When the Tap Runs Dry


All photos and story ©Peter Bennett – all rights reserved.

Sometimes your life can change with a clunk! Last spring, Donna Johnson, 72, of East Porterville, a small community at the eastern edge of the Central Valley, ran out of water. She hoped it was a problem with the pump or something a few feet of digging would fix, “it’s a hard issue to admit to yourself that your well has gone dry” Donna told me. She brought out someone to look at the well, but when the pipes went down and Donna heard that clunk, she knew the awful truth.

Donna Johnson delivers bottled water to local residents of East Porterville whose wells have run dryShortly after that, Donna attended a city hall meeting where she found out that she was not alone, other wells were running dry. Groundwater depletion has become a major issue in the San Joaquin Valley as a three year severe drought has dried up lakes and rivers, and farmers who have not received any of their normal water allotment, have been forced to drill down into the groundwater to keep their crops alive. The issuance of water well drilling permits in Kern County is at a record high and in some areas the ground has actually sunk ten or more feet as a result of the dried up aquifer.

A Trailer park resident in East PortervilleWhen it was apparent that the local city bureaucracy was not going to step up either with water or low interest loans for new well drilling, Donna stood up at the meeting and declared “we may not be a city, but we are a community” and with that promised to go door to door to find out exactly how many of her neighbors needed help.

Donna Johnson delivers bottled water to local residents of East Porterville whose wells have run dryDonna spent almost every day (and some nights) of the next six months delivering water to those in need. At first she used her own money to fund the venture, then when some local and national news stories broke of her work, donations came pouring in from various companies and organizations. While a local fire station offered non-potable water from a huge barrel it placed on the street, for many Donna became the only source for their drinking water. Something we all take for granted, free, drinkable water was not there, the taps had run dry.

The local fire department in East Porterville provides water to residentsLoading cases of bottled water into the back of her pickup each day, Donna heads out with the day’s list of deliveries. On the afternoon I tagged along, a young boy named Matt helped with the heavy lifting. Each stop we were greeted by eager faces that contained both smiles and that look of sadness that says they we’re sorry to have to even be in this position.

One whole family comes out to meet us in a trailer park community, our first stop. A young girl plays on a swing while her grandfather looks on, his confederate flag baseball cap shading his gaunt and withered face, a testimony to a life of hard work and hot sunny days. Matt and Donna unload the cases while everybody talks. They ask Donna if they can have some additional cases as does everyone we visit during the day. We never really think much about how much water we use on a daily basis, much less a two-week span, which is what this family will have to wait until Donna’s next delivery to them. Trying to plan out a family’s drinking and cooking water needs for two weeks is almost impossible, especially when doled out in small bottles. Donna always gives them more when they ask.

Vicki Yorba, 95, shows a photo of her front lawn in better times.92-year-old Vicki Yorba, a long time resident, holds up a photo of her lawn when it was actually green, now it is as dusty as the small unpaved street she lives on. Her home has many other photos and relics of her family and life in East Porterville, and like everyone else I talked to, she has never seen a time like this. Out of the 7,000 or so residents of East Porterville, about 1,000 wells have run dry. The randomness of it is confusing as one person may have a dry well, while their next door neighbor’s well flows just fine. Water tables and groundwater can be unpredictable and it is no more evident than here in East Porterville.

Donna Johnson standing in front of Lake Success, a reservoir and dam along the Tule RiverDonna and I drive up to Lake Success, the local reservoir, to see if the previous day’s rain, the first of the season, has made any difference. She tells me that she has never seen it this low, that it actually has dramatically decreased since her last visit a few weeks ago. “There was boating, and my husband used to windsurf in this the lake”, Donna tells me as she points to where they lowered the boat ramp as the previous one was several hundred feet above the water line. Now even the new ramp is far from the water and no one boats on the lake anymore anyway. Lake Success is supplied by the Tule River and everyone is hoping for a good rainy season and a large snowpack in the Sierra so the melting spring snow can help replenish the lake and all the other reservoirs and rivers in the Central Valley.

Lake Success is a reservoir and dam along the Tule River is at extremely low levelsI called Donna last week to see if things had improved since the rains in December. She told me some wells have come back but that other ones have run dry and the total number of dry wells are still about the same. The Lake is even lower and will need a lot more rain to even start to get back to normal levels. Donna is still making her deliveries but she has slowed down a bit, exhaustion has caught up and the county has stepped up a bit to help as well. I’ve met a lot of community heroes in my work and I have to say Donna is up there at the top, her energy and commitment have helped so many in her community when there was no one else who would. Pray for rain!

A Good Start – from LA River Pix


A few weeks ago I was up in the Central Valley shooting some drought stories and from all the parched earth and empty fields I saw it seemed like we might never have rain again. This current storm here in LA is a very welcome relief, but long term we need a helluva lot more and most importantly we need it in the mountains of the north and the Sierra to seriously replenish the reservoirs and water system that provides for California agriculture and cities. But I’m not complaining! Yet!

Los Angeles River

I never get tired of seeing how mightily the LA River rises after a significant rainstorm and so Tuesday I ventured out to see just how the river had risen. First stop was the Elysian Valley, an area that was hit very hard back in the 1930’s when floodwaters overflowed the riverbanks and washed away houses and lives. I stopped at Marsh Park and immediately saw the water was high and was rushing down each side of the concreted banks. Normally along this stretch the river criss-crosses from bank to bank, but when it overflows the small islands and land strips down it s center, it does what a river does and goes full bore over as much geography as it can.

Los Angeles River

The first thing you notice is the trash – beds, basketballs, plastic bags and a ton of Styrofoam cups bob up and down as the river surges downstream. All this trash comes from the streets, gets swept up by the rain and is flushed down the drain pipes and carried to the river where it either gets caught by a wide boom at Long Beach or, as is mostly the case, travels out to sea – pollutants, toxins and all.

Los Angeles River

A testimony to the strength of the river’s force was evident where a pretty large swell had formed next to the Frank Romero mural just upstream from the Confluence. Water churned violently and all those warnings came to mind about keeping one’s distance from the current lest you end up being dragged downstream along with the Styrofoam cups and other flotsam.

Los Angeles River

The Buena Vista Bridge has a pointed base that always reminds me of the bow of an old battleship, even more so when tons of water surges past it. One of my favorite bridges along the river!

Buena Vista Bridge

Lastly a shot from the 7th Street Bridge looking at the soon to be demolished 6th Street Bridge finished my day. Soggy and tired I looked down into the channel and wondered about all the homeless folks I have encountered down below and along the Glendale Narrows on drier days. A transient life and a dangerous one as well!

6th Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River

You cannot stand on the banks of the river on a day like this and not wonder how we can let all this water just run out to sea. In a time of such severe drought it is painful to see such waste. Some of the plans for the river’s revitalization will address this with added wetlands and more permeable surfaces to allow the water to percolate back to the aquifer, but after a heavy rain there is dramatic increase of water and only a small amount will go down to the water table, most of it, trash and all, will still continue to rush out to sea.  I just read we are still a long way off from actually being able to capture this water for our use, water that could be used for irrigation, cleaning, lawn watering and numerous other uses. Right now we import all our water from the north and east, potable water that we waste on non-potable uses. Really a shame!

Shooting Tips: Shooting in the rain is a pain, no way around it, especially with all the electronics making up the modern camera? I rigged up a zip lock bag with a hole for the lens and a tiny opening for the viewfinder. This at least keeps the body dry. They sell various camera raincoats, but I have yet to try one.

I tried a small umbrella while shooting but it was useless, so I dragged out my beach umbrella and that did a fantastic job of keeping me and the camera dry. Hate to think about what I looked like walking across downtown bridges with my colorful gigantic beach umbrella but maybe I provided a nice photographic moment for someone else.

Keeping the lens dry is the toughest part, even with an umbrella, so carry plenty of wipes for the lens and a cloth or bandana for the body.


The Sepulveda Dam – from LA River Pix


One of my favorite places to photograph is the Sepulveda Basin and more specifically the Sepulveda Dam located at the Basin’s Eastern end. I will be leading my semiannual LA River Photo Adventure this coming Saturday and the dam is always one of the most popular stops of the tour.

Sepulveda Dam, Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve,

The dam is an imposing structure especially when standing in the flat-concreted section below it. Graffiti periodically lines the walls and a mélange of discarded stuff ranging from broken bottles to rocks and on rare occasions, sacrificed bird carcasses is scattered about.


Sometimes Cliff Swallows make their mud nests just under the top of the dam and hundreds of excited and expectant parents can be seen diving and manically looping around and above the dam.


It is also a favorite for filming, credits include: Sabotage, Buckaroo Banzai, Iron Man 2, The Fast and the Furious, The Italian JobGattaca, 24, CHiPs, Alias, Bones, Six Millions Dollar Man, Knight Rider and most memorably Escape from New York, when Snake Plissken is almost killed at the end of the film. And the most obscure, a They Might Be Giants music video for “The Statue Got Me High”


The dam was built in 1941 for flood control after the historic floods of 1938 which killed 144 people.

Sepulveda Dam, Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve,

Our tour is this Saturday, October 25 at 8AM. We have a good crowd already signed up, but if you want more info or would like to join us, just go to the Los Angeles Center of Photography website.

A Day of Drought


A few weeks ago I went to shoot some fill-in material for a story on the drought I was doing for Landscape Architecture magazine. I thought the juxtaposition of the two subjects really told the story of how bad it is and how far we need to go before all of us out here in the southland start to take some responsibility ourselves for improving the situation.
LAM_Sep2014_Cover-2It is pretty clear that we may be in this for a while. A report last week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center indicates a poor forecast for rain and more importantly the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada for this winter. The snowpack is critical for farmers in the San Joachin Valley, without it the crops simply don’t get the irrigation they need. Cutbacks in water allocation have forced farmers to take water from the water table below, a limited supply at best and one that replenishes very slowly. There is only so much they can squeeze from it and without a healthy snowpack it is only a matter of time before the situation becomes critical. At that point high prices for food will be the least of our problems.

