“Bullshit is just bullshit”

Posted on | January 22, 2014 | 7 Comments

William Mulholland portrait @LAWDP

Portrait of William Mulholland, LADWP headquarters. Photo: Emily Green

Los Angeles sprang from propaganda, enterprise and stolen water (or “inter-basin transfers”). Has it changed? An article titled Brave New LA argues that the days of villainy are behind it and “under cover of one of the worst environmental reputations on the planet, Los Angeles is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability.”

Tilting LA’s hat toward sustainability in the new edition of High Country News is Jon Christensen, a respected journalist turned policy advocate at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, where he edits the university’s quarterly journal “Boom” and promotes the institute’s various green infrastructure work. Chistensen’s been in LA for a year, he says in his essay, and — touchingly — he sounds almost giddy with a newcomer’s wonder at the region’s geography, diversity and dynamism. But boil down the essay and Brave New LA is pure politics. It’s a policy wonk delivering a flattery-laced pre-nup for a marriage between UCLA’s green team and the City of LA’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti.

Those of us who lived in Los Angeles through the Villaraigosa years might question the wisdom of writing reviews before watching the play. Or not. There’s something endearing about Christensen’s waving his wand over time and place as if to make his paradox-loving version of things true. But with Brave New LA, I think that he crossed the line from reporter to advocate and became bedeviled by his own optimism. Admire him as I do, this is a trip to the woodshed. As an editor of mine used to say, “Bullshit is just bullshit.” 

For the record:

1. Early in the scene-setting the essay juxtaposes Eric Garcetti’s mayoral victory and the centenary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct as kismet, a turning point at which the city guilty of the “original sin” (diverting Owens River to Los Angeles through the Los Angeles Aqueduct) became a green model. 

CommentThe two events are un-related other than by chronological proximity. One, on July 1st, 2013, marked the assumption of office by new Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The second date, November 5th, 2013, was the 100th anniversary of William Mulholland opening the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti was at the centenary by function of his new job, which includes authority to appoint the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, which operates the aqueduct. 

2. The article describes Mayor Garcetti as “a strong advocate for localizing water sources, cutting energy use, promoting efficiency, confronting climate change, and providing access to parks and nature. His first official mayoral portrait, taken in a kayak on the Los Angeles River last summer, will greet visitors at LAX.”

Comment: As a LA City Council Member Garcetti was indeed a champion of the open space movement in northeast Los Angeles. As newly elected mayor, he did go to Washington to lobby the Obama administration for federal dollars to restore a small part of the largely paved Los Angeles River. It was more than appealing, it was important. We will not develop a fresh water ethic until we can look at a river and understand our connection to it. Good move. Moreover, who wouldn’t want at least a fraction of the Olmsted Report finally realized, or for Friends of the LA River to finally dance around miles of fallen chain link? But does anyone know where will the river get its water? Mayors for every city crossed by the river need to work with local water agencies and county flood control officials to identify how drought, groundwater harvesting, grey-water programs siphoning treated sewage and reduction of dry season run-off from sprinklers will impact the river. And, while they’re at it, we need a plan for how, as the ribbon of water and who knows what else flowing through the storm drain/river system concentrates, we will meet pollutant limits required under the Clean Water Act.

3. “The sprawling city is also, paradoxically, already the nation’s densest, with more people on average living in every square block than even New York, thanks to the number of duplexes and apartments in what you might call the suburbs. And it has not one downtown, but many – 88 cities altogether in Los Angeles County, a sort of new urbanist’s dream.”

For the record: This point is not paradoxical, it’s wrong. See this Atlantic article with a link to US Census Bureau.

4. “Meanwhile, California’s overwhelmingly Democratic political landscape is famously friendly to environmental initiatives. The state has moved well beyond debates about whether climate change is happening to begin implementing the country’s most progressive policies. Locally, decades of grassroots advocacy to restore the L.A. River – initiated by poet Lewis MacAdams – have been embraced by the political mainstream.”

CommentLewis, how was it for you?

