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

March 30, 2012

Making Water Last

Filed under: Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:22 pm

As Los Angeles as the surrounding areas have continued to develop, access clean drinking water has consistently been a vital factor to sustaining this growth. The reading discussed the channelization and water management factors regarding the Los Angeles River. However, in order to meet the needs of Los Angeles residents many adjacent rivers have required similar control methods. When the San Gabriel flooded in the 1900’s, changing course and dividing into separate rivers, the damage was severe. Since then, the San Gabriel has been dammed multiple times, reducing flood danger and has had channels established along the banks of the San Gabriel and the Rio Hondo. These rivers, essentially the old and new forks of the San Gabriel, have year round flow due to these water control methods which has significant implications for the residents of the Los Angeles Basin.

Although the rivers are now considered in different watersheds, they are both funneled through the Whittier Narrows. Therefore, the Whittier Narrows Dam has become a vastly important structure in flood control and water resources since its construction in the 1950’s.

In conjunction with 4 other dams the San Gabriel River’s danger to residents has been reduced and enhanced providing for recreation and drinking water. The Whittier Narrows Dam itself has about a capacity of 67 k acre ft however the nearby spreading grounds make the area much more effective at storing water than most other dams. By releasing water from the Dam into the spreading grounds the LA county Department of Public Works estimates that 150 k acre ft of water are recharged into the ground supply through the use of these dams.

The spreading grounds are similar in operation to the facilities described in Chapter 3 near Burbank that recharge water in the Verdugo Wash. The water passes through the a treatment facility and then enters the spreading grounds (as pictured above) which have also  become an area that supports a wide range of recreational activities. While flood control measures have changed the ecology of the region they were necessary for population growth. It would seem that dams that focus on replenishing groundwater resources should be a focus as demand continues to increase.

The Sepulveda Flood Control Basin and Dam are another example in taming the Los Angeles River.. In 1938, the Los Angeles River flooded farms and homes, killing 144 people and causing about $40 million in damage ($360 million in 1994 dollars). As a consequence of the historic 1938 flood, the public demanded that the river be controlled. The Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river in 1938, completing work in 1960. Located near the intersection of the 101 and 405 freeways, the Sepulveda Dam was completed in 1941 to further protect San Fernando Valley residents from floods.

Wildlife in the Sepulveda Basin


During winters when waters stream down from high elevations, the reservoir can hold up to 17,000-acre-feet of water. The dam and basin control the heavy winter flow rates, preventing flooding of the river downstream along the Los Angeles River, also allowing the trapped runoff to seep back into the water table without causing further damage. Recently, in the 1980 flood, water reached about twenty from the top of the dam, filling the dam to about two-thirds of its capacity.

Although the central function of the flood basin is the control of floods, the basin has enjoyed a new role. Beginning in the 1960s, the Sepulveda Dam and its surrounding area has played host to many recreational activities. The area includes many golf courses, sports centers, and parks. The most interesting feature of the park being Lake Balboa, a 27-acre lake filled with reclaimed water. Visitors participate in activities such as fishing, boating, jogging, and bicycling along a paved bike path. The area also includes aJapaneseGarden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, where visitors can see evidence of the peaceful and beautiful uses of water.

The Japenese Garden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant

The Japenese Garden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant

The reclaimed water enters the Los Angeles River in the Sepulveda Basin. As much as 75 million gallons of water is released daily from the reclamation plant into the basin, adding to the Los Angeles River’s modern day year-round supply. While this water is not suitable for drinking, it has been treated enough to not pose a health hazard. This treatment is vital for the wildlife that resides in the basin today. The Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve gives visitors an idea of what Southern California looked like before agriculture and industrialization changed the valley. Visitors might find cottonwoods and sycamores lining the valley, along with birds such as herons, egrets and ducks. Small birds like the woodpecker and oriole also make homes in the Reserve.

The Whittier Narrows Dam and the Sepulveda Dam are two of the 19 dams in Los Angeles, helping to prevent floods and also recharging groundwater from rainfall and runoff. As the Los Angeles population grows, these two projects work towards replenishing the dwindling water supply and protecting residents from natural disaster. Whittier Narrows and the Sepulveda Basin have proven a great opportunity to educate the public and promote efficient water use, serving as a recreational area in addition to their roles as a flood-control basins. The flood control measures at both sites sprouted from residential problems with population growth in an area where floods were likely. Their focus on flood control, groundwater recharge, and recreation has without doubt added to their success.