Lawns being watered by sprinklers during severe droughtMy day started in the nearby community of Cheviot Hills. I originally went there to shoot the sprinklers on the golf courses which are a major user of water in urban and suburban environments. The sprinklers were off by the time I arrived but a few homes around the course were sending small cascades of precious water over the green lawns and parkways on the street.

Lawns being watered by sprinklers during severe droughtLawns are nice, they smell good and even just yesterday my son and I took a break from playing catch to lie down on a soft bed of cut grass on the field. The problem is we live in Southern California and lawns are really not native to the Mediterranean climate we have here, watering them uses up an enormous quantity of the resource. Until we start to change our visual aesthetic and sacrifice some of our green lawns for more indigenous and drought resistant plants and gardens we will continue to waste our water.

Castaic Lake during droughtMy next stop was Castaic Lake a reservoir and holding area, part of the California Aqueduct system that brings much of the water we use here in Los Angles from Northern California and the Sacramento Delta. Having just seen all the green of the golf course and the freshly watered lawns in LA, I was really struck by the dryness and low water levels at the reservoir. It is easy to see the normal levels around the lake and the huge drop off of the current levels. The Castaic Dam seems to loom even that much higher over the boat launch below as a result and no swimming signs around the dam sit a couple of hundred feet from the closest water.

Castaic Lake during droughtSome fishermen scatter around the perimeter, most of them grumbling about the scarcity of fish to catch. From above you can see the brown sediment reflecting off the lake and forms near the shoreline, something the fishermen below may not see, but would seem like an obvious repellent to any fish in the area. Maybe the forecasts are wrong, we can all hope so, but with climate change worsening and periods of drought becoming more the norm, it is going to take more than a few good rainstorms to change the direction we are heading.

A Day at the Races – from LA River Pix


I have witnessed and participated in many events along the LA River, but covering and photographing the 1st Annual LA River Boat Race this last Saturday was pretty special. It was historic, it was also loads of fun – the broad grins and/or determined looks on the competitor’s faces as they splashed and shot through the small whitewater rapids would attest to that.

1st annual LA River Boat Race was held on August 30, 2014

The 3/4 mile course was located along a stretch of the river along the Glendale Narrows in the Elysian Valley. Almost a 100 participants competed in a variety of classifications that included Men’s and Women’s Advanced, Intermediate and Beginners as well as Youth, +50, Tandem and Stand-Up Paddle boat.

1st annual LA River Boat Race was held on August 30, 2014

Council member Tom LaBonge acted as MC and official race starter and Ed Begley Jr. kicked off the race as the first participant, which had racers going down the course solo and racing against the clock. The race was organized by L.A. River Expeditions which was founded by George Wolfe who led the 2008 LA River Expedition that led to the river being classified as a navigable river by the EPA and consequently protected under the clean water Act.

1st annual LA River Boat Race was held on August 30, 2014

I was positioned most of the time at the end of the first whitewater run and by a tricky little chute that fooled a good number of people and resulted in either a nice little spill or a leaf facial by a large overhanging tree branch.

1st annual LA River Boat Race was held on August 30, 2014

Pictured below are the respective Men’s and Women’s winners: Brett Duxbury with the best overall time of 9:29 and Liz Brackbill with 10:10.

1st annual LA River Boat Race was held on August 30, 2014

1st annual LA River Boat Race was held on August 30, 2014

Next year I am chucking the heavy camera gear and taking a crack at greatness and competing, it looked like too much fun.

1st annual LA River Boat Race was held on August 30, 2014

Camera notes: I ended using only two lenses the whole time, a Canon 24-105mm and a Canon 400mm fixed lens. The latter proved invaluable and was just perfect at capturing long shots of the racers coming down the rapids. Long lenses visually compress the relationships of the subjects, making them look closer together than they really are. Add some selective focus and you have a dramatic effect that really isolates the action, perfect for sporting events. Another trick that comes in handy is switching your auto focus mode to Servo. Servo is perfect for subjects that keep changing distance. If you press the shutter release button halfway, it will track your subject as it changes distance and remain focused.

A Day of Mayors – from LA River Pix


Photographing political events and photos ops are pretty strange. It is always a challenge to try to distinguish the “op” from the real, and more often than not there ain’t much real. Last Saturday I found myself down at Marsh Park along the Elysian Valley surrounded by a large fuzzy Lion, a cadre of cheerleaders, a bunch of political handlers all buzzing about along with various groups of helpful citizens there for a river clean-up.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Anaheim Mayor settle hockey bet
Seems the mayors of Los Angeles and Anaheim, Eric Garcetti and Tom Tait, made a bet about their respective hockey teams, the loser in this case was not bound to eat some local culinary specialty, but the Anaheim Mayor instead found himself with a commitment to spend a couple of hours cleaning up the LA River.


I had gone down to shoot some photos of FoLAR’s new refreshment stand and visitor center, the Frog Spot, and thought I would check out the mayoral clean-up which was taking place just a short way up the bike path from it. The festivities were underway when I arrived, the cheerleaders and The LA Kings mascot, Bailey (the big fuzzy lion), were very busy posing for photos with everyone. The crowd was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the mayors who were supposed to kayak down the river to event, but Mayor Tait evidently tipped over in his kayak and the mayor’s ended up taking a more pedestrian entrance and simply walked in.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Anaheim Mayor settle hockey bet
After a variety of speeches, the clean-up began. I stayed close to Mayor Garcetti as he headed down the beveled banks of the river and anxiously looked around for some plastic bags or other trash to pick up. It was hard for him to get too far without someone asking him for a photo with them or the ubiquitous selfie, and as genuinely compliant as the Mayor was, I could tell he was anxious to get to work on the matter at hand. He soon plunged into the thick brush adjacent to the river and I followed him in. The other press photographers stayed in the open and I soon found myself alone deep in the brush with the mayor and his young press assistant.

 LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and Anaheim Mayor settle hockey bet
We exchanged a few comments about river trash and the drought and before I knew it the mayor was scampering up a tree to get to the higher branches where the thick masses of plastic bags lodge themselves when the high waters of the winter rains come. At some point I realized this was more than a simple photo op for the mayor, he not only knew what he was doing (he told me he had in fact done several clean-ups before),  but he honestly seemed intent on actually making a dent in the morass of tree lined plastic. US_CA_48_3631
I have photographed the mayor on other occasions and I could tell from the way he spoke about the river and other environmental issues that he is the real deal. The magnificent effort he recently made in Washington DC on the river’s behalf, that yielded a billion dollars of help, bore that out as well. I think we are good hands.

I couldn’t help thinking about when I had photographed Mayor Ed Koch in the Eighties and tried to imagine following “Hizzoner” up a tree in Central Park or venturing with him into the Hudson River. A definite difference in styles!

Sunday on the River with a Kayak – from LA River Pix


I’ve been wanting to go kayaking down the LA River since about 2008. That was the year I stood on the shore of the river along the Sepulveda Basin and watched as kayaker George Wolfe emerged from upstream and the dense foliage and shore his craft just in front of me.


Later that year I watched from the bridges overhead and photographed George’s flotilla of kayaks and canoes as he led an expedition along all 52 miles of the river that soon after prompted the EPA to declare the river a navigable waterway and thus be eligible for protection under the clean water act.


Last year I shot a story for Sunset Magazine and scurried along the banks of the Elysian Valley as George once again led a tour of kayaks down the river, but this time it was with his LA River Expeditions company and part of the newly Implemented Recreational Zone Pilot Program that opens up certain stretches of the river for fishing and kayaking from Memorial Day to Labor Day.


Last Sunday I finally got to get in one these oft-photographed kayaks and spend a leisurely two and a half hours paddling up and back down the river in the Sepulveda Basin. We were led by three guides from the aforementioned LA River Expeditions and also joined by George’s wife Thea who did a film of the 2008 River expedition called “Rock the Boat”.

It was an easy trip, certainly a great trip to take for a first time kayaker, but even for myself who has done a fair share of paddling, it was such a unique little journey to take, the experience was so well worth it.

Along the way our guides filled us in on the river’s history and the recent efforts to make the river more accessible to local communities and Angelinos in general. Great Blue Herons, Egrets and Stilts flew overhead or perched on branches above us, no doubt we were a serious interference to their lunchtime efforts. Shredded plastic bags left over from the high waters after Winter rains hung 20 or so feet up in the trees like Christmas tinsel.


My favorite spot was a little stretch call the Grand Canyon. Not really grand, and not much of a canyon, but an unusual landscape and a break from the overhanging foliage that lines the riverbank.

The tours get booked up very quickly, but there are several companies leading tours down the river and sometimes some spots get added later in the Summer. You are also free to bring your own kayak and go it alone. Either way will be a very different view of the river and a challenge to your typical perspective of life in LA.


Photo notes. I was basically told that everything I had with me on the kayak would get wet and that turned out to be true. I encased one of my less expensive digital cameras in a zip lock plastic bag with a hole punched out for the lens. It did keep a lot of the splashing from the paddles from soaking the camera. It also made taking pictures very awkward and in the end I was kind of disappointed with the results of my photo efforts for the day. A more than usual amount of out of focus images and getting creative was a challenge that didn’t really pay off. Guess I’ll have to try it again.

Two Faces of the LA River – from LA River Pix


If you have spent any time exploring even a bit of the LA River, you have no doubt seen its many different landscapes and incarnations, I have found and stumbled upon many of these in my journeys to photograph it. Last week I was shooting for a client who needed some printed photos of the Sepulveda Basin to display in a nearby housing development. Most of the river throughout the Basin is pretty calm and flat-watered as it runs a fairly straight course to the Dam at the southeastern end of the Recreation area. Thick brush lines the banks and there is not really much to shoot.

