From Los Angeles to Athens: Exploring Climate Change in Mediterranean Cities

Our travels to Greece this summer for a conference on the Mediterranean City 2014: Adaptation Strategies to Global Environmental Change allowed us to explore the similarities and differences between “The Mediterranean” and Los Angeles, which shares the same climate. Follow the link below for an account of the conference by Laurel Hunt, who interned at Council for Watershed Health last year. Of course, cats are everywhere. This kitty was hanging out at our lunch place.

From Los Angeles to Athens: Exploring Climate Change in Mediterranean Cities.

Enhance Your Impact Through “Design Thinking”

At Council for Watershed Health, we use design thinking most visibly in our Water Augmentation research and demonstration program. In the research phase, from 2000 to about 2008, we followed the design thinking steps empathize, define, and ideate as we sought to understand and reimagine how improved storm water management could be the key to achieving multiple benefits, including flood risk reduction, water supply, water quality, and community improvement. The demonstration at Elmer Avenue and Paseo is our prototype – and what we learned from Elmer Avenue was used to improve the design at the Paseo. Now we monitor – test – and keep ourselves  open to data that will inform future designs – revise.
As the author Theresa Reid says – I can attest this is true – “Design thinking is a messy process that requires stamina, perseverance, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and openness to the experience of others.”

The Real Benefits of River Parkways

It’s no surprise but always gratifying when a major study confirms something we’ve suspected – that living near an urban river parkway improves health. A new review of the research by Dr. Richard Jackson and coauthors concludes that river parkways in cities can improve physical, mental, and community health.

Just reading about the negative health effects of inactivity caused me to get up out of my chair for some much needed stretching. It was hard to stay seated as I read the rest of the report, given the dire health consequences outlined.

The cost of inactivity? $622 per person annually in medical costs.

The construction and maintenance cost per user of a riverfront trail? $235 annually

Another study concluded that “every $1 invested in trails for physical activity led to $2.94 in direct medical benefit.”

And so-called “green exercise,” or simply exercising outdoors, appears to confer additional mental health benefits. Being near water was found to be even more beneficial.

Don’t we all need a little mental health pick-me-up after a long, stressful day at work? I guess I need to swap an hour of reading for an hour of hiking from now on!

There’s too much in this study to summarize all of it in this blog – I highly recommend you set aside an hour to absorb its findings (perhaps while walking on a treadmill). The study provides more support for completing an LA River Greenway and adding trails – walking, biking, equestrian – wherever it makes sense to give people alternate, active means to get to work and encourage movement.

To end this post, here is a photo of the Eisbach, a small man-made river in Munich, Germany. All throughout the day, people line up for a chance to ride this standing wave. Wouldn’t you like to have something like this here in LA?

Eisbach wave on Stadtmulbach, Munich, Germany

Elmer Avenue Projects: A Look Back over Six Seasons


It’s now been over a year since the completion of the Elmer Paseo, a new, walkable alleyway that is designed to help water to soak into the aquifer. Even during the drought, the Paseo has weathered several storms, allowing us to test the system. The good news is that it is performing very well!

Our researchers documented the Paseo during construction and over the past year. Lots of people, including students from Sun Valley Middle School, have been enjoying their new Paseo.

The plant life, which is native to the Sun Valley Watershed, plays an important role in indicating the amount of water (or lack thereof) moving through the Paseo. The return of rain was a welcome restorative.

The monitoring equipment in the Paseo and on Elmer Avenue are allowing us to gather data on water quantity and quality to better understand how the project is performing. We just took our first samples from the lysimeter beneath Elmer Avenue, thanks to the recent storm. This lysimeter was installed with help from the Water Replenishment District of Southern California. We’re testing the quality of the water that we’re putting in the San Fernando groundwater basin. The data will help us understand the success of the treatment train.

All combined, including additional improvements, the projects are designed to treat stormwater from 60 acres and capture as much as 40 acre-feet of water in an average rainfall year.

Many people have toured the award-winning green infrastructure project, Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit, and Elmer Paseo.  If you would like a tour of these projects, please add your contact information here.



Establishment: Setting roots with rain from storms in January in February.

Aesthetic: The new plants are still small and spaced.



Establishment: With the help of the rain, the plants are growing.

Aesthetic: The first blossoms are emerging, and the plants gain some height.



Establishment: Major growth period, with the help of irrigation

Aesthetic: Filled in, but with some bare spots from plants lost to sun exposure



Establishment: Dormancy period

Aesthetic: Colors shift from vibrant greens to golds and reds

W I N T E R  ( # 2 )


Establishment: After a long stretch without rain, the plants are refreshed by rain.

