2013 Grants Challenge

The Pulse of Los Angeles: Assessing the Watersheds

Council for Watershed Health will build a dynamic, publicly accessible and scientifically valid web-based report card to show how the efforts of our cities, nonprofit organizations, agencies, businesses and academia are working together to catalyze improvements in the environment. This report card will be based on the collaborative efforts of the many agencies and organizations that are tracking specific measures but are perhaps not able to see the big picture from their individual scales. Called “The Pulse of Los Angeles,” the project will measure environmental indicators within a geographic context over time and compare where we are to where we need to go. The web portal will use maps to display the status and trends of environmental health, social equity, and economic sustainability in the region, based on already-existing and newly-developed measures. We will focus on tracking environmental quality measures, but will also uncover important connections between the eight realms: Education, Income & Employment, Housing, Health, Environmental Quality, Public Safety, Social Connectedness, and Arts & Cultural Vitality. We need to show, for example, how education impacts environmental quality and how safety is strengthened by arts and culture; in this way we can see the big picture of Los Angeles. By working together, we will demonstrate how collective impacts can make life better for all Angelenos. Working with multiple project partners and continuing on the work we’ve already started, the Council will demonstrate that “if you don’t measure it, you can’t change it!” By understanding how the region is performing and how all the work is interrelated, the paths forward will reveal themselves. As a result, Los Angeles in 2050 will be one of the most sought-after places to live, learn, do business, and retire. We are on that path, with so many strong and purposeful organizations, agencies, and individuals pushing us forward. And yet we are in danger of not achieving this LA 2050 vision if we do not work together to deliberately monitor, track, and report important indicators of the future vision. In 2050, we will accept synergy and collaboration as a normal way of getting things done and this project will help build towards that future.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

The Council for Watershed Health has collaboration in its DNA. The Los Angeles Basin Water Augmentation Study, begun in 2000, assembled a technical and funding advisory committee of federal, state, and local agencies and nonprofits to investigate the challenges and solutions for capturing stormwater in an urban environment. Early findings showed that it is safe to use polluted water runoff to increase our underground water supplies. Our publication “Stormwater: Asset Not Liability” (2nd ed. 2010) changed the way the region thinks about stormwater as a source of local water supplies.

In 2005 the Council brought together additional partners to design and build the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood Retrofit Project. With phase I completed in 2010, the award-winning project is the most comprehensive “green street” in Los Angeles, converting a disadvantaged street in Sun Valley into a model of urban sustainability. Elmer Avenue captures and cleans more water than is used annually by the 24 houses on the block. The project is a focal point in the community with its meandering sidewalks, solar street lights, and diverse native and drought-tolerant plants. In 2012 the second phase, a mid-block alley-way, Elmer Paseo, was completed. The formerly asphalted alley now is a visually pleasing connector between the block and schools nearby that also captures and infiltrates water.

In 2005, the Council began management of the first watershed monitoring program in the region for the San Gabriel River. In 2007 we began management of a similar research program on the Los Angeles River. In 2011 we produced an authoritative State of the San Gabriel River report and symposium; the State of the Los Angeles River report and symposium will be produced in 2013. Both programs operate with a workgroup of stakeholders that set the annual research and monitoring agenda.

In 2008 we began work on a framework of indicators of watershed health in urban regions, the first such project in California to focus on cities. Completed in 2010, the project included a report card-style analysis of the state of the Arroyo Seco watershed. We are now working with the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority on indicators development and we have a US EPA grant for the Los Angeles River Watershed. Executive Director Nancy Steele focuses her 2012-2013 Stanton Fellowship on this topic and we will have a UCLA graduate fellow from the Luskin School of Public Policy for 2013-2014.

We host a Watershed Symposium series in which we bring divergent viewpoints together around timely topics. Examples include “Restoration and Development Challenges of the Los Angeles River” (2013), “On Track? High Speed Rail and the Los Angeles River” (2010), and “Nature Needs Water, Too” (2009). In 2012, the Council convened a multi-day international conference, “The Mediterranean City: A Conference on Climate Change Adaptation” which kicked off the Mediterranean Cities Climate Change Consortium (mc-4.org).