Los Angeles River in Sepulveda Basin Recreation area

I parked near Balboa Blvd and ventured down to the river under the bridge. Walking about a hundred feet I heard some rushing water sounds and cut through the foliage where I came upon a small little waterfall gurgling amidst some rocks and tall grass. As far as I know it is the only bit of whitewater in the area and it made for quite a little tranquil scene. I sat there for a bit setting up some shots and taking in the atmosphere. Looking around it was hard to believe I was smack in the middle of the Valley with its more than fair share of traffic, congestion and blazing heat. Here it was cool, quiet and calm, so I sat there and enjoyed the respite.

I shot the humble little falls and then turned to my right and caught sight of a bunch of trash and garbage that had collected in the water just a couple of feet from the falls. A stark reminder of the urban runoff and human negligence that still affects the river, all 51 miles of it.


Notes on shooting: To get the shot of the small waterfall took a bit of doing. In order to get the blur of the water, I needed a tripod and a long time exposure. I usually carry a small table top tripod for just these occasions and gently set up the camera on it and balanced it precariously on the mossy rocks near the small falls.

A time exposure in the middle of the day is tough as you cannot usually stop down the aperture enough to let you use a longer exposure, even in the shaded area I was in. I wanted at least a one second exposure, but even at ISO 100, the longest exposure I could manage was ¼ second. A neutral density filter is the best answer in a case like this, but not having one, I used a polarizing filter, which will not really affect color, but will take off about a stop and a half to two stops from the exposure. That got me to a 1 second at  f/22, which did the trick.

Zanja Madre unearthed – from LA River Pix


I am a history geek and anytime I can shoot something that opens up a little window of the past for me is an exciting opportunity. Loving to shoot the LA River as I do, as well as water issues in general in and around the Los Angeles area, when I read about the discovery that a 100 foot section of the Zanja Madre had been discovered at a construction site in Chinatown, I knew I had to get myself down to the site and get some shots. The Zanja Madre or Mother Ditch, is a remnant of the 90 mile network of channels that first brought water to the early inhabitants of Los Angeles. Originally built in 1781 it was enclosed in 1877 and eventually abandoned in 1904.

Historic Zanja Madre prepares for new home

I first made a few attempts to contact the local City Council member, Gil Cedillo. He had ingrained himself into the situation as only a politician can, and I thought he might provide some opportunity for me to get in. A vague maybe from his media person turned into nothing, so I found myself driving down to the site on Friday morning hoping to talk myself onto the site, my back up plan would be to try to shoot it from the Metro Gold line station that overlooked it. As luck would have it, I simply walked into the contractor’s office, showed them my press credentials and was promptly handed a hard hat, an orange vest and a waiver to sign. The day was looking up.

Historic Zanja Madre prepares for new home

There was only a cameraman from KCET shooing as I slid down the beveled sand embankment to the brick cylindrical brick pipe that lay at the bottom of the unearthed dig. Workers were in the process of cleaning out the pipe of its 110 year old accumulation of sludge and sand. Included in that mix was an assortment of old glass bottles, mostly in fragments, but at least one still whole. The plan was to remove about a 42 foot section of the pipe and transport it to the nearby Metabolic Studio for safekeeping. One end of that section had already detached from the rest of it, but the other end had to be sawed off in order for its removal to be possible.

Historic Zanja Madre prepares for new home

I got there just as the sawing was finished and the last of the old sludge was removed and so was one of the first to be able to look down and see the cleared interior of the pipe in over a hundred years. Obviously an empty pipe is not the most exciting site in the world, but other than being able to play peek-a-boo with the KCET cameraman at the other end, it was a real thrill to see a true piece of history restored to its original state.

Historic Zanja Madre prepares for new home

Here comes the bad part. The next day a crane came by to remove the Zanja, the plan was to place a series of hammocks under the pipe and lift it to a waiting flat bed truck. Various groups including FoLAR, thought the idea of trying to lift a 200 year old brick pipe might not be such a great idea as the only thing really holding it together was 200 year old cement and mortar. But in spite of the warnings, the plan went forward.

Historic Zanja Madre prepares for new home

Saturday morning the truck arrived, the hammocks were placed under the pipe and it was lifted onto the truck, so far so good. But the support on the truck was not good enough and around 2pm the pipe caved in on itself and fell into pieces.

Zanja Madre lays broken

The current plan is to try to piece it together brick by brick and restore it to its original shape, but its original condition is lost. The history of water in LA is the history of LA itself, and the Zanja Madre was truly the Mother that fed the city. William Mulholland’s first job with the LA Water department was tending the Zanjas as a Deputy Zanjero (water distributor) before going on to become the leading force in bringing water to Los Angeles. I will post updates as to what happens to the Zanja Madre and any plans for the remaining portions of it left on the construction site. An exciting moment for me, a real disappointment for history!


Ed Begley Jr’s new green home – part 2


Last July I wrote about the start of construction of Ed and Rachelle Begley’s new home in their attempt to build one of the Greenest homes in North America. The steel framing had just begun and now these months later the sheathing is being laid over that frame. Recently two new water systems started to be installed that will help Ed and Rachelle save on water bills as well as recycle much needed water back to the aquifer.

Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley tour their new with home with general contractor Scott Harris from Building Construction Group.

Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley tour their new with home with general contractor Scott Harris from Building Construction Group

Every drop of water that flows down a storm drain into the LA River, Ballona Creek or any of the other channelized waterways that leads to the sea, is water that won’t be re-used or reclaimed back into to the aquifer. Every gallon of water from a washing machine that flows into the sewer, means a gallon of clean drinkable water will now have to be used to water that home’s lawn or garden instead.


DensGlass sheathing, part of the wall systems materials that will include a Tyvek air infiltration barrier and wire lath

Last year a 10,000 gallon cistern was lowered into the Begley’s backyard for rainwater capture, and last month the piping was laid in the ground all around the house that will be used to channel the captured rainwater back to the cistern for storage. While most captured rainwater can be used for irrigation, cleaning and other uses, there are more advanced systems that allow rainwater to be used for drinking, showers and other household uses. A strict and well maintained filtration system is necessary for such uses, but hopefully that is where we are heading in the future, especially if drought conditions become more of the norm and rainwater is recognized as the valuable commodity and resource it is.

Rainwater harvesting system

Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) Pipes being installed for rainwater harvesting system

Greywater systems are something you can install to capture used water from washing machines, dishwashers and showers, and can save a homeowner 10,000-50,000 gallons of water a year. It diverts the discharged water from going down the municipal sewer system and instead sends it to your backyard or front lawn, where if property set up will take care of your plant irrigation and lawn watering needs as well as sending it back to replenish the aquifer below.

greywater system

Leigh Jerrard of Greywater Corps installing a diverter valve for the greywater system in the crawl space underneath the washing machine

 Both the rainwater and greywater systems rely on gravity to do the work, the branched drain greywater system being installed at the Begleys will have a 2% grade on the pipes that lead to their backyard.


Model of a branched drain greywater system

 Rainwater capture and water reclamation need to become more of a vital part of our water consciousness, especially here in Southern California. The more we capture and use, the less reliant we are on importing water from the Sacramento Delta in the north and the Owens Valley and Colorado River to the east, something that costs us millions of dollars in energy costs and depletes water supplies in other areas as well as to farmers throughout the state.

Catch episodes of On Begley Street on the Evox Network. On Begley Street is a web series that explores the building of North America’s greenest, most sustainable home and is the winner of both the Burbank International Film Festival’s Best New Media Award and Platinum Best of Show Aurora Award in the Nature/Environment Category.

Where it all begins – from LA River Pix


I have been photographing the LA River for about 6 years now and never in that time have I gone to see where it begins. That would be in Canoga Park where two channelized streams converge, Bell Creek from Simi Hills in the West and Arroyo Calabasas from the Santa Monica Mountains in the South. Their meeting forms a short flatiron shape with Canoga Park High School sitting atop it and laying back to the West.

The beginning of the Los Angeles River at the confluence of Bell Creek and Arryo Calabasas in Canoga Park

I finally paid my visit there a couple of weeks ago and stood on a short bridge looking down on the confluence of the two channels. The day I was there the wind was howling down the channels, blowing leaves and grit all over and ripping off palm fronds from the trees and scattering them out on the streets.

Most of the shooting I do of the river is at the soft-bottomed spots along the Glendale Narrows, which is full of vegetation, and the wide channel under the bridges near downtown. It is s strange feeling to see the humble beginnings of the river here in this strange little area, completely concreted over.

The beginning of the Los Angeles River at the confluence of Bell Creek and Arryo Calabasas in Canoga Park

Behind me a bull dozer was pushing some dirt around to be used for some final landscaping for the entrance to the LA River Bikeway, a project which when finished looks like it will span the entire 51 mile distance from here at Canoga Park to the river’s mouth in Long Beach. I’ll have to come back with my bike when it does.

Islands and skylines – from LA River Pix


A few weeks ago I posted a picture of the river taken from Vernon with the downtown skyline in the background. This photo was taken upstream at the northern end of the Glendale Narrows and shows the skyline from the other direction. It was taken with a 200mm lens from the bike path along the river. There are several locations along the bike path where you can line up the river with the skyline and get quite a dramatic shot when the light is right. I never liked how the original looked and recently redid it to capture more of the mood I felt when looking at the river the evening I took the photo.

Glendale Narrows at the Los Angeles River with the downtown skyline

The vegetation you see in the river are islands that run along almost the whole stretch of the Glendale Narrows which is soft-bottomed. In these islands there are a good number of people who live there, at least part of the year, making their home in makeshift encampments amidst the privacy of the overgrown brush and trees. Several years ago during a FoLAR river cleanup, I stumbled upon one of these encampments and met a young and very pregnant woman who was sitting there waiting for her partner to return with food and supplies. She seemed quite comfortable living there and I think I was more taken aback with the situation than she was.