This post was written by Daniel Kasang ’12 and Christopher Miranda ’12, who are each pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies.




Looking at the Natural History of Santa Cruz Island

Filed under: Santa Cruz Island — admin @ 9:13 pm

With the population in Los Angeles County fast approaching 10 million, it’s hard to imagine that just 19-25 miles off the Ventura coast, sits an unpopulated island of 96 square-miles that has remained in near pristine condition for thousands of years. As the largest of the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz is able to exist in such a preserved state largely due to it being positioned in one of the most biologically rich and productive marine regions in the Eastern Pacific – known as the Southern California Bight. Just south of Point Conception, portions of the southerly flowing California Current bend eastward towards shore into the Santa Barbara-Ventura Basin that separates the Northern Channel Islands from the mainland. There, this cold, nutrient-rich current converges with the warm, saline waters of the California Countercurrent as part of the larger ocean gyre system that’s created by the mixing of the California Current System around the Channel Islands. The combination of oceanic and climatic factors that make Santa Cruz so unique and rich in biodiversity have also helped lead to its protection and preservation, as 76% is owned by the Nature Conservancy, and the remaining 24% by the National Park Service.

Santa Cruz is not only the largest island, but it also has the highest peak (Picacho Diablo), which helps to create the many different microclimates on the island, also causing it to also have the greatest number of plant and animal species as well; 650 types of plants can be found here, and 480 of them are native to the island. The unique biogeography of the Southern California Bight has resulted in the Channel Islands being the exclusive home to 37 plant species; 8 of which are endemic to Santa Cruz alone, meaning they can be found nowhere else on the planet.

It is one thing to read descriptions of the natural history of Santa Cruz, but there is always a lot more to be gained personal experience and hands-on learning. Over the weekend, I was given the opportunity to camp at the field research station on Santa Cruz as part of a class field trip. The purpose of the trip was for observational analysis; it gave us a chance to visualize and discuss the relationships between the island’s many biogeographic characteristics, and to visualize concepts such as how variations in spatial distribution and types of vegetation are correlated to things like sun exposure and the gradient of the hillside. For example, in the following photo, you can distinctly see the how the concentration of vegetation increases as the gradient decreases and nears the low-lying center of the drainage basin – closer to the water table. Looking into the Central Valley of Santa Cruz Island, photo by Genivieve McCormick

The slopes of the more distant mountains on the left are much steeper and higher in elevation, causing rainfall to drain rapidly. The resulting smaller concentration of plants found here are likely to be better adapted for faster water absorption and longer retention. The lack of vegetation could also be the result of a rainshadow effect that results from the sharp rise in elevation forcing moisture flowing onshore to condense and precipitate in order to rise over the mountains. In the absence of strong onshore winds, the lower elevations and valleys retain more moisture as fog, which can further be correlated to the increase in the abundance of vegetation shown in the photo. The hills on the right have a smaller gradient at a lower elevation. These factors allow the plants to accumulate more water and lead to the growth of the more herbaceous vegetation.

With so many valleys and rapid changes in elevation across the island, there are many resulting microclimates that contribute to the overall high level of plant diversity. One of our goals of the trip was to identify some of the island’s native and rare endemic species as we hiked across different parts of the island. Of the ones we observed, 15 native samples were collected and placed into flower presses. In the photos below, you can see my personal favorites, the Giant Coreopsis, Coreopsis gigantean (top), and the Island Morning Glory Calystegia macrostegia (below).

Giant Coreopsis, photo by Genivieve McCormick

One of the focus areas of the trip was to compare Catalina and Santa Cruz islands in terms of climate, plant and animal abundance and diversity, and comparing the anthropogenic effects of settlements on Catalina to the long-preserved state of Santa Cruz. For example, due to the increased grazing pressure on Catalina from introduced species like deer, buffalo, and cattle, some of the undergrowth tended to evolve upwards over time in order to be higher out of reach.  On Santa Cruz, the lack of grazers is reflected in the more shrub-like and spread out orientation of some of the vegetation. Over time, the grazers also led to differences in the distribution of certain plant species on the islands. The Giant Coreopsis is a good example of this because it’s preferred by many grazers; it is found growing abundantly on Santa Cruz in many different microclimates, whereas on Catalina it is mostly found growing on coastal bluffs – out of reach of the grazers. One of the interesting things we learned involved the complex relationship between the eagles and native foxes, as well as populations of feral pigs and spotted skunks. While they are damaging to certain types of vegetation, the role of these introduced pigs on the islands evolved over time to play a key part of the recovery efforts of both Bald and Golden Eagles on the islands, and reduce the predation pressure on some of the recovering populations of native island foxes.

