How does the “San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains National Park” sound?

Could one of the most densely populated areas in the US see national park rangers in its recreation areas someday? For the last six years, the National Park Service has been studying just that question, and today they released the Draft San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resources Study and Environmental Assessment, a long name for a long process. The NPS started this study in 2005 after passage in 2003 of a bill by Representative Hilda Solis (companion bill by Senator Boxer).
Now we have the findings of the study:

First, the natural and cultural resources of the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente-Chino Hills are nationally significant.
Second, the study area is suitable for inclusion in the national park system because it represents natural and cultural resource types that are not already adequately represented in the national park system or protected by another land managing entity.
Third, the NPS determined that a collaborative partnership-based park unit would be a feasible addition to the national park  system. A large traditional national park unit, owned and operated solely by the National Park Service, is not feasible.
And finally, NPS management in partnership with existing agencies and organizations is the best option for  enhancing protection of significant resources, for improving access to  recreational opportunities in the region, and for providing coordinated  interpretation and education about significant resources.

How would this be implemented? The NPS looked at four alternatives and this is the one they liked best (quoting from the report): “Alternative D: San Gabriel Region National Recreation Area (A Partnership Linking Significant Resources and Recreation). In this  alternative, Congress would designate a larger scale national recreation area that would recognize and protect the significant resources associated with the San Gabriel Mountains and Puente-Chino Hills, explore opportunities to protect and enhance interconnected ecosystems, provide important open space connections for recreation, and offer new educational and interpretive opportunities. … The NPS would take a lead role in management of the partnership, particularly in the area of interpretation and education.”

What are the next steps? The NPS is holding a comment period through December 16, 2011 with public meetings around the region. Then it will be up to us – and Congress – as to whether any of the recommendations in the study get implemented.

How can green streets and complete streets help our communities?

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk about taking our vision beyond a single street retrofit to transforming communities at the Municipal Green Building Conference in Downey. Our lens is sustainable water management. The traditional complete streets concept focuses on making streets and neighborhoods pedestrian (and bicyclist) friendly – focusing on the human scale rather than the car scale, so to speak. Complete green streets look farther, to how we can bring nature back to neighborhoods. Urban water runoff and flooding are particular concerns, which can be solved by wholistic planning that takes into account climate, transportation, and the needs of the community. This is what we did in Sun Valley.Back to the Green Building Conference. If you are interested, the video of my presentation is available along with presentations by Mark Hanna of Geosyntec, Calvin Abe of Ahbe Landscape Architects, and Paula Daniels of the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works, all on the topic of complete, green streets. The session was moderated by Edward Belden, of the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. Thanks much to the skillful videography John Gannon of Strikeout Studio.

Solutions for Dirty Stormwater

In these dog days of summer, its nice to see a fresh new video from NRDC on “stormwater runoff 101.” Starting with the end in mind, NRDC shows how people can do simple things to keep rivers, beaches, and oceans clean. I also like the video because they feature Elmer Avenue as an example of doing things right.

Elmer Avenue: The Venice of Sun Valley

That’s what some people are calling the new green street retrofit – I guess because the swales look like little canals. Or maybe it’s because the street is just so pretty right now, after the plants have been in the ground for a couple of months. Emily Green, LA Times, calls it “The Dry Garden,” and Sunset Magazine’s Fresh Dirt blog says it is “a model, we hope, for the future.” I like the Mother Nature Network blog’s headline, “Elmer Ave. in Sun Valley, Calif., is ready for stormy weather.” You can read the most complete coverage on LA Creek Freak in the piece that has generated the most comments of any posting I’ve seen so far, “Elmer Avenue Green Street Project Explored.

In case you haven’t been able to get out to see the street yet, here are a few more photos from earlier this month.

The plants in the swales are growing and blooming so well; I’m looking forward to seeing how they weather the summer heat.

I can’t give the residents enough credit for having the vision and grace to allow their street to become this showcase for all of Los Angeles, for how we can turn our streets and yards into gardens that harvest the rain.

Turning Yards Into Rain Gardens

Iris

Is California still in a drought? The state thinks so. Or maybe we should stop talking about a “drought,” which implies a short term situation beyond our control, and start talking about a water crisis. In May the state upped its delivery of water through the massive state water project to 45 percent of requests. They started the year promising 5% of requests. So this is a good thing, right? Since when is 45% a good thing? The “normal” delivery (over the past 10 years) has been 68% of requests.

Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said “While the increase in deliveries is good news, we will continue to have a water supply crisis until we improve our conveyance system, increase storage and resolve the complex environmental problems of the Delta.”

Solutions? We need to use water, of course, but we are also victims of engineering. The system is designed to direct good rain into storm drains and send it to the ocean, bypassing the soil and groundwater basins. This way we lose enough water every year to supply over a million people. In the words of Dorothy Green, we need to unpave LA!

By turning yards into rain gardens and streets into water recharge facilities, we can ensure we have enough clean water for the future.

We took a small step in that direction with the completion of Elmer Avenue this May. Elmer recharges 16 acre feet a year, which is enough water to replace that used by residents of the street plus a few more households. Plus with their new drought tolerant and native landscaping and education about water conservation, we expect the residents will be using even less water into the future.

We have more pictures on our website.

Elmer Avenue bioswale working to capture and infiltrate rain

Let a Thousand Community Parks Bloom

Old Marengo Park April 2010

We don’t have enough parks in Los Angeles. Given the expense of land and the reality of built-out cities, we need to think about how we can create more parks in urban areas. We need to be creative in converting even small scraps of vacant land into places where people can enjoy nature, walk their dogs, and play. Almost five years ago a small group of people in Altadena got the idea to turn a small barren bit of dirt into a park for the community. Just 8,000 square feet and owned by the County’s Roads Division, the parcel was too small to be a true park. Also working against it, the land was on the border of Pasadena and Altadena – in the unincorporated County but with water from Pasadena. But this neighborhood had no park and thus the idea was borne – why not create a “pocket park?”

A neglected County property, circa 2006

Michele Zack, who had recently taken a “Watershed U” course run by the UC Cooperative Extension, decided the property would be ideal for construction of a “water-wise” pocket park. She found out the Metropolitan Water District was offering grants and she convinced the Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy (then Altadena Foothills Conservancy) to apply one.I got involved in this project before I was even working for the LA & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, as the president of AFC.

The design included native, drought-tolerant plants designed to bring the mountains into the city, and dry wells to collect and percolate all of the rainfall, eliminating sheet flow runoff from the site.

Dry well installation

Several more grants and lots of hard work later, the hard, barren ground is blooming. We wanted to demonstrate low-water use gardening that people could replicate in their own yards. The park was completely a volunteer, community-led project from start to finish. It would not have happened, however, without the support of Supervisor Michael Antonovich and Metropolitan Water District. Mountain View Cemetery, Foothill MWD, Pasadena Water & Power, plus the members of Neighborhood Church were also major supporters. The list of supporters is long.

Here are a few more photos of the park, which is at the intersection of Marengo and Woodbury. We named it “Old Marengo Park” to acknowledge its origin as left over land when Pasadena and the County aligned Marengo Avenue. What neglected scraps of land can you turn into a park in your neighborhood?

Old Marengo Park, April 2010, looking west
Old Marengo Park April 2010 flowers

Is Your Garden a Working Landscape?

Gardens on Elmer Avenue in Sun Valley hold rainwater and recharge the aquifer, replacing what they use…and they are pretty, too. I’ll be talking more about Elmer Avenue in the next few weeks, telling the story of the street from research and conception to implementation.

Bioswale in the Rain