I’ve wondered what the dangers are of living on one of these islands during the rainy season. It’s one thing to feel the rain starting to come down and know the river may start rising soon, but what if the rain is much heavier further upstream and the river starts its dramatic rise before you know its coming. Just last week I saw on the news some people and their dogs being rescued from a tree they had scampered up to escape the onrushing river, so I guess the answer is you don’t ever really know when the water will rise and it is very dangerous.

Camping on the 6th Street Bridge – from LA River Pix


I was walking on the Sixth Street Bridge the other day to go shoot some pictures when I stumbled upon this tent with a homeless person living in it. I have seen many homeless living down in the riverbed, some under the bridge and others tucked away in the flood channel alcoves just above the river. They have bikes and protective tarps and even laundry hanging outside their abodes. They are semi-permanent homes for these people. The feel somewhat safe down there and the cops and other patrols generally leave them be. But I have never seen anyone living on top of the bridge before, right over the LA River, right there in the shadow of the downtown skyline.

Homeless tent with LA skyline

This guy isn’t hiding or even pretending to be subtle about living out in the middle of this public space, he has pitched his tent right out in the open where thousands of cars pass by daily on route between downtown and East LA. Many police cars and other official city vehicles also regularly drive by and there he is, quite the juxtaposition with the downtown skyscrapers and bank buildings. Kind of a remarkable photo to me!

New solar array at Culver City elementary school


I did double duty today as a father and photographer at my son’s elementary school when at a ribbon cutting ceremony this morning the switch was turned on at Culver City Unified School District’s new photovoltaic power system. The giant solar array is located at Farragut Elementary School and spreads out over the parking lot next to Ballona Creek and the back playground on the east side of the school.

Solar power at elementary schoolSolar power at elementary schoolConstruction was started over last summer and was completed a few weeks into the school year. The Sunpower 750kw solar array is expected to provide $400,000 a year to the district’s general fund.

It will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change. Much like the many school gardens I have photographed, the new solar array will introduce these new ideas to the students by allowing them to interact with it, as tours and lectures are already being introduced into the curriculum.

Solar power at elementary schoolOn 2/4/2014, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held at Farragut Elementary School in Culver City for the switching on of the school district’s new 750kw solar array built at the school. In addition to providing an expected $400,000 back to the school district, it will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change.

Solar power at elementary schoolHundreds of kids from the school attended holding up their home-made signs. Parents and teachers milled about, as did many of the town’s dignitaries. At the ribbon cutting ceremony was the mayor – Jeff Cooper, the vice mayor – Meghan Sahli-Wells, many city council members as well as school board members were present along with representatives of Sunpower and Todd Johnson, the co-chair of Culver City’s Environmental Sustainability Committee.

 The thing I love about living Culver City is that in spite of being in the middle of one of the largest urban centers in the country, it still manages to feel like a small town. It feels good to be in a place that is being proactive on many sustainability issues, where the city’s leaders are working closely with the community and schools to make our city a progressive and greener place to live.

My Philip Marlowe Bridge


I was going to write a longer post about my love affair with the historic bridges of downtown LA, but I decided to hold off until another time to bend your ear about their history and design. I really just wanted to post a photo I took a few years ago and recently updated, of my favorite bridge, the 6th Street Bridge.

All the downtown bridges evoke another time in this city, a time when the bridges were a central part of it and downtown was a vital centerpiece of life here. Things seem to be moving in that direction again, but that gritty and moody urban landscape, the city that served as a background for so many Raymond Chandler stories and film noir movies is long gone and never to return.

6th Street Bridge

I read all those novels and saw all those movies and loved every minute of them. When I took this photo a few years ago, I thought I might have captured a little of that mood – the distant car lights on the dark and deserted bridge might be Philip Marlow or Humphrey Bogart driving their ‘36 De Soto across the bridge in the middle of the night on the trail of a hot lead.

That’s the way I see it in my world, but I’m a sucker for this stuff, what can I say!

Vernon – from Los Angeles River Pix


I have recently started updating some older photos that I have taken, giving them a face-lift of sorts and seeing what I night have left out the first time. The shot below of the river flowing through the City of Vernon is one I just finished. Sometimes when I live with a photo for a while I start to see things I didn’t initially see when I first took the photo. I hope you like it.

I photographed in Vernon for a while as a personal project a few years ago. It is a strange place, as you might imagine from a city that boasts as its slogan: “Vernon – Exclusively Industrial.” Evenings and weekends the town is deserted and lends itself very nicely to moody, atmospheric industrial shots: old rail yards, water towers and other cool places.


That work has gotten a fair amount of attention, probably because no one else has ever taken many photos down there. Recently the French town of Vernon had a festival and celebrated by having a photo show and exhibit (including my work) of other towns around the world named Vernon. The Vernon Chamber of Commerce’s new directory will feature four of my images, including this one, on its cover.

You can see some of the previous work I did and what I wrote in a post on my Citizen of the Planet site – http://tinyurl.com/myltjea

Old Trestle Bridge – from LA River Pix


I’ve been exploring parts of the river a little further south than I have in the past and recently had the chance to shoot an old railroad trestle bridge down in South Gate. It is a wonderful looking bridge that is covered with graffiti and rust and cuts a diagonal swath across the river and bike path. On the east side is an old trailer park with manicured lawns and residents who look like they have been there a long time and like it.
Train trestle bridge over Los Angeles River

The other side is more industrial and aside from an occasional cyclist or jogger, is pretty deserted. I was shooting there at sunset, something I have done at many locations over the years, but this place felt a little more sketchy than usual. I didn’t feel any better when I heard several gunshots coming from up the river a bit, right between the bridge where I was shooting and where my car was parked. Visions of my lifeless body splayed along the riverbank, a tangled mess of cameras and straps filled my mind as I wondered what to do.

I have to admit my heart was racing quite a bit as after what I hoped was a prudent period of time, I slowly crept back along the bike path to my waiting Prius, a great little car, but quite the sore thumb when it comes to empty industrial areas. All was well and I lived to shoot another day.

Water Fountains – from LA River Pix


If you have ever walked along the Glendale Narrows, one of the few soft-bottomed sections of the river, you might have noticed water gurgling up from the concrete banks that line this section of the river and forming slippery little puddles and patches of algae.

Groundwater bubbling up through paved banks of the Los Angeles River

These little water fountains are the reason the river bottom was left in a more natural state and not concreted over by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers back in the Thirties.

Along this stretch there is a very high water table and because of that it was determined that it would be impossible to seal the concrete over it, the groundwater, as we see, is forcing its way up and through the concrete banks. Lucky for us as we get to see a more natural river along with all the plant life and wildlife,

 Groundwater bubbling up through paved banks of the Los Angeles River

The squiggly white lines you see on the top of the bubbles is actually the light reflecting off the water over a ¼ of a second exposure which it gives it the look of an out of control doodle from a white pen. When shooting water it is always fun to play with either very fast exposures (1/1000th of a second) or in this case a longish exposure. Both portray the water in ways that our eyes are not accustomed and because of that make it more interesting to look at.

Winter Rains – from LA River Pix


If you have ever seen the LA River after a heavy rain you will never forget it. A few years ago I photographed it after a rainstorm and was lucky to get there just as the sun peeked out of the clouds and illuminated the banks of the river with a beautiful amber glow. The waters were still raging and some smart ducks waited patiently along the banks for the turbulent brown water to subside.

Los Angeles River during rainstorm

To learn more about this image was taken, click here

Glendale Narrows, Los Angeles River

The LA basin is an alluvial floodplain, water cascades down mountains, hills and storm drains causing the waters to rise quickly and dramatically. It is an amazing site to watch, but make sure to keep a safe distance as each year there are local news stories of people and dogs being rescued from the torrential waters that flow swiftly down the channelized corridor to the sea.

I recently went back there to shoot a more tranquil view of the same scene to contrast with the rain scene. As you can see, quite a difference in water level and temperament.

Concrete River – from LA River Pix


The last few posts had several images from the soft-bottomed stretch of the river along the Glendale Narrows, so I thought I would go for major concrete this week. The first image was taken during last April’s LA River Photo Adventure tour from the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge. It overlooks an old auto scrap yard that never seems to change and makes a nice foreground to the river and mountains.

Auto parts yard near Cesar Chavez Ave along Los Angeles River,

The second image was taken in 2008 from under the 6th Street Bridge just at the entrance to the ramp the film crews use to access the river. Back then the downtown portion of the river was lined with Graffiti and seemingly covered every inch of the river’s banks. It has since been painted over. Just a couple of weeks ago one of the graffiti artists saw this photo and contacted me to see if I had taken a photo of his work which was just a bit to the right of where this photo was taken, but unfortunately I had not and his work is apparently lost for the ages.

FoLAR's Tour of the Los Angeles River

Los Angeles River Photo Adventure



I got to spend last Sunday leading a merry group on the bi-annual LA River Photo Workshop I lead for the Julia Dean Photo Workshop (soon to be the Los Angeles Center of Photography). William Bowling from FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River) joined us as our expert guide to river history and science and always we had a lot of fun, took a lot of great pictures and ended up exhausted after our ten hour journey. This year we had a little more adventure then we planned on when we almost got arrested for getting a little too close to the railroad tracks near the 7th Street Bridge, but we sweet talked our way out of incarceration or a hefty ticket and left unscathed but forewarned.
Read more, see more pictures…

Great Blue Herons – from LA River Pix


I was very excited that I had the chance yesterday afternoon to photograph close up, not one, but two Great Blue Herons. Probably a pretty geeky thing to say, but I have been trying to for a long time to get some intimate photos of these skittish creatures. The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) can grow up to 54 inches in height and has a wingspan of up to 79 inches, and when it flies it has an almost a prehistoric pterodactyl like look to it as it lumberingly spreads its massive wings and slowly launches itself into the air.