As part of the restoration program, nesting pairs of eagles have tagged and monitored, and recently it was discovered that two bald eagle chicks have been born in nests on Santa Cruz Island. It was also the earliest that eggs had ever been laid since recover efforts began, and as of Wednesday, March 7th, a record 15 breeding pairs of eagles are known to be living among the Channel Islands, showing that they are making a solid recovery. In order to monitor the progress of the nests and increase awareness of their conservation efforts, live footage of 4 of the nests can be streamed below. There are two nests on both Catalina and Santa Cruz, and what’s even more exciting is that the eggs in these nests are all within a couple weeks of hatching.

I believe that stories like these help to highlight the importance of keeping the Santa Cruz preserved in its most natural state for future generations to see and learn from. It was a great hands-on educational experience and allowed us the opportunity to see what the island may well have looked like thousands of years ago.

This post was authored by Genivieve McCormick ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and Mabel Nevarez ’12 who is pursuing a BA in Environmental Studies.

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March 27, 2012

Saving the Santa Cruz Island Fox

Filed under: Santa Cruz Island — Tags: — admin @ 9:24 pm

The island fox is one of the many endemic species that inhabit the Chanel Islands.  The fox is the largest native mammal on the islands and was the top predator for thousands of years.  It is believed that the island fox evolved from the gray fox, which came over from the mainland more than 18,000 years ago by rafting on pieces of debris from storms.  Since the arrival of the grey fox, six subspecies of the island fox have evolved on the islands. The island fox is one-third the size of its ancestor.  Urocyon littoralis santacruzae is the scientific name of the Santa Cruz Island fox.

Santa Cruz Island FoxMainland Grey Fox


While historically, the Santa Cruz island fox stood at the top of the island’s food web, a process known as hyperpredation caused ecosystem interactions to be restructured.  Hyperpredation refers to a scenario in which an indigenous species is subject to increased predation from an exotic predator that is able to live because of availability of an exotic prey.  On Santa Cruz Island, the indigenous island fox experienced increased predation from nonnative golden eagles that were able to colonize the island because of the abundance of feral pigs.

Golden Eagle preys on a Santa Cruz Island fox

Pigs came to Santa Cruz Island in the 1800s when European settlers brought them over with sheep to serve as domestic livestock.  Pigs that escaped or were let loose quickly established large feral populations on the island and reeked havoc on its ecosystem.  Since pigs reproduce at alarming rates, large litters of piglets attracted golden eagles to the island in the 1990s.  The piglets served as an abundant year-round food source that allowed the golden eagles to establish themselves on the island.  Golden eagles would have become a problem sooner on the island, but a population of territorial bald eagles prevented them from establishing themselves.  Unfortunately, by 1960, the bald eagle populations had disappeared because of hunting and DDT contamination.

While golden eagles prey on skunks, pigs, and foxes, the fox population has taken a disproportional hit in comparison to the other two prey populations.  Pigs have the advantage of being able to reproduce throughout the year.  They are also able to outgrow predation.  Skunks avoid a lot of predation due to the fact that they are nocturnal creatures.  Foxes, on the other hand, only reproduce once a year, are mostly active during the day, and can’t outgrow predation.  In 1994, the island fox population was at around 1,5000.  By 2001, the population had fallen to around 60.  This amounts to a 95% reduction in population size in less than a decade.  The Santa Cruz Island fox was declared an endangered species in 2004 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With the survival of the island fox at risk, a multi-layer approach was executed to return balance to the Santa Cruz ecosystem. This comprehensive eco-system recovery plan included captive breeding of the island fox, relocating the golden eagles that preyed upon the foxes, eradicating the feral pigs, and re-establishing the bald eagle on the island. Each component of this plan worked together to restore balance and successfully led to one of the fastest recoveries of an endangered species in US history. Since the foxes were first listed as federally endangered the population has grown by 20 to 30% annually. The total number of wild foxes has increased to over 410, with the island fox survival rate around 96% on the tracked and monitored foxes, all in less than a decade.