Hearing an environmentalist who I admire sound like old Chamber of Commerce types giving the nod to developers, as if saying, “Don’t worry, we have the politicians in our pocket,” makes me rethink my loathing for the Chamber. Anyone doubting what alienated conservatives can do to environmental initiatives in California should look at what the Howard Jarvis movement did to the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure. Or try going to a Metropolitan Water District board meeting and seeing how effectively the San Diego contingent can gut a rebate program. Finally, on a local and state level, it’s simply untrue that Democrats are necessarily greener than Republicans. With the honorable exception of US Sen Dianne Feinstein, virtually the entire California Democratic establishment has been in bed with a jet-setting horse betting entrepreneur in an ongoing water grab in San Bernardino County. Democrats going straight up to and including US Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid are slowly pulling off the most audacious water grab since Mulholland in Nevada. As for local LA politics, it merits noting that the pivotal moment between Owens Valley and Los Angeles did not come with the election of Democrat Eric Garcetti, or his Democratic predecessors Antonio Villaraigosa and James Hahn. It was forced by the courts then finally hammered out in the 1990s by Republican Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and his general manager David Freeman. Freeman returned to the department under the Villaragosa administration but after less than a year was driven from office under a campaign in no small part waged by then Democratic City Council member Eric Garcetti.

5. “L.A.’s bid to become a 21st century sustainable city starts where its environmental sins began, with water. Despite their hot, dry climate, Angelenos use less water than residents of any other American city with more than a million people, according to the Water and Power Department. Aggressive conservation measures during droughts have led to savings in wet times, too: The metropolitan area currently uses the same amount of water that it did in 1970, even though several million more people live here.”


Graphic source: LADWP

Comment: It’s the Department of Water & Power, not the “Water and Power Department.” As for daily use, average figures are bear traps when discussing conservation strategy. In a city where 50% or more of the water use in single family homes is estimated to happen outdoors, LA’s average is skewed downwards by apartment dwellers who don’t have lawn sprinklers on timers. Across the city, indoor water use has been driven way down. During droughts and to comply with the Quantification Settlement Agreement the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California turned on a dime to retrofit the region with low-flow toilets, concentrating most heavily on high density neighborhoods.

By contrast, outdoor use by single family homes — think of the pools, car-washing and lawn sprinklers —  of expensively treated potable water is still far too high, especially in the hotter regions of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. Even LA’s City Hall can’t seem to wean itself from turf. Re-landscaped after the Occupy debacle, the chain link proudly held a thank you sign to the turf, pesticide and fertilizer company Scotts MiracleGro.City hall sign

Only the cities of Long Beach and Santa Monica have gone after outdoor water use with the zeal and conviction that we see in states such as Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Unlike Long Beach, Los Angeles failed to pass a lawn watering ordinance for a full year after one of the lowest rainfall years on record in 2006-2007. Mr Garcetti then worked with a San Fernando Valley Republican to overturn and replace it with a more relaxed rule that soon faded into obscurity. Water use went up and, as functionaries in the Department of Water & Power scrambled to compensate, Mr Garcetti aimed his campaign guns at DWP unions over fiscal issues. As Garcetti seeks a new general manager for the LADWP, the department has been reduced to strong-arming Owens Valley for relief from dust control measures while demanding the right to resume groundwater pumping.

6. “Woodbury College’s Arid Lands Institute estimates that aquifers underneath the city could absorb up to 95,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year – the amount of water the Water and Power Department is now leaving in Owens Lake – if the surface landscape were re-engineered with porous paving, drainage systems, infiltration basins and urban forests, instead of shunting the water into concrete channels and out to the ocean. That’s already happening in neighborhoods and parks around the city.”

