Sunday, October 14, 2007

Blog Action Day: Walking My Watershed

Years ago, I attended a lecture by a noted member of the "Deep Ecology Movement". I can't remember his name or all the things he talked about. But I do remember that he sounded much more reasonable than detractors of the movement had led me to expect. In his closing statement, he implored the audience to "walk your watershed".

How can such a simple idea lead to a whole new way of seeing my relationship to the world? Today, on Blog Action Day, I would like to take you on a tour of my watershed.

(New readers may also be interested in the Green Party and Fire is a river that runs uphill.)

We begin with a familiar picture.

Lucky urban dwellers don't have to think much about water. Clean, safe water just comes out of our taps. (I know that it is clean and safe because my water district encloses the results of water analysis with the bill.) The bill is paid with hardly a thought. It takes 1-2 hours of my salary to pay for a whole month's water for our household. Contrast that with the 5 hours per day a woman in sub-Saharan Africa might spend providing her family with water (which is not necessarily clean and safe).

Where does our water come from? I live in a semi-arid region with about 15 million other humans. Once, there were wetlands which did provide water for a small human settlement and an estuary for wildlife. But the wetlands are mostly paved over now.

Ballona Wetlands used to cover over 2000 acres, but only about 800-1000 remain and much of that will disappear under the Playa Vista development which is being built now.

Another large wetland area became Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors, two of the busiest, and most polluted, ports in the entire world.

Our natural watershed can't provide sufficient water for the population here. Read Revisiting ‘toilet to tap’ to learn how the Hyperion water treatment plant below provides recycled water to the beach cities. In the picture below, you can see some of the water that the Hyperion plant releases into the Santa Monica Bay. What you can't see is that treated waste water is also pumped into the aquifers from which part of my tap water is derived.

But even recycling can't provide enough. We have to look much further to meet our voracious appetite for water. Some of it comes from the Colorado river even though we are hundreds of miles from the natural Colorado river watershed pictured below. In fact, the Colorado River no longer flows to the sea. All of the water is used and reused until the river disappears in the desert.

This favorite campsite is near the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, in Dinosaur National Monument. A few miles downstream, they will join the Colorado river.

In the morning, we rode our mountain bikes on a jeep track along the Yampa Bench overlooking the Yampa river.

On another trip, we visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison, also in the Colorado river watershed.
The Colorado river is a shared resource. We cannot take enough from it to satisfy our needs. We also tap the Owens valley watershed picture below. The extent of Mono lake used to be much bigger and this valley used to be much greener.

See the dust devil below from June 2007? Los Angeles lost a lawsuit because it diverted so much water from Mono Lake, that dust storms became common. This created unhealthful air quality for the people living in the Owens valley.

Los Angeles did not live up to its past agreements. The water line agreed upon in a court settlement in 1994 is here. Doesn't look very wet here at all.

All of these tufa formations used to be underwater. If the agreement above were honored, many of them would be underwater again.

I walked my neighborhood today to show you my watershed up close. Our household sewage goes here. Note that I live in an urban infill townhouse. Two identical townhouses share a single lot, hence the two sewer lines.

Storm runoff goes into a separate system which flows, untreated, into the ocean. Here is our backyard storm drain.

The storm drain in the front driveway.

The storm drain by the street. Note the graphic reminding us not to dump nasty things into the drain.

A sign at the park tried to educate the populace.

Some of the storm drains are above ground and attract wildlife.

This ersatz creek flows into Polliwog Lake. Note that our recent rainfall caused the lake to overflow its concrete banks. The benches are not normally in the water.

It is a sad fact that, around here, only low-lying areas are turned into parks. But at least Polliwog is a very attractive park. This catchment basin is not as attractive.

It all ends up here. Read the environmental scorecard for the beaches.

Or maybe it all ends up here, in the clouds. The airshed is connected to the watershed... (sung to the tune of the funny bone song)

Which then rains back down. And so it goes ad infinitum. The global watershed is all connected. Take good care of your watershed.


  1. Thanks for the summary of California's water problem, at least as it relates to us in the South Bay.

    BTW, that sign at Mono Lake is marking the water level that was decided in the 1994 California Supreme Court decision to restore the lake and "prevent future degradation of resources." It is a level they are aiming for, not a level they have reached obviously. The lake had gotten so low that it will take years to restore it to that level which is still not the highest level the lake has ever been. The two really wet years we've had (before last year's dry year) have gone a long way to bring the water level up at the lake which cheered up everybody on the Mono Lake Committee. The lake has risen 8.5 feet since the decision but they have 7.9 feet to go. You can read all about it at:

  2. I came across your blog researching for watersheds and found your entry very comprehensible and informative. We need more people to look in their backyard and see what they find!


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