A wild island fox spotted on the ENST 495 class trip to Santa Cruz Island. (source: Melissa Krigbaum)

In order to boost the total fox population, a captive breeding program was established in 2001 on Santa Cruz Island. First wild foxes were caught, and breeding pairs were established. In 2005, 20 pups were born in captivity, with a total of 85 pups born over the programs six years. While captive breeding always brings about the issue of human interaction altering the behavior of wild animals, such a program was essential for boosting the total population in the wild. Additionally, the establishment of a successful breeding program represents a future for island foxes, because when numbers get exceptionally low, scientists can conceivably save the population from extinction by breeding pups in captivity. On advantage that the captive breeding program on Santa Cruz Island held over some of the other programs on other Channel Islands is that the large remaining wild population allowed for the program to increase the number of founders in captivity on a regular basis. If mating pairs were unsuccessful, they were able to bring in other foxes to breed with. This helped to increase the genetic diversity of those bred in captivity. These foxes were also vaccinated against canine distemper virus and rabies in order to limit the risk of disease causing a population threat down the line.


A pup born in captive breeding program on Santa Cruz

Feral pigs allowed for the Golden Eagle to establish itself on the island

At first the pups released to the wild were quickly being eaten by the golden eagles, but as the Golden Eagle population on Santa Cruz was relocated to the mainland, the survival rate of pups increased dramatically. The relocation of the eagles was a crucial part of the fox recovery, as predation by eagles was identified as the cause of death for over 72% of the monitored foxes between 2000 and 2006. However, it was no simple task to be able to remove these eagles as they are legally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty as well as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Acts. Once given permission to relocate these animals, 32 golden eagles have been captured and released on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These magnificent birds are often captured using dug-in nets placed in areas that eagles frequent. The nets are baited with dead feral pigs or live rabbits, and radio-controlled to capture the eagle. The eagles are transported in large commercial sky kennels and are always released on the mainland within 24 hours. Today, Santa Cruz is thought to be home to less than 10 Golden Eagles that have continued to evade capture. Thanks to a very successful relocation program by the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, the fox’s main predatory has been eliminated allowing for the foxes to recover.

However, relocating the current eagles to the mainland is an insufficient solution, without also removing the prey that first established the colony of golden eagles on the island. As a result, an intense feral pig eradication program has also taken place, resulting in the removal of over 5,000 pigs from the island by 2006. Today, no feral pigs remain. Santa Cruz sectioned off the island, and proceeded to hunt the pigs in each section, often shooting from a low-flying helicopter. Relocation of the pigs was not an option as Federal and State laws prevent moving these pigs to the mainland, due to potential diseases. This removal of pigs has also benefitted many native plants that were being destroyed by the pig population, such as the blue dick flower. The eradication of the pigs is thought to be the most important step in restoring the natural Santa Cruz ecosystem.

Foxes being socialized before their release into the wild

They also are working to re-establish the bald eagle, in order to prevent the golden eagle from recolonizing and re-threatening the fox in the future. The bald eagle used to occupy the island but was destroyed by high DDT levels off the coast. While the bald eagles eat fish, seabirds, and animal carcasses, they do not eat live foxes and therefore do not present a danger to the recovering species. Additionally, the bald eagles are extremely territorial, and since golden eagles and bald eagles hardly co-habitat anywhere, the increase in bald eagles would keep golden eagles from moving back to Santa Cruz. This effort is being led by the Institute for Wildlife Studies and the Montrose Settlement, who have released over 50 bald eagles since efforts began in 2002. For further reading on the bald eagle efforts, follow along at

The newest generation of Bald Eagles born in Pelican Harbor on Santa Cruz. They have been banded for tracking by the IWS

Although the eco-system is certainly well on its way to recovering its natural balance, a few issues remain. The greatest concern is that the original depletion to merely 70 foxes created somewhat of a genetic bottleneck, reducing the overall genetic variability within the fox population. This may lead to the fox population being more susceptible to diseases and other threats that will impact all foxes with similar genetic traits. Additionally, there remains the question of how well the pups bred in captivity will be able to teach their young how to behave in the wild, since they lacked that form of training and it is believed that foxes parent their young through the first year. Whenever humans involve themselves in the raising of wild animals, there is a question of how that human interaction will impact the animal’s behavior in the long run. Outside of the fox problem, the Santa Cruz ecosystem is still threatened by non-native plants such as fennel overwhelming the natural vegetation which the animal populations rely on.
All in all, the eradication of feral pigs and relocation of golden eagles have allowed for the island foxes to recover at an unprecedented speed, making Santa Cruz Island an endangered species recovery success story.