Great Blue Heron
To learn more about how this image was taken, click on image

It has a graceful glide once airborne, and you can usually get some nice enough shots of it going up and down the river if you have a long lens and some patience, but I have always found them elusive when it comes to capturing them just hanging out. The two I came across let me get within 10 feet of them and I was able to get a good number of frames off before they got bored with me. These were along the Glendale Narrows and you can usually find them there or at the other soft-bottomed stretch at the Sepulveda Basin where I have read they have a nesting colony.

Great Blue Heron

Welcome to LA River Pix


Feed from LA River Pix

One of my favorite photos of the Los Angeles River was taken on one of my very first visits to it. It was shot just south of the Los Feliz Blvd. bridge and looks north up the river. A small hill in Griffith Park rises in the background and a deep blue sky and bright green foliage serve to make it a nice colorful photo, but it is certainly not a great photo. What makes it special to me was the wonder I felt at seeing this part of the LA River for the first time, an almost bucolic setting with Blue Herons, Cormorants and Mallards settled in amongst the wiry brush that juts up and out from the river’s islands and banks.

Los Angeles River, Glendale Narrows

Many photographers know you can form an emotional attachment to a photo based on the experience you felt at the time you took it. It might be from the obstacles and challenges you had to overcome in order to capture the image, or it could be the long journey you had to trek to find the location. For me, it was the feeling of excitement in knowing I had found a new and fantastic subject to photograph, a place I had never really known about before or ever had the chance to explore.

 One of the things I love about teaching photography is helping students capture that feeling of wonderment and translating it into a great photograph. But it can be so frustrating to look over a beautiful and moving scene, get all excited about taking a photo of it, and then experience the disappointment when it doesn’t live up to expectations.

The problem is not the lack of some innate ability to capture the feeling of the scene, it is the lack of understanding of the tools that enable one to do so. I don’t teach students how to take a great photo, I teach them how to make one. A big difference that was taught to me by some of the most talented photographers I have known and had the pleasure to work for.

For more info about how thi was taken, click on image
For more info about how this was taken, click on image

I recently went back in an attempt to capture a bit more mood and drama of that original photo, I always knew the location had more potential to it and wanted to see what I could do. This time I felt I was much better able to portray the serenity and calm of the location by shooting at dusk and with a long exposure that shows the movement of the water. The point is that I always have to be  learning too.

I launched this website to showcase photos of my favorite subject, a place where I consistently experience the inspiration and excitement that I want to put in my pictures. We tend to want to shoot the most in places where we feel the most when we shoot there. That is what the LA River is to me. The diversity of scenery and the extraordinary changes the river is undergoing make it the perfect place to photograph and visit time after time.

I also started this site to share my photographic experience and knowledge with others (getting old has to be good for something). I will share the stories of how I took the photos, the settings I used and why I think a photo works and in some cases why it didn’t work. I will take you with me to see the many faces and moods of the river and hopefully inspire you to visit there and make great and inspirational photos for yourself.

Kayaking the mighty LA River


The LA River is a River. As obvious as that may sound, the truth is most people don’t really think of the Los Angeles River as an actual river. They are probably more familiar with the river’s movie roles such as the Governator barreling down its corridor on a motorcycle in Terminator 2 or the cast of Grease singing, dancing and racing along its flat bed and beveled sides.

George Wolfe of LA River Expedition goes over safety measures and instructs the day’s travellers on how to paddle and guide their kayaks for their 2.5 mile journey down the river.

George Wolfe of LA River Expedition goes over safety measures and instructs the day’s travellers on how to paddle and guide their kayaks for their 2.5 mile journey down the river.

It may be hard to believe that the same concrete channel you see as you approach LAX from above, cutting a winding swathe through the heart of Los Angeles, is also a beautiful and tranquil riparian landscape with a rich population of waterfowl and a number of whitewater rapids. But a recent program has in fact opened up the river to the public to see close up and first hand this “other” river, and to enjoy all that it has to offer.

A couple launches their kayak from the banks of the LA River along the Glendale Narrows section, a soft-bottomed section of the river.

A couple launches their kayak from the banks of the LA River along the Glendale Narrows section, a soft-bottomed section of the river.

On Memorial Day, the Los Angeles River/Glendale Narrows Recreation Zone Pilot Program opened up along a 2.5 mile section in the Elysian Valley, one of the two “soft-bottomed” stretches of the river that has not been paved over. The program allows the public, unrestricted recreational use for the first time in 80 years, including kayaking, walking, bird-watching, and fishing during the Summer months.

The small flotilla of kayaks heads down the first straightway, learning to control their craft and getting ready for the first rapids of the day.

The small flotilla of kayaks heads down the first straightway, learning to control their craft and getting ready for the first rapids of the day.

Recently I had the chance to follow along as 15 or so eager river sojourners were led down the aforementioned stretch of the river by George Wolfe, LA River pioneer and founder of LA River Expeditions. I first photographed George back in 2008 when he led a three day flotilla of kayaks and canoes down 51 miles of the river, quite illegally, to prove that the river was in fact a navigable waterway, a designation the EPA finally gave it in 2010 that granted Federal protection under the Clean Water Act and ultimately led to the accessibility the public currently has.

The group waits for one of the boaters to get back in his kayak after a spill in the first rapids.

The group waits for one of the boaters to get back in his kayak after a spill in the first rapids.

The early morning sky was overcast as the day’s travellers sat on the riverbank near Rattlesnake Park and listened as George went over safety precautions and proper ways to paddle and guide the kayaks. Although a couple of the participants were river veterans, most were novices, and as they pushed off and entered the water, the reality that they were actually in the river hit their faces.

The boaters hit some open water as they get ready to traverse a series of small rapids.

The boaters hit some open water as they get ready to traverse a series of small rapids.

After everyone was in the water, the group floated down a long straightaway and headed to the first bit of rapids, a small chute and probably a good warm up for the trip. But even this humble bit of whitewater tumbled one of the kayakers into the water and forced him to scramble back into his craft. Luckily in the soft-bottomed sections, the river is rarely deeper than a few feet so there is not much danger to be had.

A couple shoots down a section of whitewater along the LA River.

A couple shoots down a section of whitewater along the LA River.

Keeping up with the kayakers was a bit of a challenge and had me running along the river’s edge for bits and then scampering to my car to set up at another location downstream. Along the Glendale Narrows, the river is pretty wide, but a long strip of heavy underbrush divides the river and forces the currents to snake back and forth from one side of the island to the other along the river’s banks. At one section, I brazenly tried to cross through one of these islands to catch a glimpse of the group on its other side. A big mistake as there are no paths and trying to traverse the 30 foot strip without a machete gave me multiple scratches, a few thorns in my leg and a nasty little case of poison oak, that I am even now still scratching as I write this. Never even made it to the other side to see them.

A boater gets ready to disembark his kayak after a two hour journey down the river.

A boater gets ready to disembark his kayak after a two hour journey down the river.

About 2 hours later, the group pulled into the take out point just above Egret Park, the last section before the river becomes fully concreted and heads off to downtown. The boaters at this point had the look of experienced river travellers, smiling and confident as they disembarked their craft next to the arrowed sign marked BOAT EXIT. After hauling up their boats to the nearby bike path, George gave one final talk to the group, reminding them to spread the message that the river is now open to all, to use, to enjoy and to preserve. A great day for all!

Ed Begley Jr.’s Green Home


Building one of the greenest homes in North America is no easy task, but if there is one person who is up for it, it would be Ed Begley Jr. His Green credentials go back to the first Earth Day in 1970, and when he is not putting in time as a successful film and television actor, he is busy at work promoting green products, educating others about the conservation of earth’s natural resources and most importantly being a living example of a sustainable life.

Ed Begley Jr.'s Green home construction

Ed Begley Jr arrives on his bike at the construction site of his new home. He and his wife Rachelle Carson-Begley are building their new house under LEED Platinum Certified standards in an attempt to become one of North America’s greenest, most sustainable homes.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council about 36% of all CO2 (Carbon dioxide) emissions originate from commercial and residential buildings, greater even than cars and transportation. At the same time demand for Green homes is estimated to increase about 900% over the next five years. Reducing CO2 is the biggest plus of having more sustainable housing, but cost savings and safe water and air quality are also great benefits that are experienced on perhaps a more personal level.

A steel I-beam is put into place as the steel framing begins over the foundation of Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley’s new home.

A steel I-beam is put into place as the steel framing begins over the foundation of Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley’s new home.

Steel framing continues at Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley’s new home.

Steel framing continues at Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley’s new home.

Ed and his wife Rachelle Carson-Begley had over the years upgraded and incorporated many energy and water reducing features and sustainable elements into their existing home, including a very large and Rube Goldbergian solar array on their roof. Now they wanted to build a new home that incorporates state of the art technology and design, and is built to LEED Platinum standards, the highest certification that exists.

Ed and his partner, actor Raphael Sbarge working with Make it Happen Productions, decided to film a new web series around the project called On Begley Street, which would provide an educational and entertaining venue to follow Ed, Rachelle and their daughter Hayden going the complete process of designing and building their new home. With the help of renowned architect William Hefner and contractor Scott Harris, designs were draw up and the project began.

Ed Begley Jr., Rachelle Carson-Begley and general contractor Scott Harris are interviewed for the filming of their new web series “On Begley Street” which follows the construction of their new home being built under LEED Platinum Certified standards.

Ed Begley Jr., Rachelle Carson-Begley and general contractor Scott Harris are interviewed for the filming of their new web series “On Begley Street” which follows the construction of their new home being built under LEED Platinum Certified standards.

It was important from the beginning that integrating green and sustainable features into the home was just a part of the goal. Leaving the smallest carbon footprint during the construction process was also just as critical, and so they set out to implement a successful construction and demolition waste diversion plan of reduce, reuse and recycle.

Nearly completed interior steel framing of the of Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley’s new home.

Nearly completed interior steel framing of the of Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley’s new home.