Comment: At least you got the DWP’s name wrong consistently. How I hope that the Arid Lands Institute is right about recharge potential. However, the US Geological Survey estimates that the two best recharge basins, the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, are 83% urban (i.e., heavily paved), 16% natural, and 1% agricultural. The survey identifies the largest urban areas in  Los Angeles, San Fernando, Northridge, Burbank, Pasadena, Alhambra, Azusa, and West Covina. So we’re ahead of ourselves dropping even a suggestion that harvested stormwater might replace Aqueduct water currently going to court-mandated dust suppression work in the Sierra. How far ahead? Let’s do some back-of-a-napkin math. The city’s most celebrated green street retrofit, Elmer Avenue in the San Fernando Valley, cost roughly $1 million dollars to treat roughly a tenth of a mile. Apply that to the 41,489 miles of street, excluding freeways, that might make up the service area of the Los Angeles Flood Control District, and the cost to retrofit the LA Basin might be $414,893,617,021.28. Cut the Elmer rate in half, and even adjusted for inflation, that reduced cost is still roughly twice what it cost to get to the moon. But while the Apollo program took less than a generation, if LA’s stormwater retrofitting work is dependent on a proposed parcel tax (that has so far been defeated), at the suggested rate of approximately $50 per residence, treating all the streets might take 691 years. Think about it and the suggestion usually dismissed as heretical, which is that we should tear out a swathe of houses around the LA, Rio Hondo and San Gabriel Rivers to create a seasonal flood plain for both public safety in storms and groundwater recharge starts sounding commonsensical, economic and timely.

I could go on, but I’m pretty sure that I passed a sign reading “overkill” about ten miles back. In closing, welcome to LA, Mr Christensen. I wish you and UCLA’s green team  wild success. It would be a blast if you could do what former City Council Member Eric Garcetti and other council members didn’t have the guts to do at City Hall, which is bring around UCLA’s own facilities manager and start by re-landscaping the Westwood campus.

If you are right and LA is becoming an unlikely model of sustainability instead of rolling along in its own dysfunctional and occasionally magnificent way, then I’ll eat my … something I don’t like. But, some advice:  Keep crushing on your new home town. But keep it legal. You have a potent megaphone in HCN and a potentially powerful new column at LA Observed. So make love to the politicians and poets out of print and behave yourself with us readers. Why? Because bullshit is just bullshit.

Correction: On the subject of bullshit, an earlier version of this gave the title of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability as the UCLA Institute for the Environment.

Jon Christensen e-mails (see comments) the following: “A few minor corrections. Boom: A Journal of California is a quarterly magazine published by UC Press, not by UCLA. The ‘Water and Power Department’ usage is a style choice made by High Country News after the first use of LADWP’s full name in the essay. And the matter of density is a subject of great debate, which I did not have space or inclination to rehearse in my short essay in HCN. Suffice it to say that depending on how you measure density, what you include in ‘Los Angeles,’ and what you call ‘urban,’ LA is, arguably, the most dense urban area in the country, according to the Census Bureau.”


7 Responses to ““Bullshit is just bullshit””

  1. BMGM
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 1:52 am

    I’ll never forget the scientist who said, “Never confuse water storage capacity with water availability.”

    As soon as I get over the creeping crud, let’s film a video about that ridiculously resilient ridge and what a serious, serious problem it is for your blog. I have an idea that involves dry ice.

  2. BMGM
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 1:53 am

    Oops, I meant to note that my comment was in reply to point #6, “the city could absorb up to 95,000 acre-feet of stormwater a year.”

  3. Hollywood_Palms
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    I sure hope Kevin Roderick at L.A. Observed links to your piece. It’s a great reality check.

    Until we have real water reform – no more growing cotton in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, no more rice paddies in the Delta, limiting and/or removal of lawns in the SFV, SGV, and the IE, along with pool covers when pools are not in use state-wide, etc., Christensen’s local “solutions” will not matter.

    It would be great to recharge locally, but until we go from toilet to tap, we’re going to be in crazy supply cycles.

  4. Jon Christensen
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    Hi Emily,

    Thanks for the welcome to LA. I welcome the debate, though, speaking as one journalist to another, I’d prefer to have it without unwarranted and unsubstantiated innuendos about my motivations. If it would be useful, we could continue the discussion here or perhaps meet sometime in person? Or organize a salon to discuss LA, water, and our love for the American West and other common ground?

    A few minor corrections. Boom: A Journal of California is a quarterly magazine published by UC Press, not by UCLA. The “Water and Power Department” usage is a style choice made by High Country News after the first use of LADWP’s full name in the essay. And the matter of density is a subject of great debate, which I did not have space or inclination to rehearse in my short essay in HCN. Suffice it to say that depending on how you measure density, what you include in “Los Angeles,” and what you call “urban,” LA is, arguably, the most dense urban area in the country, according to the Census Bureau.