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

We will be taking a big tent approach, working with partners in our US EPA-funded Indicators of the Los Angeles River Watershed and the LA Urban Waters Federal Partnership. These include Los Angeles City and other cities, Los Angeles County, over ten federal agencies, and NGOs. Specific partners include Friends of the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, Urban Semillas, Climate Resolve, TreePeople, and Materials & Applications, Inc. We will invite other Goldhirsch LA2050 awardees to join a project advisory committee, assuring a multi-disciplinary collaborative approach that is fundamental to the effort. We will also invite interested businesses to join the project.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

“The Pulse of Los Angeles: Assessing Watershed Health” is a two-phase project.

The first phase brings together an advisory group and partners into an LA network; by bringing together these organizations and agencies, the project sets the stage for a new era of collective action designed to last through to 2050. Building the network through working together and creating a dynamic product will be a lasting result. Thus, the project will be evaluated based on the creation of a network, including commitments of appropriate partners to making contributions of data and analyses to the Pulse.

The second recognizable and lasting product is the very first Pulse of Los Angeles web portal, a dynamic mapping application that displays multiple indicators of health and allows users to query them for more details. We expect to accomplish this task by the end of 2013. Populating the data of the portal, of course, will be a continuous process that will get started in 2013, as expected for such a long-lasting project. The success of the project will be measured by the successful creation of a web portal.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Today, we know that many Angelenos don’t have a strong connection to the systems they rely upon and have only a vague idea of the impact of climate change on their lives. The truth is that if we don’t figure out how to live with the environment and within our water constraints, Los Angeles will fail as a major city. In thinking about how to catalyze the necessary changes, the Council for Watershed Health looks to its organizational “Vision 2025.” We envision a future for LA with clean water, reliable local water supplies, ample parks and open spaces, revitalized rivers, and vibrant communities. Looking at our own experience and examples throughout the region, we believe the creation of a report card is the most effective way to describe the progress towards this vision for all Angelenos to make them believe it is possible, and then update them regularly on how things were going.

In creating a clear and easily understood way to regularly inform Angelenos about the health of our environment, the Pulse of Los Angeles project will create the knowledge needed to embody ecological health, social equity, and economic vitality. By using water and watersheds as the organizing principle, the Pulse will reconnect people to their landscape and waterways. It will become one of the critical tools for changing how people imagine the city, pointing the way towards so many of the changes we now hold dear.

We recognize that human well-being is intrinsically tied to clean air, access to clean water, parks, and natural open spaces, and healthful food. The services provided by healthy ecosystems are essential to healthy communities and healthy people. In developing a tool that measures, values, and tracks progress towards urban water resources sustainability for the Los Angeles area we will catalyze the changes that lead to a healthy environment and strong economy.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

In our 2050 the streams of the region meander inside their flood plains, sinking to replenish our groundwater or winding down to the ocean. The air is clear and clean. Beloved by Angelenos, people fish along the banks of the Los Angeles River & tributary streams while bikers, joggers, and walkers take up the river-side paths and enjoy the parks, set like jewels along the riverways. You can find native fish (tasty ones, too) in the rivers because the channels have been re-engineered to remove barriers for fish swimming upstream. Trees overhang the water, cooling it off and providing organic inputs for stream health. Formerly endangered birds and amphibians are common.

Wherever we’ve built or rebuilt, our houses and businesses joyfully face towards the river; restaurants have river-side dining and diners enjoy watching nature flow by, along with kayakers and paddle boarder. When waters are high in the storm season, movable barriers automatically rise to protect our economic investments and save lives. No one who falls in the river is in danger anymore because of the automated safety lines that detect and snag you out of the water.

Beyond the river, Southern Californians have embraced sustainable landscapes. The community of Sun Valley, having realized its envisioned Watershed Management Plan, enjoys a unique watershed culture in the San Fernando Valley. Researchers, practitioners and community leaders come from around the world to learn the story of Sun Valley. There, members of the community have set the standard for an urban landscape that ‘lives with the land’.

The days when Los Angeles was considered as the most park-poor metropolis in America are a distant memory. Nearly every city resident lives within walking distance of a safe, clean park. These oases of nature amidst our urban landscapes are for human respite and wildlife habitat. Thanks to improvements in water quality, our beaches have never been healthier.

At the mid-point of the twenty-first century while we will be leaning on the successes of our forbearers, we will still have challenges to meet. The climate will still be changing in the face of the 20th century excesses but Los Angeles will have learned the value of adaptation through respecting its climate and geography.

Our healthy, sustainable, equitable and prosperous Los Angeles depends on all of us, working knowledgably together, towards this common vision. The Pulse of Los Angeles allows us to transform knowledge into action.