Hard hat and piles of steel at the construction site.

Hard hat and piles of steel at the construction site.

When tear down and deconstruction began on the home and lot in Studio City they had purchased for the project, several steps were taken to ensure a reduced impact. All windows, doors and other re-usable items were donated to Habitat for Humanity’s Restore program. A company came in and safely collected and disposed of all toxic elements such as lead paint. Most of the old 2 x 4’s were shipped to Mexico to build a chapel, and the gypsum in the old drywall was recycled and given to avocado farmers for fertilizer. What was left was literally a small pile of debris, about 4% of the deconstructed house. A stark contrast to normal demolition, which can result in tons of trash, some of it toxic, being hauled off to the local landfill.

Portland cement that is normally used for foundation construction is a very strong and durable product, but its manufacture results in about 6-7% of the total CO2 produced by humans. The Begleys used a by-product of coal-fired power plants, called Fly Ash to displace some of the concrete, which not only reduces the environmental impact, but creates an even stronger and more durable product. Use of it contributes to obtaining needed credits in the US Green Building Council’s LEED certification program as well.

In January when I first came to the project to document the construction, the steel framing of the house was just about to begin. A crane was lifting long red and thick I-beams into place, while workers aligned and attached them. Lighter weight 18-gauge steel was then framed around the beams to form the walls, ceiling and floors.

Ed Begley Jr and Rachelle Carson-Begley oversee the construction of their new home. The steel framing is nearly completed and steel decking will soon begin on the floors.

Ed Begley Jr and Rachelle Carson-Begley oversee the construction of their new home. The steel framing is nearly completed and steel decking will soon begin on the floors.

Most residential buildings are framed over the foundation with wood, a sturdy material, but susceptible to termites, rot and moisture. Wood is also a limited resource and use of it contributes to deforestation. Steel however is 94% recyclable, lighter, stronger and resistant to all pests and other destructive elements. The steel used for the framing of the Begleys’ house was also milled locally in Fontana, about 30 miles away.

Raphael Sbarge, executive producer of "On Begley Street", general contractor  Scott Harris, Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley.

Raphael Sbarge, executive producer of “On Begley Street”, general contractor Scott Harris, Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley.

I will be following the construction of the Begley’s new home over the next several months. As construction progresses we will have the opportunity to learn about many of the new features being incorporated into the house. Some of them will be cutting new technology, others will be common sense things that can be implemented quite easily by anyone at a low cost. Along the way we will all learn what we can do to improve the quality of our lives.

Venice Community Garden – From the Ground Up


Not long ago, an empty lot in Venice, California, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, was overgrown with weeds. In it there was an old jet ski that was left to rust along with old auto parts scattered around on soil mounds. Years before that, railroad tracks ran through the center of this plot of land on Mildred Ave. Freight cars transporting their goods and perhaps tanker cars carrying oil from the surrounding wells, made their way along these tracks in what is now a peaceful and typical Venice residential community.

The story of a garden is the story of its soil, and those of us living in urban environments are surrounded by land and soil that has had many and multiple uses. The soil can tell us the history of that land, something that is imperative to know if we want to plant our gardens and eat our food with surety and safety. The Venice Community Garden that is now on that plot of land on Mildred Ave. was started by some residents who had the simple idea of starting a garden, where members of the community could grow and eat the food they planted. What they discovered along the way was a little about history, a lot about soil, and ultimately a deeper understanding of what it means to grow.


Kip Wood has lived in Venice for about nine years and had developed an interest in gardening, mostly from working in his own front yard, noting he “liked getting his hands in the ground.” Inspired by some classes he took from David King at Venice High School’s Learning Garden, and surprised that there were no community gardens in Venice, he decided that to start one himself. His intention was to design a beautiful space, with trees and art – a place where people could come together, plant food and get their hands dirty. In January, 2010 he noticed a ‘for lease’ sign at an empty lot around the corner from his home. The property had been sitting vacant for some time, so when Kip inquired about it, the landlord was only too happy to lease it to Kip for a garden.

Kip initially worried about getting enough interested people. Unlike some community gardens that are on donated or city property and who only charge their members a low yearly fee, a minimum of about 48 people were going to be needed to pay the $25 a month for rent and expenses. Flyers were distributed and emails to a gardening list brought in some interest, but a post on Yo! Venice!, a neighborhood web forum, elicited a tremendous response and there was soon a waiting list of about 200 people.

Norma Bonilla was one of the first to respond. Norma had also taken some classes at the Learning Garden and was inspired to move her life in a new direction. She had owned several businesses over the years, in architecture, remodeling and design, and with those skills and her management abilities, immediately got involved in the planning of the garden along with Kip. Working together, things started to progress.


One of the first things Kip and Norma did was to download a copy of the Community Garden Start-up Guide from the University of California Cooperative Extension’s website (see sidebar), and used it to help create their own to do list. They started to hold meetings to help garden members get to know each other and to take on needed tasks. Plot assignments were given out and members signed a Plot Holder Agreement with the garden’s rules put forth. Liability Insurance was obtained to protect the landowner. Permits were not needed as residential zoning in Los Angeles allows for the growing and selling of fruits and vegetables.

Kip’s Initial schematic called for 48 plots in the six thousand square foot lot, most of them 12 by 4 feet. New trees and shrubs, donated by a local environmental group, Tree People, would line the back wall as well as a central interior space to be used for meetings and workshops. A fence was also planned for, a suggestion the start-up guide recommended to cut down on vandalism. Money was raised for the needed hardware, plumbing, lumber and other supplies through donations by members and the contributions from local merchants.

Getting a water meter installed would have been the best method of water access, fees are generally pretty low if there are pipes already installed, however the lot had no pipes and installing them was going to be too expensive, around $3,000. Eventually it was determined that sharing water with the gardens’ neighbor, who happened to have the same landlord, was the easiest and cheapest recourse.

Irrigation expert Deni Friese from UCCE Common Ground Master Program helped design the new watering system. She recommended a water line straight down the center of the garden with four hose bibs on risers for manual watering. A drip or any other kind of irrigation system was not considered, as it was decided that it was important for everyone to learn how to tend and water his or her own garden. As Norma put it, “we are growers, it is about the connection with our own land and plants, not about putting it on a timer.”

Breaking Ground.

Initial soil testing revealed high levels of lead and arsenic, so it was decided to remove the top layer of soil. Lead can be found in many urban and suburban environments as the result of automotive parts and emissions, pesticides, paint chips and plumbing. Even though the use of lead in many of these products has been outlawed for decades, the residue can linger in soil for many years after it has been exposed.

The arsenic was attributed to an old rail line that was found to have run directly through the lot. It was common to spray massive amounts of herbicide, which contained arsenic, next to the rail ties to prevent weeds from obstructing the train tracks.

On April 13, 2010 the garden broke ground and a loader began removing the soil from the garden. With each pass, the contaminated soil, rocks and debris gave way to smooth hardened clay which was then tilled with additional passes by the tractor. The huge pile of dirt was carted away and what was an empty lot was now on its way to becoming a garden.

With construction of the planting beds about to begin, Kip and Norma called on the LA Conservation Corps for help, an organization that helps at-risk youth by providing education and job skills training through neighborhood service and conservation projects. The lot was staked out and the LACC troops got to work. A local market even donated sandwiches for the hard workers. The beds were finished in a few days, it was the end of May.

There was still some glass and asphalt on the top surface, so as a precautionary measure, garden members were advised to dig an additional one-foot deeper in their beds. It was also suggested that members take one last soil sample for testing from three different areas in their planting beds. The last mounds of removed soil were carted away, spirits were high and planting was about to begin.

Then one night, Kip and Norma got a call. Some of the new soil tests came back with high levels of lead and arsenic, after all the work and digging, the toxins were still present in the soil. According to Garn Wallace of Wallace Labs “It is not recommended to grow leafy green vegetables in soils that contain lead above 30 parts per million (ppm) or arsenic with over 2 ppm.” Over half the plots had come back with high levels of one or both.

Setbacks and solutions

Kip and Norma were devastated and several members even left the garden. The project was put on hold and things seemed bleak. Then “something very special happened” said Norma, “emails started to come in from members urging us to keep going. The letters were so supportive and just what we needed to move forward on this beautiful space.” They encouraged research and many offered their assistance to seek the necessary solutions. A multi-tiered solution was decided on, and by Mid-July activity began again.

Digging deeper would probably bring similar results, so it was decided to bring in new soil and then use multiple layers to keep the plants protected from the toxins. First a bed of rocks, three inches deep, would be placed at the bottom of the planting beds. This would keep roots from reaching the contaminated soil, but would allow for water drainage. Sprinkling gypsum power over the rocks and then lightly watering it would break down the hard clay soil below the rocks, further enhancing drainage and allowing for micro organisms and worms to thrive.

Next a one-foot wide 3.5 mil sheet of plastic would be stapled around the circumference of the raised planting beds, which would prevent the toxins leaching in to the beds during rainfall and watering. Lastly, a slightly wider sheet of weed cloth would be stapled over the plastic sheeting to keep the roots from tearing holes in it and reaching the toxic soil. Woodchips are placed around the walkways to keep lead dust from spreading and to help eventually amend the soil.

Finally the new soil could be added. Several mounds of sandy loam soil were delivered and members used it to fill half their beds. Soon after, compost, available for free from the city, was brought in and the other half of the planters were filled and mixed together with the soil.

Planting and Harvest

Planting finally began in August. A moment many thought would never come had finally arrived after what seemed an eternity. Los Angeles is of course fortunate to have year round growing, the question for many was whether or not to plant seeds or seedlings. Some opted for just seeds, but many planted a combination of both.

Denise and Frank are a young couple who work in advertising. Both had experience with gardening and were on the waiting list of other community gardens when the Venice Garden plot became available. On their first day of planting, Frank was carefully placing small snow pea seeds around the berms they had built in their bed. About 70% of their plantings were seedlings, amongst them, cucumbers, radishes and cherry tomatoes.

