THE BLOG
03/24/2014 10:00 am ET Updated May 24, 2014

Learning Los Angeles: Andy Lipkis on Making our Cities More Like Forests, Part Two

Part Two: Interview with Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, on urban forests and watersheds, and how individuals can make a difference for good.

Q: Can you explain your vision of tree people as water people? How do trees connect to the water system?

A: People tell me, "TreePeople is now about water, you need a new name." No, we don't. Tree people are water people, too.

Understanding how forests function helps us understand the way trees affect our water systems. In the city, we have removed trees and poured concrete. Trees have become decorative. Most of our landscape is impervious to water, and leaves are hauled to the landfill. But trees are part of the water system. When rain falls on leaves and branches, it slows down and filters into the earth. Leaves should fall and be left to form mulch. Mulch protects the tree and enables it to act like a giant sponge, helping water absorb into the aquifer that we use for drinking. One mature tree can capture tens of thousands of gallons of water in a large rainstorm. Our native landscape isn't a desert. In the olden days of our city, the early explorers wrote that they could move from one end of the San Fernando Valley to the other without leaving the shade of an oak tree. Now we have cut and removed the trees, and we have to replant trees and find other solutions.

Q: What happens to all the rain that ends up in gutters? How can we appreciate the scale of our water problem?

A: Last year was our driest year on record, and even last year we had 3.8 inches of rain. The City of LA throws away, into the ocean, about 3.8 billion gallons of water for each inch of rain that falls on the city. Last year, that was more than 14 billion gallons of rainwater. For the 4 million or so people who live here, that's approximately 3,600 gallons per person per inch of rain that's thrown away.

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"Our first responders in making a sustainable city are the DIY'ers and the people helping their neighbors." Andy at TreePeople's demonstration household water capture system. Ariellbphoto.com

At the same time, LA spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year removing rainwater through flood control, storm water management, and water treatment.

Pumping water here from other parts of the country is the largest use of electricity in the state, and damages the areas whose water we take. This pumping contributes to global warming.

Q: How do you stay so upbeat? Is there a silver lining to these drought conditions?

A: There are amazing opportunities for LA to achieve a healthy, safe, climate-resilient economy. This takes the exact same vision we had in our early days. Nothing has changed. Now there is an opportunity to more quickly end the pain and damage to people presented by this emergency. The pain people experience is huge. People haven't known how vulnerable we are, and how urgent the problem is. Now people see it. The drought gives us a very teachable moment to see how vulnerable we are.

Second, we don't know if this will last another week or decade. We do know that every single scientific body in the world studying weather and climate has said California, after Australia, will have the worst, most massive hits on our water supply. The Sierra snow pack is toast. There are amazing pictures now comparing last year and now. There is almost no stored water in the snow pack. This is both a long and a short-term problem. Billions of dollars will be spent on solutions. The question is, how will we spend that money? There are viable ways to spend money to accelerate the adaptations. With the right vision, this could be done in the next years instead of decades.

Q: What can we learn from Australia's experience? What inspired you during your first visit to Australia during their drought in the 1980s?

A: I was inspired 30 years ago, weeks before I met my wife Kate, who is Australian. I was inspired by how their people were very in touch with water, capturing rainwater, highly conserving. I visited for the first time right after the late 1970s Los Angeles drought, and Australia was also experiencing drought. Wherever I went in the suburbs or countryside, the first thing people asked, in stores or on the street, was, "How're your tanks?" That meant, "How are your rain tanks and cisterns? How are you getting on, how is the weather treating you, do you need help or support?" Just that greeting showed the connection with the weather and resources and how the whole system connected to the community. It implied that people were getting by on water they captured. It blew my mind, because TreePeople's mission was and is to inspire, engage, and support people in participating as stewards of the ecosystem and watershed. The accomplishment of that level of awareness and recognition was our mission. I saw it in Australia and said, "Whoa, that could so work here in LA."

Q: How did the Rodney King riots affect your course?

A: Fast-forward 10 years, to the Rodney King riots; I had thought our mismanagement of resources must be hurting us somewhere and then the riots hit. The cause of the riots, according to most of the sociologists, was chronic unemployment of urban youth. Over 50,000 young people had no hopes of getting a job in urban areas. I started wondering how we create those 50,000 jobs. Some of our kids had died during the riots, and we had to figure out how to fix this. How to create those jobs? In response, TreePeople helped to bring the first federal money into LA. There was $13 million from the U.S. Forest Service for an urban greening initiative. The Forest Service employed 400 people to build trails in the Angeles Forest for four months, but then they were out of jobs. A few people were able to stay with Forest Service, and are now some of the senior, veteran forest service officers in the country. For others, this was a cruel, empty promise of jobs, and evidence of our lack of sustainability.

We need to see the problem as a three-legged stool -- we have to address problems with social, economic, and environmental solutions. A key principle is meaningful work -- take human energy, and engage that energy in operating the ecosystem. Our unsustainable behavior makes everybody a consumer and victim. If you are only valued for your ability to consume, you will be in pain because you can't consume enough, and this leads to crime and violence and prisons. We must remember that we can produce as well as consume.

Q: How are resources connected in an urban system?

A: It all clicked for me when I realized how we waste human effort and cash when we mismanage the urban infrastructure unwittingly, through hundred-year-old bad design. When we designed cities, we didn't understand the functions of watershed and ecosystems, all the things the tree does when connected to the watershed -- grab water, manage it, put it back in the ground, recharge and clean the water, moderate temperature, convert solar power. We treat water as waste, we treat green matter as waste. Grass and leaves is half of what's in landfill. None of this is being deployed as resources.

Q: What are some solutions for individuals and for city agencies?