This post was authored by Melissa Krigbaum ’12 a double major in Environmental Studies and Economics and by Alex Anthony ’12 majoring in Environmental Studies.

Internet Sources:

March 11, 2012

The Pueblo by the River

Filed under: Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 3:34 am

The Los Angeles River’s early settlement was marked by Tongva tribes, also known as the Gabrielino Indians. The river provided a rich plant and animal habitat that allowed the Gabrielino Indians to thrive in present-day Los Angeles and Orange Counties, including parts of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. They also moved throughout the Channel Islands. It was not until 1769 that the first written description of the Los Angeles River is entered by Juan Crespi on the Portola expedition. He described his experience saying “After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river . . . This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement.” Instantly, the importance of the river for means of production became apparent to the Spanish.

Gabrielino Territory before the arrival of the Spanish in 1769

The earliest Spanish settlers brought very new values to California’s water, land, and native people. Nature was seen as an obstacle to conquer and make useful, and the California land was a perfect place to develop missions, pueblos, and of course, military holdings or forts. However, because much of California lacked sufficient water resources, the Los Angeles River was made useful by the original Los Angeles Spanish pueblo, El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles. Each of the original inhabitants, only eleven pobladores after 3 were expelled, with their families, “ . . . was given a house lot and four fields for planting crops, only two of which were to have access to irrigation water” (Gumprecht 43). The pueblo followed the same consistent form set forth by the Spanish government in the establishment of the first pueblo at the Guadalupe River in San Jose 1777. “In its early years, the town was a small, isolated cluster of adobe-brick houses and random streets carved out of the desert, and its main product was grain” (Los Angeles History).

Although Pueblos were the centers for Spanish civilians, they needed water distribution systems to succeed. The Spanish Crown officially claimed ownership of water resources but it did grant water rights for the common benefit of the Spanish settlers. The earliest system focused on a dam upstream, at a higher elevation, and a main irrigation ditch known as the Zanja Madre in order to provide a flow of water to the Pueblo and agricultural land. This main water ditch carried domestic and irrigated water from the upstream diversion, near today’s North Broadway. The local town council, known as the Ayuntamiento, usually made water decisions and elected a Zanjero, who supervised irrigation and water rights.

Map Showing the Original Zanja Madre and where it would flow in LA today

When the first Spanish missions were founded in Baja California, they were having difficulties growing food and feeding themselves. They would rely on funds from Spain and from food from central Mexico, most likely from the agriculturally fertile area known as Sinaloa. They lacked the hunting and gathering techniques that the local Indians possessed, which they also relied on at times for food. Felipe de Neve, who came to be the first governor of Los Angeles, was sent by the viceroy of New Spain to seek more fertile soil farther north.


1936 re-enactment of the founding of Los Angeles, image from

When they arrived, Los Angeles was founded as an agricultural village by the Spanish to prevent the same problem they had suffered down South. It is the land nearer to the Los Angeles River that proved to be the most fertile and the best fit for founding the pueblo. Families from the areas of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico were chosen in 1781 to inhabit the pueblo and to begin to farm with supplies provided by the Spanish. After the water system was in place, the first crops were wheat, beans, and maize. Five years later, in 1786, the pueblo was able to sustain itself. Grain was the primary and most successful crop by 1796, but most of this success was due to the hard-working Indians, who were sent by the colonists to do most of the work. In about 50 years, the cattle industry began, which was to crash due to drought. But Los Angeles itself did not crash because grape vines became so abundant and were to sustain it.