Jennifer is an experienced farmer from Oregon, recently arrived in  Los Angeles. The garden helped her find an attachment to the community through gardening. Facing some health challenges, she has found gardening helps reduce stress and is meditative. Her physical therapist has even given her exercises and stretches based on garden activities such as watering and planting.

Aeryn and Isabel share a plot and are both studying landscape architecture While being members of the garden is relevant to their work, according to Isabel, it is also a place to “meet your neighbors and learn from everyone else.” The care in which they approached their planting bed was evident, their plantings were intentionally a diverse selection of low, medium and high growth seedlings. Aeryn said they also tried to be mindful of the color palette when they chose their flowers and vegetables.

They were one of the first to plant and so were one of the first to harvest their crop. By mid October, their bed was a robust display of colorful vegetables. Aeryn began clipping off zucchinis as large as footballs along with bright yellow squash, swiss chard and cucumbers. She held up her bounty and she smiled at what was their obvious success.

On a Saturday morning, a group of people gathers around to hear Norma give the first of the workshops she has planned. Passerby’s continually walk by the garden and peer in curiously. There is now so much activity and growth in a place that for years residents had ignored as an ugly vacant lot. The garden is now beautiful, but just as importantly, the work everyone did will ultimately leave the soil in better shape than when they found it. Both land and people will be transformed from a community coming together, learning together and growing together.

Brooklyn Grange


Earlier this Summer I visited the Eagle Street farm, a 6,000 square foot garden on a warehouse rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was the first rooftop farm I had seen and I was very impressed by what they were able to accomplish and grow. Two weeks ago I went out to Long Island City to see the Brooklyn Grange Farm and was expecting something along the same lines as Eagle Street, perhaps a bit more ambitious. As I walked along Northern Boulevard and looked up at the building, I wondered what portion of the roof they were actually using for the garden. Walking out onto the rooftop of the farm I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of what I saw in front of me, essentially the whole roof of the building was taken up by the farm, 40,000 square feet, almost an acre of rooftop, was devoted to rows and rows of vegetables and crops.

Brooklyn Grange rooftop with NYC skyline

Jalapeño peppers

Both Farms were started by head farmer Ben Flanner, a Wisconsic transplant, who along with his partners, broke ground on the Brooklyn Grange Farm back in May of this year. The farm was originally intended to be in Brooklyn, but let’s face it, Brooklyn sounds better than Queens anyway (I was born in Queens so I can say that). It utilizes 1.2 million pounds of soil, and if there is one question I regret not asking, it is how they got it up there. Nonetheless, the structural integrity of the roof was tested and supports a drainage system and even has a barrier layer to prevent roots from penetrating the ceiling below. Scattered around a mélange of rooftop pipes, pumps, fans and water towers, were crops of okra, kale, eggplant, jalapeño peppers, carrots, spinach, assorted greens and an abundance of tomatoes. There was even a beehive located in the SW corner. The organic farm is a for profit venture, selling to restaurants and to the public through their various produce stands. It is open also to the public, and if you ever think you have seen it all in New York, go out and take a look at what is fast becoming the future of urban farming and the new look for New York rooftops.

Eggplant and jalapeño peppers with water tower

Produce stand on Northern Blvd in front of Brooklyn Grange

New York Parks


Spending a week in New York I had a chance to visit a couple of Manhattan’s ‘off the beaten path’ parks. High Line Park opened last year, and has quickly become one of the the city’s more popular destinations. It is built on an old elevated railroad freight line that operated from the 1930s to 1980. I grew up right near it and remember looking up at the old tracks which ran a block parallel to the Hudson River, and wondered what mysteries were up there and how far those tracks might be able to take me (my hobo fantasies as a child were slightly delusional). Now I get to walk along this extraordinary greenway and look down upon the adjoining streets and avenues, and feel the cool breezes blow off the Hudson while enjoying the great views of the surrounding cityscape and river.

Gansevoort Street entrance to the High Line park

High Line Park in Chelsea

When I went there the other day, I was instantly amazed at how much growth had taken place since my last visit, shortly after it opened. Talking to a nearby groundskeeper, I found out that the park’s plant designer, Piet Oudolf, has been trying to evoke the look of a prairie, using as little trimming and pruning as possible. And so the long grasses sway with the winds and the overgrown shrubs and plants grow over the rusted train tracks and peek through the slits in the pavement that try to resemble them, and give the park a truly wild look. It is helped by the fact that over 60% of the plants are native to the area and many are drought tolerant as well.

Old Railroad tracks overgrown with native plants

Patches of grass and brush pop out of the slitted walkway

The park runs from Gansevoort Street, located in the center of the trendy and grotesque Meat Packing district, to 20th street in Chelsea. This is just the first segment, which when completed will extend the linear parkway up to 34th Street. Go early on weekends or on weekdays as it gets very crowded, which really can distract from the beauty and serenity of the park.

Entrance to the Conservatory Garden at 105th St

Three Dancing Maidens fountain by German sculptor Walter Schott

The other park is not so much a park, but rather a garden within a park, it is the Conservatory Garden, located in Central Park at 105th Street and 5th Avenue. Built originally in 1898, it was restored to its present state in 1981. There is only one entrance, a large wrought iron gate that opens up to an expansive green lawn and fountain. In contrast to the wild growth of the High Line Park, the Conservatory Garden is an orderly assortment of manicured hedges and carefully designed walkways, bringing a small scale European garden feeling to Manhattan. Seasonal flowers bloom and an assortment of tended trees shade you along the paths. Several sculptures and fountains are placed at the two ends of the park, most notably the Three Dancing Maidens fountain by German sculptor Walter Schott.

Pan Fountain and Lily pond

Harlem Meer

My Potato Knish

This part of Central Park was not a place I spent a lot of time during my hanging out in Central park years, so I was almost shocked that this very un-New York like garden existed when I stumbled upon it ten years ago. Just North of it is the Harlem Meer a beautiful and tranquil lake (Meer means lake in Dutch), in the NE part of the park, with shoreline walkways, quacking ducks and a Queen Anne boathouse. It has since become one of my favorite places to eat lunch, which I get from a strange little concession stand just off its shore called the Knish Nosh, which sells amazingly good Kosher knishes and franks. Sadly to say I was informed that they have lost their lease and will shut their doors. But their knishes are so good, I would be remiss not to inform you that they still have another location at the boat pond at 74th Street and 5th Avenue.

Urban blight-New Orleans five years after Katrina and other thoughts about toxic waste


When buildings are destroyed their toxic waste is released into the environment one way or another. Dust and fire spread pollutants into the atmosphere; waste left to decay seeps into the soil.  When the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings went down, toxic fumes polluted lower Manhattan. Many of the first responders and some of the nearby residents are sick today from the fumes and dust.

Around the corner from where I live in Arabi, LA, just outside New Orleans, 9/10/2010

Some years ago in upstate New York, a tornado leveled a barn that served as my studio. The rules there forbid burning the barn’s remains, but one could bury them. My former welding shop was buried on the same spot it once stood, oil furnace and all. By the next year grass grew on the burial site.  Had I not been in a hurry to move on, I could have rescued tons of wood beams that made up the shop and recycled them, a process that would have caused the least amount of damage to the environment (though it would have cost lots of time and money). Is burying waste better then burning it?

Interior of Club Desire, a famous nightclub on Desire Street, in the Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans

In New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, houses were washed off their foundations, and their contents, from computers  to household chemicals, spread around the area. Oil spills streamed through parts of St. Bernard Parish.  Much of the toxic waste went into the ground. Some was carted to off to a dump in New Orleans east while some waste remains today, rotting in place.

Church in the Lower 9th Ward

Six Flags New Orleans amusement park in eastern New Orleans, LA, closed since Hurricane Katrina  in 2005. The grounds are on low lying land owned by the city of New Orleans and have not been redeveloped. To see more images from Six Flags, click here.

Six Flags amusement park, New Orleans

Six Flags amusement park, New Orleans

Some badly damaged sites, like Press Park, had been built on toxic ground in the first place, How do you dispose of the units still standing? A decision has yet to be reached. The belongings of former residents remain, as if time stood still.

Unit in Press Park housing complex remains in a state of ruin five years after Hurricane Katrina.

Press Park

Bedroom, Press Park

To see more images from New Orleans click here

9/11 – The Twin Towers


I’m going to deviate a little from the normal subjects we cover, with the 9th anniversary of 9/11 coming this Saturday, I wanted to commemorate the passing of all those souls that lost their lives that day by featuring a tribute to the buildings that has come to symbolize that terrible event. People in Washington DC or Pennsylvania, may have a different vision for their memories, but to most of the nation and especially to New Yorkers, the World Trade Center showed us how quickly a building and our hearts could crumble.

Sunset reflecting off World Financial Center and Twin Towers

New York Post's one year anniversary of 9/11 issue

As we watched the mortar, steel and concrete disintegrate beneath them, we saw the two buildings fall, but we felt 3000 lives perish. A friend of mine died that day, Captain Pat Brown of the FDNY. The things I knew about Pat were that he was a Vietnam war veteran whose recounts of action were chilling and horrific. He was also the one of the department’s most decorated firefighters, a true hero, serving at Ladder Company 3, which lost 11 members that day. He also studied yoga and gave of his time to teach it to kids. He lived a life of service! When I saw the towers fall, I remember thinking that Pat was in there, I knew it, not out of any psychic reasons, but because that is where he would be, leading the charge up the stairs to rescue others as he had done for most of his life. I was sadly right.

