July 22, 2004 | General


BioCycle July 2004, Vol. 45, No. 7, p. 29
An organization called TreePeople offers a strategy to recharge groundwater, prevent runoff to the ocean, and improve the quality of life for California residents.
Robert Feinbuam

LOS ANGELES is not the city that comes to mind when one thinks of sustainability. L.A. is the prototype for America’s obsession with that least sustainable of all contraptions – the internal combustion engine. The city is built on a desert and has to import nearly all of its water from Northern California and from the Colorado River. Buildings are constructed in areas where reason would suggest they have no place. Nature has been submerged under a tide of asphalt – nearly three-quarters of the city is covered with it. In fact, ecologists contend that the Los Angeles basin now has over 50 times the population the area was meant to support.
Take one district in the further reaches of the San Fernando valley known as Sun Valley. It broils under the summer sun. But in winter, when periodic rains hit the area, it floods. The Los Angeles Times routinely shows pictures of Sun Valley’s main intersection, San Fernando and Tuxford, under water. That road is a main artery connecting the valley to downtown and tens of thousands of people are routinely inconvenienced whenever it storms.
The County’s Public Works Department long planned to construct a storm drain to carry water out to the Pacific Ocean. That was an expensive solution and would have been disruptive to build. Moreover, it would take water out of a normally hot, dry area and dump it where it certainly was not needed.
But Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, an organization well known for environmental activism in the Los Angeles area, had a better idea. Why not take water from periodic storms and use it to recharge the groundwater? Why not alleviate flooding without constructing big pipes to the ocean? Indeed why not rethink the entire dynamic of water use? Lipkis estimated that stormwater and treated wastewater could meet much of Sun Valley’s water needs. In fact, if his ideas were applied to the entire region, the Los Angeles area could meet half of its water needs and dramatically decrease imports from the northern part of the state.
A number of government bodies have a stake in Sun Valley. There’s the agency that deals with flood control, the water department, public works, the police department, the sanitation department, the school district and various environmental agencies. But, as so often happens in government, none of those agencies talked to each other. Andy Lipkis’ first challenge was to get them to work together.
Lately, stormwater has become the focus of a lot of attention. When the federal EPA required Los Angeles to come up with a management plan for runoff, local bureaucrats started to pay attention to Lipkis. The County Department of Public Works set aside $1.6 million in Flood Control funds to develop a Watershed Management Plan for Sun Valley. The County Board of Supervisors allocated additional money for construction. As part of the process, TreePeople put together a citizens advisory committee to build resources for a comprehensive, sustainable solution for Sun Valley and the County hired the engineering firm, Montgomery Watson Harza, to design local projects.
With additional funding from the California Bay-Delta Authority which began in 2002 – plus resources provided by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power along with the city’s school district – the stakeholders group set about trying to reduce local flooding while retaining runoff to replenish the watershed. Several neighborhood sites demonstrated the potential for an integrated approach. Pan Pacific Park, built atop an abandoned oil field, was constructed around a 28 acre detention basin that serves as a source of recreation while it helps to reduce local flooding. An elementary school tore up a third of its asphalt yard and replaced it with greenery and play fields that allow stormwater to percolate into the ground and recharge the aquifer underlying the area.
One fine spring day, TreePeople provided a dramatic demonstration of sustainable water practices. With government officials standing by, two tons of water were poured on the roof of a house in South Central Los Angeles to show that a well designed site could hold and store all the water from a violent storm. A variety of measures – a cistern collection system, vegetated swale with retention grading, redirection of downspouts as well as a drywell underneath the driveway – combined to eliminate runoff despite the deluge.
With TreePeople’s guidance, the Sun Valley group identified a number of projects for an integrated water reuse plan: Create a retention basin in part of a gravel pit, now used as a landfill; Construct catch basins in Sun Valley Park for underground treatment and then recharge of groundwater; Rebuild the San Fernando/Tuxford interchange to eliminate flooding. These and other projects can solve the community’s flooding problem without building storm sewers to move needed water out of the area.