In 1826, Joseph Chapman put in 4,000 vines and became the first grower in Los Angeles, growing vines that up until that time had only been grown and sold privately by missionaries and other individuals. By the 1830s, many Angelinos and even some immigrants were growing “mission” grapes and grapes of many other varieties for profit and producing wine and brandy. But it was not until Jean Louis Vignes, a Frenchman, fed up with the too-sour taste of the “mission” grapes, brought in the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc from France that grape-growing became a real industry. Los Angeles then became famous nation-wide, sending wine and brandy to San Pedro, San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and even to the east coast to New York and Boston. Orange groves also became prominent and widespread throughout Los Angeles, especially because a need for agricultural diversity presented itself when more people came because of the Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroads. Angelinos then came to grow at least 40 other crops.


Images from a Los Angeles wine-making company, circa 1876, image from Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

Most people believe grape-growing in California originated in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, but history proves otherwise, that it originated in Southern California. This industry is one of the factors that helped Los Angeles grow and gain its fame. This success all came as a result of the farming that was initiated by the Spanish to feed their missions. Success was also due in large part to the fertile soil and natural abundance of water from the Los Angeles River. It is the same Los Angeles River that maintained the Gabrielinos, that called the Spanish from Mexico, and that nourished the many crops that fed Los Angeles and helped it grow to eventually become what it is today.

This post was authored by Patrick Talbott’12 who is pursuing a B.S. and M.A. in Environmental Studies and by Alejandra Rocha’12 who is pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies.


 Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Johns Hopkins University Press: June 1999.

“Los Angeles: History.” Cities of the United States. 5th ed. Vol. 2: The West. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 129-130. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 04 Mar. 2012.

El Pueblo: Los Angeles Before the Railroads. [Los Angeles]: Equitable branch of the Security trust & savings bank, 1928.

 Indian Tribal Territories

 LA River History

Los Angeles Department of Public Works

Street, Richard S. “First Farm Workers.” CogWeb: Cognitive Cultural Studies. Web. 04 Mar. 2012.





March 9, 2012

The LA River Pre & Post Channelization: Mountain Lions, Antelope and Bears…Oh My!

Filed under: Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:29 pm

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.

Map of Southern California and the Gabrielino territories.

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 green backed heron now rare was one of the millions of wetland birds that frequented the marshlands that were fed by the Los Angeles River.

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.

Early human accounts from the 1850s describe a Los Angeles river basin that was too dangerous to cross through on account of the quicksand, mountain lions, flash flood, and grizzly bears waiting to meet the human traveler on one of the only two trails that passed through the thick, thorny thickets of the basin.

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 muskrat habitat is one where wetland grasses and shrubs are abundant and water is plentiful. The Los Angeles basin was once famous for its bird and muskrat habitats, the birds for game and the muskrat for its prized waterproof fur.

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” ( The City of Los Angeles claims that the Los Angeles River is a “landmark resource” ( 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 ( But what does all this mean for the river itself?

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan would incorporate bike trails, recreational parks and green ways along the banks of the LA River but keep the river partially cemented for flood control.

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.

The LA River today is currently one of the world’s largest storm drains. Running a total of 51 miles, 32 of those miles lie within the City of Los Angeles.

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 (  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.

As the area surrounding the Los Angeles River becomes biking trails, parks and wildlife refuge in the next 50 years, house values and rent price may rice beyond what many renters and thus a majority of the people current living in the River Corridor can afford.

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 ( 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.

No matter where the baseline for restoration lies, I don’t think we will ever see or want to see the type of habitat that covered Los Angeles more than a million years ago.


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

Oil-Free Sweden

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 10:31 pm

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:

  1. Radically more effective use of energy by the whole society – involving the creation of an energy conservation center to monitor objectives.
  2. Investment in forest fuels and energy crops – major investments in the production of bioenergy from raw materials from forest and field.
  3. Electricity for a sustainable supply of energy – cooperation between government and industry to lower usage.
  4. Role of energy gases – increased use of natural gas in liquid form as well as biogas from biomass.
  5. Control instruments at EU level – Sweden contribute to a tightening of EU emission trading system and other emissions restrictions.

(Commission on Oil Independence.

Sweden will develop biofuels from its forests

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.

The biogas train, one of the first of its kind in the world. (

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.

Water Reclamation

Filed under: Water — admin @ 10:24 pm

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, 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:


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.

The CRP’s Chain of Ecological Events

Filed under: Agriculture,Water — Tags: — admin @ 12:34 am

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.

Conservation Reserve Program

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.

Increased prices of corn have led to many acres of land removed from 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).

Bee pollinating almond blossom

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.