Some Thoughts About The Great Outdoors, Part II

What speaks to you about the outdoors? If you have a strong connection to nature and wildlife, how do you think that connection happened? In your life today, how do you get your “outdoors fix?” Why do you like to hike in the forest, instead of a on a city street or around the Rose Bowl (not that they are mutually exclusive).

Those are the questions I wish the White House was asking us in their America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. If you want to tell the White House about your connection to the great outdoors, they are accepting comments, although they suggest you tell them about the obstacles to achieving your goals for conservation (challenges), what works, how can the federal government be an effective partner, and what tools and resources would make your efforts more successful.

Stories are powerful, so I urge you to tell the White House stories about your favorite places, earliest memories of being outdoors, and wishes for conservation.

My favorite place is anywhere in the Grand Canyon. I imprinted early on the redwall and red rocks anywhere send me into a peaceful place. Water in the desert is also magical, and I love to just watch for signs of life in the small wet potholes and creeksides. Some of my earliest memories of wildlife, however, are from my backyard, in the days before pesticides had killed every living ant and beetle in the alley behind my house. We tried to capture the ant queen and got stung many times; baby birds fell from trees and usually died, but we did try to raise them up. I was always trying to see – just see – an antlion -but they were too fast. I remember watching a praying mantis eat a ladybug – oh the horror! But that’s how I learned nature is “red in tooth and claw” – from bugs. I didn’t need to go to the large national parks, although we did. I was just a bored kid who went outside enough to get hooked on nature.

Meredith McCarthy of Heal the Bay puts it this way – she says the greatest obstacle to educating children about the Great Outdoors was, in her words, “All Children Left Inside,” also known as “No Child Left Behind.” She said teachers tell her they are stuck inside, teaching to tests, when they know that hands on outdoor activities are great teaching tools.

If the White House is concerned about conservation, they need to ensure kids of today get hooked on nature too, and teaching to the test won’t get us there.

What are your stories?

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.

Listening to America about the Great Outdoors, Part I

The feds were here this week to listen to us about America’s Great Outdoors, an initiative of President Obama’s to launch a national dialogue about conservation in American and learn about some of the smart, creative ways American’s are conserving outdoor spaces. The public listening session, originally to be a one day affair in Los Angeles, stretched to two and a half days with events at Compton Creek and Whittier Narrows on July 7, Los Angeles on July 8, and concluding in the Santa Monica Mountains on July 9.

I was honored to be a part of the planning team for the Los Angeles event on July 8, working with some of our great public servants in City of LA government, such as Paula Daniels (Board of Public Works Commissioner) and Romel Pascual (interim Deputy Mayor for the Environment). We developed our messages and strategized on how to deliver them, producing talking points and deploying teams to the breakout sessions. I’m not sure all of our work was needed – everyone was so on-point and articulate – but I appreciated the way we came together in such a short time to put on a good event. I have to say that Occidental College really shined with a thoroughly professional and yet down to earth presentation of the campus and the themes (disclaimer – my husband and I are both Oxy alumni). Oh, and the weather was great too!

This is the first of  several parts on my thoughts and impressions of the day and about America’s Great Outdoors.

Turning Yards Into Rain Gardens


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

Wildflowers After the Fire

The fire followers are glorious. What can I say except that? I’ve not seen Phacelia grandiflora since I pressed it in my college botany class. I was fortunate to be collecting the Spring after a Malibu fire, and here it is again, in the San Gabriel Mountains. Phacelia grandiflora and the other fire followers probably haven’t bloomed here for over 50 years as the last recorded fire was in 1959 in western Altadena.

Phacelia grandiflora with Phacelia minor

Phacelia minor or parryi with mustard.
Parasitic dodder, taking advantage of the wildflowers
Caterpillar phacelia alongside an erosion channel

Are You Ready for the New California Landscape?

The Watershed Council is holding its next Sustainable Landscape Seminar this month: Planning and Planting the New California Landscape.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
8:30am – 3:30pm
Metropolitan Water District
700 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, CA 90012 (Map)

What is the New California Landscape? Come find out and enter into the conversation. Our seminar presenters are:
Bob Perry, Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona; Carolyn Schaffer, Resource Specialist for Metropolitan Water District; and Jeff Chamlee, Director of Production, Architerra Design Group. They will share their expertise on the challenges and opportunities of the new California Landscape Ordinance. You don’t want to miss this one day seminar to update your skills and knowledge.
• Learn what California’s Updated Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance means for California Landscapes.
• Understand how new landscape ordinance provisions can be used to influence and engage clients in the design process.
• Practice using guidelines, tables, calculations, and plant factors from Bob Perry’s new book Landscape Plants for California Gardens.
• Share your ideas and vision for the New California Landscape.
Landscape Plants for California Gardens will be available for purchase and Bob Perry will be signing his new book.
Who should attend: Landscape architects and designers, planners, care and maintenance professionals, and students.
Registration: $135 by May 19. $150 after May 19. Continental breakfast and lunch included.

Registration closes noon, Monday, May 24. Register Today!

Watching Streams Live

A friend who works at JPL clued me in to a website hosting live webcams the USGS has installed at real-time stream-gaging sites around the state, which is even cooler than the graphs I showed you in my post Is It Raining Now? The California Water Science Center currently hosts thirteen webcams around the state, including the Ventura River, Malibu Creek, and Arroyo Seco near Pasadena.

You can even control the webcams, selecting from pre-set views or creating your own, and other images are available, like this one showing flood stage flows in the Arroyo Seco.

The prettiest view has got to be San Pedro Creek near Goleta, which shows a lovely waterfall.

Let me know if you’ve found other webcams allowing us to monitor special places in the watershed.

Is it Raining Now?

It’s raining, and with the rain brings the usual mixed feelings (oh boy we need the rain but oh no the traffic is going to be bad) colored by the very real dangers from mud and debris flows in the watersheds burned by the recent fires.  The web makes it easy to keep track of weather, but what if you want more specific information? Here are some lesser known web resources to track local rainfall. Los Angeles County Department of Public Works has numerous rain gauges throughout the basin and their site allows you to track rainfall County-wide. Another one of my favorites is the USGS stream gaging stations. You can search by the specific stream gauge number (e.g., Arroyo Seco near Pasadena is #11098000) or click on the map to get real time, hour by hour data. Here is an example of the graph you will see, from the station in the Arroyo Seco.

The final resource I found is a little less useful here in the Los Angeles Basin because there are fewer stations: California Irrigation Management Information System, in the State Department of Water Resources. You have to set up a log in, but once in you can view a variety of weather-oriented information.