A: I engaged with urban forestry terminology, to change the way we thought of the term "watershed management," which is associated with forestry. Were we doing urban watershed management in LA? We weren't, but we could be, of course. It hadn't occurred to us to hook up rain as a resource. What would it mean? We could prevent floods by capturing water and using it for water supply, and we could create the supply without new money, just by not wasting money. We could employ people to treat the LA River as watershed and not as a drain that flushes water to the ocean. TreePeople has been on that path since that day after the riots. Our vision has absolutely not changed.

Q: How were you able to demonstrate your vision for urban watershed management?

A: In 1998, we called a design "charrette" with 74 architects, engineers, and scientists as a factory for new designs using environmental best practices. As a result, we published a book, Second Nature: Adapting L.A.'s Landscape for Sustainable Living. We used the ideas we developed to completely retrofit a single-family home in south LA as a demonstration of urban watershed management on the residential level. We used a water truck to create a Hollywood-style, 4,000 gallon rainstorm and flash flood on that home. No water left the grounds, all the "rain" was captured in a rain garden with berms and an automated cistern. That changed the game. Carl Blum, head of LA County Flood Control, came and gave everyone an umbrella. He realized from this demonstration what I couldn't communicate in words. It blew his mind, and he understood instantly the social feasibility and infrastructure implications. The next day he called me and said, "We didn't understand, but I think you have cracked it. We need to blow it out countywide. It will take 50 years, but it is the future we have to have."

People can change. When informed and inspired and supported, people will rise to the occasion.

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"Tree people are water people, too!" Andy at the TreePeople storm drain model. Ariellbphoto.com

Q: Is it important to engage communities in the efforts to re-vision and re-structure our city?

A: It's essential. In the late 1990's, we played a leading role in retrofitting a neighborhood in the Sun Valley section of Los Angeles that was built for the Lockheed war effort during World War II. It was built quickly, without storm drains or critical infrastructure. The neighborhood was covered with hard paving that did not absorb rainwater. The community flooded whenever it rained; the flooding ruined businesses and kids couldn't get to school. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works said, "If we can replicate your research we will install your forest watershed instead of a nine-mile concrete drain."

This was an 85 percent Spanish-speaking community. We engaged people at churches and schools. No one will accept plans imposed from outside. They need to choose it if it is going to work. It took four years to engage multiple community stakeholders in the planning process. We had brilliant breakthroughs. Combining budgets brought a massive payback. We demonstrated that the urban watershed approach saved $172 million in water costs over 30 years, $30 million not hauling green waste, $70 million air quality not driving diesel trash trucks. We don't see the real costs and savings until we have an integrated lens. There is still a lot to do, and much potential change has been delayed by the recession.

Now the question is: Will we spend billions on unsustainable, outdated infrastructure, wasting opportunities to restore nature that could be lost forever, or use this opportunity to reboot the system that's crashing around us? We can intuit we're wasting money even if we're not always sure exactly how. Now we can put our fingers on it, and we have the right model. The art of collaboration and sharing and combining our budgets and new strategies is the big stuff.

Q: Australia used what they learned during their drought to make wise decisions about their resources. How can we benefit from their example?

A: Australia chose a path that saved the country. Millions of people in cities now have rainwater tanks. They augmented their water supply, and the plants and trees survived their 12-year drought. But the longer we wait, the fewer options we have, the more expensive they become, and the more the economy gets hurt.

Australia deployed rain tanks and great water conservation and education and community engagement. That's what we can do in LA.

Will we build a diverse water system, and help reduce our water use? Yesterday, I captured half a tank in my rain barrel from a very light rain, and was watering my new fruit tree this morning. In the rain comes our riches and our lifeline.

Q: Can you explain the importance of saving our city trees?

A: Trees are sponges. The roots of just one large oak tree can absorb 57,000 gallons of rainwater in its canopy and roots in a 12" flash flood and act as a water treatment system. Therefore, in Los Angeles during this drought, it's crucial to water the large urban trees and save our canopy. In Australia, they trucked in a tank of recycled water to irrigate each major tree. This could work here. TreePeople is creating a pilot program using waste or recycled water to care for major trees. We are inviting regulatory agencies to the table, to work together responding to this crisis.

Q: How can government agencies work together in a more integrated way?

A: The government treats us like infants, giving us our water and energy and carrying away our waste. We hemorrhage money on our waste of water. It costs hundreds of millions per year to discard our water. Then we have to pay the bill to bring in other water, most of which is used to water lawns. The lawn clippings are taken to a landfill, so we spend another tens of millions hauling green waste. In the 1990's, we started connecting these agencies. An integrated system of resource management has to include enforcement agencies and bureaucratic offices. We are midwifing the rebirth of the city with this new model of inter-agency collaboration.

Q: How can we make our homes more like forests?

A: We mismanage the ecosystem, but that could change. We can look at the forest ecosystem as inspiration. Everything is recycled. In our homes, roofs can function as canopies, and gutters can channel water into swales to absorb water and restore it to the aquifer. By building code, water that falls on a house has to leave. Instead, we can turn our homes into communal watersheds. We want people to see in every neighborhood that home solutions can be doable and beautiful, with drought-tolerant gardens of native plants and trees. People can harvest 5,000 to 20,000 gallons of water per house. In this drought crisis, our first responders are the DIY'ers and the people who are helping their neighbors.

To learn more, visit www.treepeople.org.

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About this Learning Los Angeles: We are two longtime teachers and native Angelenos who love to discover the hidden gems in our favorite city. We interview people we consider to be local heroes behind our favorite places and events, and bring you stories of those who contribute beauty, steward nature, share their culture and inspire us.