Aesthetic:  Hints of spring, and the first blossoms of color.


The Water Augmentation Study; Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project and Elmer Avenue Paseo have been made possible thanks to funding from:  

CALFED Bay-Delta Watershed Program; California Department of Water Resources;  City of Los Angeles, Proposition O; City of Long Beach, Stormwater Management Division;  City of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, Watershed Protection Division;  Los Angeles Department of Water and Power;  Los Angeles County Department of Public Works; Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board; Metropolitan Water District of Southern California;  Santa Monica Environmental Programs Division; Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy;  State of California Strategic Growth Council; State Water Resources Control Board;  U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation;  Water Replenishment District of Southern California

Additional support provided by:

The Residents of Elmer Avenue; Congresswoman Linda Sanchez; Graffitti Busters; Pomona College; Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting; Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services; Rainbird Corporation;  Southern California Gas Company; Sun Valley Neighborhood Council; The Toro Company; TreePeople;  University of California Riverside;  Upper Los Angeles River Area Watermaster; Vulcan Materials Company

How do you shut down a river?

It boggles the mind to think that the Colorado River has been shut down for rafting. Can you imagine if water delivery was shutdown?

Imagine if the tap was turned off to California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona.  We aren’t there yet, but the situation inched a bit closer in August when the Bureau of Reclamation announced they would be reducing releases from Lake Powell to Lake Mead to historically low levels. Take a look at the astonishing photos on the Weather.Com website, especially photos 14 and 15 in the slide show series, if you want to understand the magnitude of the situation.

We had a severe drought last in 2002; back then researchers were starting to understand that the West has seen mega-droughts before. If you believe that history can illuminate the present, you might want to read Craig Child’s book, House of Rain, as he takes us on a journey through pre-history on the Colorado plateau to explore some possible answers to the fate of the people who lived here before us and how long-term droughts changed their lives forever. It’s a sobering story.

Looking for some good news about climate change?

In a month of some truly depressing news about the environment and climate change, a bright spot appeared. But first, here are two illustrations of the trouble we are in.

In early April, we read that the Arctic may be completely free of summer-time sea ice within a decade, as this graphic cleverly illustrates:

Arctic Sea Ice

The reason for the Artic Sea Ice Death Spiral is apparent when you look at the continuing upwards march of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, as reported in early May by Andrew Revkin.

Keeling Curve, Mauna Loa

Truly depressing news, eh? Is anybody listening? Are we all doomed? It’s time for some good news, something that gives a little bit of hope.

Apparently, young people don’t drive as much, anymore; the bloom is off American’s love affair with cars and this can only be a good thing. Researchers believe this is a stable, long-term reduction in miles driven that started in 2005, before the beginning of the Great Recession.  People age 16 – 34 have reduced average miles driven by 23% from the 2005 peak.  Even higher income young people are driving less, evidence that this is a behavioral choice unrelated to the cost of gas.

We can only hope for more good news as the world changes.

The Los Angeles River in one word

We asked people to describe “The LA River Today” in one word. Here’s what they said:

When we asked people to complete the sentence “I want the LA River to be–” with one word, we heard some inspiring wishes.

What two words would YOU use to describe the Los Angeles River?

A new way of thinking about sustainability

The journal Nature published a commentary on March 21 that argues for a new way of thinking about sustainability, with the traditional three pillars of economy, environment, and society instead conceptualized as a nested set, as in the illustration below.

Sustainable Development Goals

As the global population increases towards nine billion people sustainable development should be seen as an economy serving society within Earth’s life support system, not as three pillars,” says co-author Dr. Priya Shyamsundar from the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, Nepal.

Is the three pillars of sustainability model outdated and no longer serving us? We  find ourselves often struggling to fully integrate our own thinking – humans are categorizers, a trait that has served us well throughout history up until recent times. But now it is obvious that even our conception of sustainability has been flawed and does not reflect reality.

This new way of thinking about sustainability comes in the wake of last week’s UN meeting on the definition of sustainable development goals. The researchers believe that “ending poverty and safeguarding Earth’s life support system must be the twin priorities for the Sustainable Development Goals.

We find ourselves still struggling to convince people that the economy and environment are not in conflict and that the economy should be designed for human well-being. Perhaps with this new concept, thinking will begin to shift.

“Ultimately, the choice of goals is a political decision. But science can inform what combination of goals can achieve a sustainable future. And science can identify measurable targets and indicators,” said Dr Stafford Smith.

