The Sun Valley Experiment

Winter flooding in the Los Angeles area is often so severe that lives and homes are routinely lost in mudslides. Yet, the thirst for a stable water supply has defined this desert city. In 1913, the local water company built an ingenious but ethically dubious aqueduct to drain the Owens River 200 miles away into a city reservoir. The movie Chinatown is a fictionalized account of that land and water grab. Los Angeles still draws half of its water from the aqueduct. Last year, it spent $80 million on a system to abate environmental damage and health problems in the dry and dusty Owens Valley.

This Sun Valley intersection in Los Angeles routinely floods during rainy seasons. A long-term water management plan would divert the rainwater for irrigation projects.
Melinda Kelley

At a recent public meeting in dry Sun Valley, California, two images flashed on a gymnasium wall: The first was of a local intersection flooded with water up to a car’s windshield. The next was a rendering of the same street corner dry and landscaped with flowering trees. The latter image evoked a collective gasp from the crowd. People applauded. A smiling woman yelled, "Yeah!"

The landscaping wasn’t fancy or dramatic, but for Sun Valley, the gravel pit and junkyard district of Los Angeles, the image was startling. It meant that flooding would no longer stop traffic through the center of town as it has for 30 years. Water from winter rains would instead wash below the street into a new million-gallon cistern, which would irrigate the trees during the long hot summer. This holistic approach to solving the flooding problem is part of a pilot project that grew from one person’s vision. Implemented citywide, it could reduce by half this arid city’s expensive dependence on imported water.

About 20 politicians, environmentalists, government agencies and community groups are working together as the Sun Valley Watershed Stakeholders Group to develop ways to draw on local resources to save seasonal rainwater. Besides the million-gallon cistern, the group expects to install a subterranean storm water treatment device at a city park. It’s negotiating with the owners of two gravel mines to use pits as water retention basins, and is planning to clean and store water in seven-million-gallon crude oil tanks at a local steam plant. The group is also beginning discussions with area businesses and homeowners about installing individual water-saving systems.

Implementation of various systems is scheduled to begin next year. Landscaping to reduce summer surface heat is part of each project. Local workers would be hired to keep everything thriving.

"The water doesn’t just represent greening and cooling down a hot, ugly area," said Andy Lipkis, the president and founder of the nonprofit group TreePeople, a Sun Valley stakeholder and the original visionary for this multi-layered plan. "It also represents jobs."

The entire system as proposed simulates a natural watershed, which is practically a reversal of current practice. This year, the city is spending more than $150 million to import water from other areas while funneling rainwater into massive storm drains that dump it—untreated—into the Pacific Ocean.

"It’s a paradigm shift. It’s a revolution. Maybe the best way to characterize it is as an evolution," says Michael Drennan, the director of watershed management for the area utility, the Metropolitan Water District. "Each aspect of the hydrological cycle has been dealt with. Watershed management is about standing back and looking at the system as a whole. That’s what Andy Lipkis is so good at."

It was Lipkis, a 47-year-old enthusiast, who first promoted the vision of treating L.A.’s mudslides, droughts and floods as one single problem, not three different ones. As the founder of a group that planted over a million trees in Los Angeles and a leader in America’s urban greening movement, he also had influence. In 1997, Lipkis called a conference of experts from across the country to brainstorm ways to find equilibrium in a city that gets 30 inches of rain some years and four in years like this one.

While considering the city’s various water problems, the engineers, planners, landscape architects and government officials at the conference also knew that Los Angeles has no remaining parcels of open land for conventional large-scale plants or dams. The T.R.E.E.S. conference (for Trans-Agency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) concluded that L.A.’s best chance of sustaining a water supply was convincing landowners and businesses to save rainfall.

The group designed everything from cisterns to a permeable driveway that would make a test home in South Central L.A. function as its own mini-watershed. When everything was installed, TreePeople held a public demonstration with fire fighters pummeling the roof of the house with enough water to cause a major flood. The property absorbed it all. One person who saw the demonstration, Carl Blum, then deputy director of the county public works department, experienced an epiphany. He decided to try the idea on a larger scale in Sun Valley.

"The challenge in my mind was that there are three or four million parcels of land in L.A. County," said Blum, who has since retired. "You can’t go from one home to three million; you have to go to something a little bit larger first. So we picked this area."

Blum adds, "Andy brought enthusiasm and a willingness to help, and that’s so contrary to what government usually hears."

In many ways Sun Valley was an ideal location for testing the T.R.E.E.S. philosophy on a community-wide basis. (Several L.A. public schools have also implemented projects.) Companies with vast tracts of open land, like gravel and landfill operations, cover 60 percent of the area, which is very unusual for Los Angeles. While those involved in the project are optimistic that it will work here and be implemented citywide, others are skeptical.

"The Sun Valley project is infinitesimal compared to the entire city," says Jerry Gewe, general manager of water for the city’s Department of Water and Power. "You’re looking at 10 or 20 acre-feet of water for the project and 700,000 acre-feet of water for the city of L.A. It will be replicated but it’s not an answer for everywhere."

Still, several city and county politicians have put their weight behind the Sun Valley project. Lipkis, who has been promoting the watershed idea relentlessly for years, is cautiously optimistic. "It’s incredible to see it rolling. Part of me feels like, "God, I can kick back a little bit.""