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A rivulet (actually, many of them) runs through it

HECTOR TOBAR

Despite our efforts to control, channel and divert water, small underground streams still flow beneath L.A., as they have for many centuries. They are a reminder of the region before it was tamed.

August 11, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

Here in Los Angeles, we've paved over almost all of the coastal sagebrush, bulldozed hillsides, channeled our rivers and streams, and filled in our creek beds.

Mother Nature has taken a real beating. But she hasn't given up the fight.

In the middle of August, weeks after the last serious rain, she is sending pure, cool water flowing through the city of Los Angeles and environs. The fresh water runs in a handful of places as it has for centuries, in the perennial streams and riverbeds that soothed the thirst of Spanish explorers and settlers almost 300 years ago, and before them, the Tongva Indians.

Underneath the Westside traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, a small creek flows south. It's filled with groundwater that's percolated, very slowly, down from the Santa Monica Mountains. Near the corner of Wilshire and Barrington Avenue, the stream makes a right turn, then surges upward through an earthquake fault on the campus of University High School in Sawtelle.

Last week, I watched the water bubble up at a spring next to a school science building. At the bottom of a pond about 12 inches deep, I could see the water pushing up through sand, oozing like some Hollywood special effect.

"Seeing this is like a religious experience," said Jessica Hall, who writes for the "L.A. Creek Freak" blog.

Indeed, there was something miraculous about reaching down into a pool of water in the middle of L.A.'s urban sprawl, and then cupping my hand to take a drink. I felt transported in time to the unspoiled Los Angeles that was a little village surrounded by rivers that ran rocky and free.

I also got a taste, perhaps, of the Los Angeles of the future.

Before it was developed in the 20th century, the western half of Los Angeles was covered with streams, most of them tributaries of Ballona Creek. Hall, 41, is one of a small band of activists who are documenting that old watershed and trying to bring stretches of it back to life.

She can tell you where streams like the Flower Garden River used to flow. Or the Sacatela, which ran south from Los Feliz -- underneath the current location of the famous Shakespeare Bridge -- all the way to the Mid-Wilshire district.

Beneath the asphalt and concrete, Los Angeles is a city crisscrossed with dormant streams. Hall tracks their paths using old U.S. Geological Survey maps, aerial photographs and what she finds during long walks through the city.

"Los Angeles is a place that's been treated as if it were a blank slate, a place where you can build whatever you want," Hall said.

But the landscape still retains much of its original topography. It is still a creation of nature. And when the rains come, the water still pretty much follows the old paths.

"There's a beauty to accepting the place you live in and getting to know what makes it unique," Hall said.

Bits of these old streams still carry water in summer. Last week, I watched a creek cut through the Wilshire Country Club in Hancock Park. Through the fence at the golf course's southern boundary, near the intersection of 3rd Street and Hudson Avenue, the water empties into a concrete culvert, moving southward. This is the old Rio del Jardin de las Flores, a stream that still flows through backyards in Brookside Estates.

When Hall first learned about the stream a decade ago, she was stunned. She had grown up in a South Bay suburb seemingly devoid of rivers, creeks and other wild things.

"I thought I knew L.A.," she remembered. "I thought: 'There's no streams in L.A.' " When she found the Rio del Jardin de las Flores, it set her off on a quest in search of more rivers.

Eventually, her explorations led her to people like Angie Behrns, who can still remember what it was like to live in a city of untamed streams.

Behrns, 71, is from a family of Gabrielino Indians, another name for the Tongva people. The flowing water at the University High campus holds a special place in her memory. "This is part of my history," she told me when I visited the springs. "Four generations of my family have come here."

The Gabrielinos, she said, have always treasured the waters for their healing powers. She attended University High in the 1950s. And when she hurt her wrist playing volleyball there, her father told her: "Put your hand in those springs and you'll be cured."

The springs were once the site of a Gabrielino village. In August 1769, the Spanish explorers and missionaries led by Gaspar de Portola stopped there, finding "little houses roofed with grass," according to an expedition diary.

Today a huge Mexican cypress tree looms over the springs, which feed a pond and a small waterfall overlooking a softball field. About 22,000 gallons flow through the springs every day.

Spanish teacher Maria Lomeli says University High students often take sips from the waterfall after P.E. classes. The water then slips into a storm drain, working its way eventually into Ballona Creek and the Pacific.

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