basins hold water for up to three days, allowing suspended particulate matter and associated metals to settle and drain out of the basins (Image 2). This project enhanced the understanding of runoff management and successfully decreased the amount of pollution that would eventually reach the ocean.

Stormwater runoff pollution continues to pose a major threat to wildlife and human health in the Los Angeles area. While conditions have greatly improved due to the Clean Water Act, more needs to be done to protect coastal waters. The Brown and Caldwell project is one example of innovations to manage runoff pollution. More projects will be needed in the future to collect, treat, or otherwise manage stormwater runoff.


 Sydney Fishman is a freshman from Chicago majoring in Environmental Studies. She eventually wants to pursue studies in coastal environmental policy and management.

Brittany Hoedemaker is also a freshman in USC’s Environmental Studies program from Bellevue, Washington, a suburb across the water from Seattle. She hopes to study the impacts of declining shark populations on marine ecosystems, work to promote shark conservation and enact policies to stop shark finning.


Map of cadmium, silver, barium, nickel, copper, and lead found in Los Angeles coastal waters.   Source: Smail (see citation below)

Map of cadmium, silver, barium, nickel, copper, and lead found in Los Angeles coastal waters.
Source: Smail (see citation below)


Basin collecting stormwater runoff off highways. Source: “Stormwater Runoff Management at Caltrans” (see citation below)

Basin collecting stormwater runoff off highways.
Source: “Stormwater Runoff Management at Caltrans” (see citation below)

“Clean Water Act (CWA) Storm Water National Priority | Compliance and Enforcement | US EPA.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2013. <>

Kayhanian, M.; Suverkropp, C.; Ruby, A.; Tsay, K. (2007) Characterization and Prediction of Highway Stormwater Pollutant Event Mean Concentration. J. Environ. Manage., 85 (2), 279–295.

Minervini, William P., et al. “Characteristics of Highway Stormwater Runoff in Los Angeles: Metals and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, S. Lau, Y. Han, J. Kang, M. Kayhanian, M. K. Stenstrom, 81, 308-318 (2009).” Water Environment Research 82.9 (2010): 861-2. Web.

Smail, Emily A., et al. “Status of Metal Contamination in Surface Waters of the Coastal Ocean Off Los Angeles, California since the Implementation of the Clean Water Act.” Environmental science & technology46.8 (2012): 4304-11. Web.

“Stormwater Runoff Management at Caltrans.” Brown and Caldwell. 2011. Web.  <>

Soil Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology: U.S. Soil Degradation and the Implementation of Organic Farming Methods

Many factors contribute to the classification of healthy soil which are comprised of, but not limited to, composition, fertility, nutrients, organic matter, as well as, diversity and abundance of soil organisms. These components combine to solidify basic definitions of what can be referred to as soil biodiversity and conservation ecology.

Soil Biodiversity is the composition, heterogeneity, and abundance of soil organisms for sustained soil fertility. Examples of this are microorganisms, nutrients, and organic matter.  Conservation Ecology is the study of nature and the status of biodiversity on planet Earth. This field aims at protecting species, habitats, and ecosystems through such projects as landscape preservation and the prevention of species extinction.

The United States, in its current practice, implements industrial farming methods in order to maximize efficiency and decrease expenditures. A primary example of these methods is the segregation of crop production to single cash crops. Therefore, individual farms are responsible for specific agricultural sectors which increases efficiency, but constrains soil resources. According to Diana Wall of Colorado State University, “the use of insecticides, nematicides, and herbicides for control of soil pathogens and pests rather than on biocontrol of pathogens, herbivore-resistant crop varieties, or other management strategies has furthered the impression that soil biodiversity is of little relevance to agricultural production.”

Lack of crop rotation leads to soil degradation, resulting in unforeseen effects on soil quality. In the long run, soil degradation substantially decreases crop yields and quality, further exacerbating critical food insecurities. In addition to adverse effects on human nutrition and health, soil degradation increases environmental susceptibility to droughts and elemental imbalance leading to desertification and devastating events such as the dust bowl.

A bar-graph depicting the differences in erosion rates across four different land management techniques.

A bar-graph depicting the differences in erosion rates across four different land management techniques.

An alternative to U.S. industrial farming methods is the use of organic farming.  According to a 21-year study, that was published in Science, on various farming methods in Central Europe, researchers found that organic farms produced 20% fewer yields. Fertilizer and energy use, however, was reduced by 34-53% and pesticide use was cut by 97%. This led to increased soil biodiversity and fertility for future growing seasons.

Graph depicts increased corn crop yields with the implementation of pesticides and fertilizers but yields drop in most recent years.

Graph depicts increased corn crop yields with the implementation of pesticides and fertilizers but yields drop in most recent years.

Organic farming differs from industrial agriculture methods because of its focus on decomposition and nutrient management.  It emphasizes maintaining nutrient levels and soil fertility with the use of crop rotation practices.  Organic farms are more dependent on soil chemical content and biological processes for nutrients to sustain crop health and yield than conventional industrial U.S. agriculture.