Andy Lipkis had modest goals when he started the group back in 1973 as a 19-year old. Andy noticed that the notorious Los Angeles smog was killing trees in the San Bernardino Mountains and organized a group of friends to plant seedlings to replace dying trees. Quickly, he raised $10,000 and TreePeople was born.
Several years later, he persuaded the city to allow the group to convert an old fire station into its headquarters and nursery. By 1977, with help from the Air National Guard, 50,000 trees had been planted in the San Bernardino Mountains. Lipkis and TreePeople (with 1,500 members) then moved on to a bigger goal – planting one million trees in the Los Angeles area before the start of the 1984 Olympic Games. Volunteers worked hard, and just four days before the Games were to begin, the millionth tree was planted in Canoga Park.
Other projects quickly followed. TreePeople helped to rescue books from the fire ravaged Central Library. It flew 6,000 fruit trees to six African countries in response to the famine in Ethiopia and followed up with workshops to help local people care for the trees. Shortly thereafter, TreePeople started a Citizen Forester Training Program for neighborhoods in Los Angeles— a program that has been in existence now for 18 years and trained thousands of volunteers to plant trees in their communities.
Along the way Andy Lipkis and his wife Kate wrote a couple of books, A Planters Guide to the Urban Forest and then, The Simple Act of Planting a Tree, to share their philosophy and the techniques that have proved so successful over the years. In the 1990s, TreePeople spearheaded Los Angeles’ Urban Forest Task Force and launched a program to educate middle and high school students about environmental issues such as waste reduction and prevention of pollution. It also began a campaign to convert asphalt school yards into tree shaded gardens and playing fields.
The latest, and perhaps its most ambitious project, is to create the TreePeople Center for Community Forestry in Coldwater Canyon Park. Ground was broken on January 30, 2003, and the first phase will open in September, 2004. The project will cost more than $10 million; to date, 60 percent of the funding has been raised from government agencies, foundation grants and private individuals.
The Center will combine an environmental learning area, conference facilities that can accommodate 250 people, an extensive watershed garden to provide experience with the principles of urban forestry and water conservation, a reference library, a community tool bank to lend tools for local projects and a nursery to raise trees for planting throughout the Los Angeles area.
Architects Marmol Radziner + Associates are designing the Center for the highest level of sustainability – the Platinum level established by the Green Building Council. Photovoltaic panels will provide 20 kilowatts of electricity. Natural lighting will eliminate much of the electricity used for lighting the buildings. Radiant heating in the concrete floor will be supplied by a high efficiency boiler. Even the 72 car parking area will be designed using sustainable principles – shaded by trees the paving in the parking grove is not entirely porous; it is light-colored to mitigate the urban heat-island effect, and drains from the grove carrying runoff into the 250,000-gallon cistern.
Construction materials will use the maximum pre and postconsumer recycled content recovering as much as possible from deconstructed buildings. All the new wood will come from certified producers of sustainably harvested lumber. Grey water from sinks and showers will feed into the landscape irrigation system. Plumbing fixtures will conserve water – an expected 187,000 gallons a year. Stormwater will be captured, filtered, stored and reused and very little is expected to run off the site.
Other water conservation measures include a cistern collection system to channel rainwater from gutters and store it for irrigation use during dry months. A vegetated or mulched swale will make use of green waste as well as slow the flow of stormwater, filter pollutants, etc. – absorbing the flow instead of running off. Retention grading will be able to capture runoff from a 10-inch flash flood so it can percolate into the ground. All these measures prevent stormwater from running off into drains and carrying pollution to the ocean. They also recharge the groundwater aquifer, reducing potable water usage for irrigation.
Concerning use of organic soil amendments to create healthier soils and boost plant growth, TreePeople does advocate use of compost. “Composting will also reduce the amount of yard trimmings buried in landfills,” says Marisa Walker of TreePeople. “We are also strong proponents of mulch to improve absorption and moisture retention.”
The Center has begun the process for “environmental healing of a major city.” It will showcase technologies that can help Los Angeles save water and energy. The Center will provide the focus for education about sustainable living and assistance with restoration efforts underway in neighborhoods throughout the area. Bolstered by the model established in the Sun Valley planning process, and the resources available through the Center, TreePeople looks to turn Los Angeles into a model of sustainable living that can be emulated throughout the nation.

Sign up