    The rest, I think, is fair debate.

    With deep respect for you and your work.

    Yours truly,


    P.S. With your evident interest in bullshit, I would recommend highly “On Bullshit,” a short book by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt that attempts to lay down a theory of bullshit. Technically, I don’t think my essay qualifies. But I would, naturally, argue that. So let’s call that fair debate too.

  5. Mike Antos
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

    Hi Emily, you’ve missed the mark a bit on Elmer Avenue. The project treats the runoff from 60 acres of land, not just a tenth of a mile street. The other truth is that the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project, and the recently completed Elmer Paseo Stormwater Improvement Project, are designed to be a demonstration and a laboratory. Each contains many choices of stormwater capture technology that we are now monitoring. There are therefore costs associated with both project budgets that would not be repeated when the region scales-up its use of green infrastructure to catch the rain, clean the streams, cool the streets, and improve the health of all our residents. Elsewhere in the US many cities (Philly, Syracuse, Seattle, among others) are finding that green infrastructure provides cost-savings from the multiple benefits that it achieves. Any time you are in the region and want a tour of the Elmer Avenue Projects, please don’t hesitate to ask.

    Mike Antos
    Programs Director
    Council for Watershed Health

  6. EmilyGreen
    January 24th, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    Thanks to all who commented, Jon particularly, for being so couth … Country News High has written that it is indeed their copy desk’s preference to reword the name of the largest municipal utility in the country. I’ve suggested that they drop the caps. I still think the density stuff shouldn’t need massaging to be true, but above all I thank you for gallantly allowing me to fire a warning shot through you at the high profile new mayor of Los Angeles to demand less grandstanding and more policy about how we will face dry times.

    Mike, thanks for the notes on Elmer Avenue, which I’ve visited many times and written about. I am all for storm water projects and think if any city deserves highlighting for work on it, it’s Seattle, where storm water elements are now standard for new construction and the most treacherous old areas are steadily being retrofit. Seattle has done a comprehensive cost analysis for retrofitting. Here even the Flood Control District could not offer anything approaching a budget as it floated the now stalled Clean Water Clean Beaches measure last year. So I will continue spitballing figures. So, given heavy paving across the 3,000 square miles covered by the District, and adjusting Elmer’s 60 acre drainage to the basin, we’re still looking at retrofitting 2,999.9063 square miles. Throw in Oros, Garvanza and other good projects and we could shave only fraction off that. The challenge is moon shot big. And I’m completely with Christensen: Do it we must. So the question now is how we do it and at what cost? That cost must inform choices of where to infiltrate. Then Grace, yes, there is recharge and then we need to understand discharge: what will go to fight seawater intrusion, what will be lost to polluted aquifers, what should be used for environmental ET, and what can we expect back from highly functioning recharge basins? These are huge issues that were lost in the dysfunction of a Villaraigosa administration that failed on water policy. We don’t have another 8 years to lose to another showboating mayor and I hope Mayor Garcetti rises to the challenge as capably as less high profile mayors in cities such as Santa Monica and Long Beach.

  7. Charmz
    January 27th, 2014 @ 11:27 am

    Hi Emily,

    I must say I enjoyed both articles, just wanted to say, that the Water Committee of Sierra Club Angeles Chapter (LAC & OC), worked very hard to get at least 50% of the turf removed. We wanted 80% but we settled for 50% and some of us were on hand to help with the planting of natives and the spreading of mulch, so it’s rather disconcerting to see a banner for the big corporations, yes which provided tools, plants and mulch but nothing for the other enviros and groups that along with Sierra Club stepped up to the plate to get this done.

    Several years ago when Mayor Villaragoisa asked the city to reduce it’s water consumption by 20%, we asked City Council/Hall to set the example by removing the turf, nothing was accomplished till Occupy Wall Street destroyed the lawns, and we swooped in again to say this is the perfect opportuntity to change the status quo.

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