Aerial view of World Financial Center under construction, 1984

Twin Towers with the bronze sculpture "The Sphere", which survived attack and is now on display in Battery Park

I had a twenty-year plus relationship with the Twin Towers themselves, I had photographed them almost from the time they were built. I shot them from the eastside with the Brooklyn Bridge; the westside from Jersey City across the Hudson; towering aerials from above and looking up from below as they touched the sky. When they were built, they were not everyone’s favorite, in fact many thought they were a blight on the classic lower Manhattan skyline, but they grew on us and became an iconic part of the New York cityscape. I think it was Ric Burns who said that after the towers were gone, it was like losing a limb, you keep reaching for it, but it is not there. That was how it felt to me, I didn’t recognize the city loved.

Brooklyn Bridge and Twin Towers

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the shadow of the Twin Towers

I hope you enjoy looking at these photos that I took over the years, I never got tired of photographing the World Trade Center and skyline, I amassed hundreds of them during that twenty year period. I also had the honor of gracing the New York Post’s ( I know it is not my favorite paper either) 1 year anniversary issue memorializing that tragic day. We are nine years away from that Tuesday, but it is just as haunting and heartbreaking as it was then. It is good to remember, it would be better if we could learn.

Photo illustration of moon and lower Manhattan skyline



I woke up this morning to the news the California State Senate failed to pass a ban on plastic bags, really sad news and a disgusting example of our government for sale. The havoc these bags cause to our oceans and waterways is devastating to fish, wildlife and ultimately us. Toxins such as Phthalates, that leach from the plastic, as well as pollutants that adhere themselves to the macro plastic particles, get into the food chain as more and more of the fish we eat mistake these macro particles for their food.

Nurdles I found on Seal Beach

A lot of people are aware of the problems with plastic bags, but many may not know that another culprit is a benignly named little bugger called the nurdle. Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets and resin materials typically under 5mm in diameter, that are used in the production and manufacturing of thousands of the products we use. Over 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped each year, and many, many of them fall off of railroad cars and ships, and then find their way to our oceans and beaches.

Captain Charles Moore showint plastic samples he collected in the North Pacific Gyre

Flying fish and plastic samples, including nurdles, collected in the Gyre

It is estimated that about 10% of the litter found on beaches worldwide are nurdles. I roamed a beach in Seal Beach, just south of Long Beach, to find hundreds of them lying around the beach, I can tell you the story is the same on most any other beach you might find yourself beach-combing on. Nurdles are just part of the family of plastic trash that is caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre that wash up on our beaches and get ingested by birds and fish. Atolls in the Hawaiian archipelago like Kure and Midway are littered with plastic debris and the carcasses of albatrosses that migrate there and eat the plastic particles, and either suffocate or starve to death. The graphic example of what was found inside the belly of an albatross is courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, an organization that is doing extraordinary work in the areas of research and education concerning plastic in our oceans.

Albatross carcass from Kure Atoll with plastic debris in stomach. Courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Foundation

There is no easy way to wrap this up I’m afraid, passage of the plastic bag ban would have been a good start. This leaves it up to local cities and towns to institute bans, which has already started to happen in towns like San Francisco and Palo Alto, with other cities like Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach soon to follow. As long as the chemistry and petroleum industry has millions of dollars to spend swaying the votes of our legislators, it will be a long hard fought battle each time.

LA River and skyline


Continuing with August’s one photo posts, I went out last night to shoot the LA River at sunset, something I have wanted to do for a few weeks. I remembered there was a spot along the bike path where the downtown skyline is visible and I thought that would make a nice juxtaposition with the tranquility of the river. If you saw last weeks photo, you might remember I like my juxtapositions. I picked a spot I thought would work (with the help of Joe Linton), the northern point of a straight stretch of the river that runs parallel with I-5, not far from the LA Zoo.

LA River and skyline

The result was a good photo, but maybe not a great one, I think there is perhaps a little too much juxtaposition in the image, the freeway lights and the wires across the river are things I could do without. But that is the story of the LA River, it fights for its right to breathe and flow amidst all the urban obstacles and barriers that exist in the large metropolis. It flows past train yards and factories; I have seen abandoned cars and more shopping carts than I can count in it as well. But these days there are more parks being built and bike paths extended and they are slowly but surely changing the aesthetic and the utilization of the river.

It also has its secrets! I remembered that I was on a river clean up a few years ago just a bit down river from where this picture was taken. I came upon a young very pregnant woman who had set up a little camp for herself in the middle of a cropping of trees. Her partner was out getting food and whatever else they needed. We spoke for a little while and she was perfectly nice, it was just that they had decided to call this little part of the river their home. Now I always look inside these clumps of trees and bushes and wonder what else might be in there.

Ballona Wetlands


It’s August and I am slowing down with Summer’s end approaching, so I thought I would just run some one shot posts for a few weeks. I went out last night to shoot the Ballona Wetlands, a beautiful area south of Marina Del Rey and just west of the Playa Vista housing development. For a number of years, and continuing to this day, there has been a battle to save the Ballona Wetlands from further development. The wetlands once extended north to Venice and further inland, and has been slowly built on over the years, the latest foray was the massive housing complex of Playa Vista, which you can see on the right side of the photo. What remains of the wetlands was saved by the acquisition of the land by the state, and the efforts of groups like Friends of  Ballona Wetlands. Wetlands, besides their pristine beauty and home to numerous species of birds and other wildlife, are a very complex eco-system as well as nature’s natural wastewater purification filter. The wetlands are located at the mouth of the Ballona Creek, which was once a natural flowing waterway, but is now a paved channel for rain and wastewater runoff.

Ballona Wetlands and Playa Vista housing development

I wanted to juxtapose the wetlands with the encroaching Playa Vista development. I thought a dusk shot would more dramatically make the point with the lights from the buildings and traffic along Lincoln Blvd., contrasted with the quiet serenity of the wetlands. The problem was that all that quiet serenity was going to be very dark compared to the lights, sky and the setting sun. I used a trick that every printer learns to do when making their B&W prints on an enlarger, a little dodging and burning. In this case, I waved my appointment book with its straight edge up and down, right in front of the top half of my lens while I was exposing the image. The exposure was about 20 seconds and I dodged the book for about 15 seconds, which kept the upper part of the exposure dark and from burning out the sky and mountains too much. A little tweaking in Photoshop didn’t hurt either.

The LA River is a river


I love the Los Angeles River. I honestly have to say that I wasn’t exactly sure what is was the first few times I saw it, but I found it to be a fascinating place to explore and photograph. On July 8, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told me what it is, something many people had already known, that the LA River is a “traditional navigable water,” in other words, it’s a river.

Glendale Narrows

4th Street and 1st St Bridge, downtown Los Angeles

Jackson made the announcement at Compton Creek, one of the LA Rivers tributaries, to a crowd of applauding supporters. This was a great day for many of the people I know who have worked so hard to bring this day to fruition, among them: Lewis MacAdams, Shelly Backlar, Ramona Marks and Alicia Katano, the folks at, and formerly at FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River); Joe Linton of LA Creek Freak; and George Wolfe, LA’s own Vasco de Gama, who led a three day kayak expedition in 2008 down the length of the 51 mile long river, to prove that it was indeed navigable. He succeeded, not only in completing the trip, but by proving to the Army Corp of Engineers that the river was deserving of the term and the protection it afforded under the Clean Water Protection Act. Now the EPA has made it official. This will mean cleaner water in the river and higher restrictions for development along and near the river’s banks.

Start of the the 2008 LA River Expedition at the Sepulveda Basin

The day I started to understand how beautiful and complicated the LA River was, was during a tour of it sponsored by FoLAR and led by naturalist Jenny Price. We started off at the Sepulveda Basin, one of two stretches of the river that is still soft bottomed, just North of the Sepulveda Dam. I stood on the river’s edge and looked up river and saw nothing but lush green growth lining its banks, and ducks, egrets, stilts and other waterfowl seemed to be everywhere. This was not the cement lined flood channel that I had seen in movies or from above when flying in and out of LAX. This looked like a river.

Black -necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus)

A Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

I also saw for the first time, the ubiquitous plastic bags that I would get to know so well. They were hanging from trees, leftover from past rains and rising waters, some fluttering in the wind like tattered flags, others knotted up in thick plastic balls that looked permanently adhered to whatever tree limb they had formed around. A sad juxtaposition to natural beauty I had just discovered.

Plastic bags accumulate in trees and shrubs along the LA River

Waterfowl in LA River, south of downtown

That same morning would be the first time I saw a boat go down the river as well. Emerging from the up river greenery came a small yellow ocean kayak that then beached itself on the river bank. George Wolfe, the aforementioned leader of the LA River expedition,  popped out and joined our merry tour to give us a brief talk about boating on the river. George would later ask me to help photograph the 2008 expedition, something I was able to do for about a day and a half before succumbing to a dastardly flu that sidelined me quite definitively for the weekend. I have always regretted not following the whole trip, but I was able to witness a bit of history being made and the beginning of some new found respect and recognition for the LA River.

George Wolfe running rapids at the Glendale Narrows

I grew up in lower Manhattan, and spent much of my youth playing along the banks and piers of the Hudson River. The Hudson back then was viewed as a disgusting, toxic brew that you wouldn’t consider getting close to, let alone swimming in. Years later, through the efforts of many, the river was cleaned up quite remarkably. I had the chance to noodle around in a kayak off the Canal Street Pier one day, and as I bounced along with the small waves around me, I realized that I had never actually been that close to the River. I was even getting wet, something that would have required a major decontamination years earlier. I loved it, and that experience enabled me to see the Hudson as a real river. I hope that the new classification of the LA River allows others to have that same awakening, and that we can all start to not only appreciate the beauty of the river, but to get in it and enjoy it as well.

The Science Barge


A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.

The Science Barge moored in Yonkers, New York

Interior of the barge with a 1,200 gallon rainwater cistern in the rear

The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.

Hanging Tomato plant

Aquaponic bio-integrated food production system

The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.

Nutrient Film technique hydroponic system

Using the Nutrient Film technique hydroponic system

Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.

Cucumber plants in Dutch Bucket hydroponic system

The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year  as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.