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What lies beneath

May 25, 2008|Chris Daley

In a city known for its glamour, talk of sewage may seem inapt, but it is also essential to understanding Los Angeles, because each day "6,700 miles of sewers convey 450 million gallons of wastewater . . . from more than four million people to four treatment plants."

"Brown Acres: An Intimate History of the Los Angeles Sewer System" by Anna Sklar (Angel City Press: 232 pp., $19.95 paper) takes an unprecedented look at what lies beneath the sprawling 465.9-square-mile city, which for decades dumped its untreated sewage into the ocean. With details (and photographs) gleaned from meticulous research in the city's archives, Sklar relates the extreme difficulties the city faced in building a sewer infrastructure to handle its rapidly expanding population in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As any engaging cultural history should, "Brown Acres" illuminates the city's politics, landscape and ecology, especially through the labors of its municipal engineers. Sklar takes us through the painstakingly slow developments that led to the current award-winning sewer system. To call the process of building the underground network of pipes and ultimately a sewage treatment plant Herculean would be an understatement.

Sklar, the former public information director for the city's Department of Public Works, lingers on the topic that makes this book so timely: the environmental impact of a century of ineffective sewage treatment and the efforts of activists to clean up Santa Monica Bay, the dumping ground for much of the city's waste since 1894. She also discusses L.A.'s historic lack of foresight in municipal planning and notes that its current struggle with drought could be helped by recycling the hundreds of millions of gallons of treated wastewater it produces each day.

-- Chris Daley

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