At the Council for Watershed Health, we believe that identifying and tracking measurable goals is vital to achieving that sustainable future. These new Sustainable Development Goals and the conceptual model should be adopted to advance “The Future We Want.”

How to create a clean water alley, Part 5

While the concrete cured, the crew focused on several elements as illustrated in the following photographs

Refining grade elevations for the bio-swale.
Refining grade elevations for the bio-swale.
Prepping the wall for paint.
Using a roller prevents overspray into adjacent properties
Using a roller prevents overspray into adjacent properties

At the end of November, rain was predicted, and with an incomplee bio-swale, the crew protected the project site from sediment carried in runoff. Construction was halted for several days.

Preparing for rain

Preparing for rain

Rain delayed construction

Rain delayed construction

The storm was an opportunity to see how run-off would flow through the bio-swale.

When it was dry enough to work, the crew focused on completing the forebay and the weir apron.

Placing cobble in the forebay.
Placing cobble in the forebay.
Cobble in forebay almost complete.
Cobble in forebay almost complete.

If you’ve ever wondered, bollards” are structural elements – often posts – that allow pedestrians access but block vehicles from entry. Bollards at the entries of the Paseo make it easier for pedestrians, strollers, and carts to acces the Paseo.

Placing the bollards
Placing the bollards
Making sure the bollard is level.
Making sure the bollard is level.

During the final days of construction, the crew installed the green screen, refined the eleveation points for the bio-swale, and planted more than 10,000 plants native to southern California.

A green screen provides a structure for native vines to grow and adds an element of interest to the length of the Paseo.

Installing the green screen.
Installing the green screen.
Final bio-swale elevation points.
Final bio-swale elevation points.
Placed, spaced, and ready for planting.
Native plants placed, spaced, and ready for planting.
Bio-swale planted…
…and mulched.

A resident appreciated the opportunity to test the “strollability” of the almost complete Paseo.

Testing the ‘strollability’.

The Paseo, ready for pedestrians and rain.

Paseo north entry

The Council for Watershed Health would like to express our appreciation to the residents adjacent to the Paseo and in the neighborhood for their patience with the various construction activities.

We also thank our project funders:

Urban Greening Proposition 84, Strategic Growth Councill, State of California

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

Proposition O, Bureau of Sanitation, City of Los Angeles

Department of Water & Power, City of Los Angeles

How to create a clean water alley, Part 4

Flooded Paseo North Entry BeforeAs we mentioned in an earlier post, the reason we are converting the Paseo into green infrastructure is because it receives water from about 20 upstream acres of land and the soils and geology are ideally suited to infiltration to groundwater. During larger storms, water picks up speed as it flows into the alleyway. Thus, we needed to design something to slow the water down before it hits the bio-swale.

The Forebay reduces the erosive force of water entering the bio-swale. It also allows sediment and litter carried with the water to settle out. The forebay elements include a river rock cobble bed, a weir, and a river rock cobble apron for the weir.

The river rock cobble bed at the forebay entry creates an obstacle course of sorts for the water entering the bio-swale; water slows down as it moves over and around the river rock cobble. Slow moving water is less likely to erode soil and has more time to soak into the soil – exactly what we want to happen in the bio-swale.

Concrete pour for weir
Concrete pour for weir

A weir is a low dam built across a water course to regulate the flow of water.  The weir is constructed of concrete and separates the river rock cobble bed from the bio-swale; it regulates the amount of water entering the bio-swale through the channel at the bottom of the weir and its low walls.  When there is a small volume of water, it will flow through the 12 inch wide channel at the bottom of the weir. When larger volumes of water enter the river rock cobble bed, water will continue to flow through the channel but the low wall of the weir will hold back water until it is at a height that it is allowed to spill over the walls. Eventually all the water moves through or over the weir.

The cobble apron on the down-side of the weir protects the bio-swale from the erosive force of water moving through the channel or spilling over the weir. When water flowing through or over the weir hits the cobble apron, its velocity or energy is dissipated or spread out over the cobble so the water entering the bio-swale is moving at a slower, gentler rate that is less likely to cause erosion.

Before the river rock cobble bed and cobble apron could be constructed, we needed to complete construction of the concrete entry and weir. The construction crew refined the grade elevation points for the entry, forebay, and weir. The concrete pour for the entry and weir went smoothly. We have a few more steps to get through before you can see the finished forebay, however, so hold on for more.

Concrete pour for entry
Concrete pour for entry

to be continued