Integrated-livestock farming is the unification of livestock and grazing land in order to negate the impacts of industrial soil degradation. This purported solution is considered an alternative to organic farming methods in that it requires no change to current crop production and claims to show an improvement in soil quality.

A study conducted in central North Dakota sought to evaluate these claims due to the lack of documentation on the subject.  A Soil Quality Index (SQI) was developed using the Soil Management Assessment Framework, and was used to judge treatment effects on soil conditions over a 9 year span. Aggregated SQI values over 9 years showed no significant change in soil quality, implying no differentiation in the capacity for each system to perform critical soil functions. As a result, the study concluded that integrated-crop management systems provide limited benefit to soil quality and nutrient abundance. However, the results of this study are specific to the geographic region to which they were performed, and the climatological as well as topographical characteristics of the region likely played a role.

About the Authors:
Sara Carlson is a sophomore at the University of Southern California studying International Relations Global Business and Environmental Studies.
Jacob Leonard is a sophomore at the University of Southern California and is currently pursuing a Bachelors of Arts degree in Mathematics with a minor in Environmental Studies.

Works Cited:

J.F. Karn, et al. “Integrated Crops And Livestock In Central North Dakota, USA: Agroecosystem

Management To Buffer Soil Change.” Renewable Agriculture & Food Systems 27.2 (2012): 115-124. GreenFILE. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Lal, Rattan. “Soil Degradation as a Reason For Inadequate Human Nutrition.” Food Security

(2009): n. pag. Springer Link. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Mader, Paul, Andreas Filesbach, David Dubois, Lucie Gunst, Padruot Fried, and Urs Niggili.

“Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming.” Science 296 (2002): 1694-697. JSTOR. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Stockdale, E. A., and C. A. Watson. “Biological Indicators of Soil Quality in Organic Farming

Systems.” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 24.4 (2009): 308-18. ProQuest

Research Library. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Wall, Diana H. “Chapter 10: Making Soil Biodiversity Matter For Agriculture.” Microbial

Ecology in Sustainable Agroecosystems. By Tanya E. Cheeke and David C. Coleman. Boca Raton: CRC, 2013. 267. Print.


The Fault in Salt

Filed under: California Drought — lecollin @ 10:40 am

In the event of being isolated on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific after the tragic sinking of your ship, we all know one universal fact: do not drink the salt water. While those of us living in Southern California may not feel as geographically isolated as Pi did, we truly are equally as isolated to natural water resources. However, despite this, one concept still rings true, do not drink the salt water. Right now, in a time of worry about the future of our water security in Southern California, the largest reservoir of water that lay in our backyard is being looked at as the solution to those very legitimate concerns. However, the grand Pacific is not the answer.

Highlighted is the location of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

Highlighted is the location of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

Right now, many believe that for Southern California to solve its fresh water problem we must invest more money and energy into desalinating water from the Pacific. As of 2004, there were sixteen small desalination plants in operation throughout Southern California, with plans for an additional nineteen plants to be built in the next decade (Starratt, 2004). The most recently approved plans come from Huntington Beach where they will begin building a $350 million desalination plant into the same small beach city that is already home to a nearly $500 million groundwater replenishment plant (Shankman, 2009). It is these kinds of fiscally irresponsible decisions that will continue to doom Southern California’s water needs in the future.

Further south, in San Diego County, plans for a $984 million desalination plant to be built in Carlsbad are in the works. Despite this enormous cost to build, the plant will provide for less than 8% of California’s water needs. Also, the water produced in these plants costs twice as much to produce as it does to import equal amounts of water from Northern California and the Colorado River (Boxall, 2013).

It is important to keep in mind that the costs for putting in these types of large-scale desalination plants are only this low because it will be using the infrastructure already in place from pre-existing offline power plants. To build a desalination plant of this size from scratch, which is what will be needed if that is the route we are going to take to answer our demands for water, it will cost nearly double. A desalination plant that is being proposed, which will be located near Camp Pendleton, is estimated to cost the state $1.9 billion dollars (Shankman, 2009).

These plants are

also extremely wasteful, as it takes three gallons of seawater to produce one gallon of potable, drinking water. The other two gallons become salty brine that is dumped back into the ocean (Greenlee, 2009). This is disastrous for marine life directly off the coast as it causes harmful algal blooms, which in turn create harmful neurotoxins that negatively affect marine ecosystems along with human health (Caron, 2010). These algal blooms, created by the plants themselves, can turn these multi-billion dollar plants offline, and in some cases, permanently. That has to make one wonder whether or not it is a wise decision to invest so much money into such unstable facilities.

Not only do these plants cost the state billions, but also cost the coastal regions in which they are located tens of millions of dollars annually (Caron, 2010). These coastal towns, which rely on their summer revenue created by tourism and hoards of people from all over Southern California coming to their beaches, will be crippled. Along with creating unusable beaches and killing off local wildlife indigenous to Southern California, these plants are flat-out ugly.

The scariest part of all though, is that if we follow through with these plans to build these polluting, energy intensive, and costly facilities, California’s water future will be even uglier than the desalination plants themselves.


By: Faith Sugerman and Alex Creem

Older Posts »