Catch Basins

Dieuwertje Kast

A man sits in his car finishing his lunch: a hamburger wrapped in paper and stuffed into a cardboard box, itself crammed into a paper bag. Now, while the burger works its way down his digestive tract, along with the French fries and the soda, lunch is over and there is a mess to clean up. Paper and plastic products-cup, wrapper, straw, and a cardboard drink holder-now litter the passenger seat. The man sees a storm drain close at hand, a quick way to clean up after lunch. Ignoring the stencil of the fish skeleton on the sidewalk, he stuffs his trash into the drain, confident that the mess has gone away.

But trash does not simply disappear, never to resurface: a plastic six-pack holder wraps around a brown pelican’s webbed feet. An endangered sea turtle chokes to death on a plastic bag it mistook for a sea jelly. Industrial pollutants poison a sea lion, causing permanent neurological damage.

Fortunately, this man’s trash is caught by a catch basin that protects the Los Angeles River. Catch basins are chambers or holes alongside roads that allow surface runoff to enter storm drains, and are designed to trap trash, debris, and sediment. The catch basin that caught his trash stopped it from its normal route of storm drain to beach, where the wrapper and other waste could have damaged oceanic wildlife.

Catch basin numbers have increased around the Los Angeles River in response to Proposition O, and the EPA’s rating that resulted in the quota of Trash Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL). They now divert thousands of tons of trash away from the ocean and into landfills.

The thousands of catch basins around Los Angeles have reduced the amount of trash entering the river significantly; however there still are not enough to prevent all trash flow to the ocean. According to California Regional Water Quality Control Board, there are a total of 35,000 catch basins over the 1,500 miles of underground pipes and 100 miles of open channels that make up Los Angeles’ storm drain system, through which about 100 million gallons of water flow on the average dry day. Additionally, there are an estimated 367,500 gallons of trash extracted from the Los Angeles Watershed per year.

A watershed, such as the one in Los Angeles, is the land area where water collects and drains onto a lower level property or drains into a river, ocean or other body of water. A watershed demonstrates the interaction of water with the environment, which includes people and industries, connecting all organisms that use and consume water, like humans, animals, and plants. According to California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Los Angeles River Watershed covers a land area of over 834 square miles and contains and is shaped by the Los Angeles River itself. Major tributaries of the Los Angeles River include Burbank Western Channel, Pacoima Wash, Tujunga Wash, and Verdugo Wash in the San Fernando Valley; and the Arroyo Seco, Compton Creek, and Rio Hondo south of the Glendale Narrows. The Los Angeles River Watershed has 22 lakes surrounding it, such as Devil Gates Dam, Hansen Basin, Lopez Dam, Pacoima Dam, and Sepulveda Basin. The L.A. watershed is supposed to contain adequate water safe for drinking and swimming but the conditions of the river tell otherwise. The Los Angeles River Watershed water quality has been decimated in the middle and lower portions of the basin due to runoff from commercial, industrial, and residential activities.

In 2005, the EPA labeled the Los Angeles River as “impaired” because the water quality did not sustain certain beneficial uses, in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act. The Water Quality Control Plan for the Los Angeles Region mentions that the water of the Los Angeles River must not contain floating materials such as solids, liquids, foams, and scum, and that the water cannot contain suspended or settable material in concentrations that that will be a nuisance to the river’s beneficial uses such as fishing or swimming.

The Trash Total Maximum Daily Load mentioned before was the first TMDL implemented in the Los Angeles River after the EPA deemed the Los Angeles River not safe enough for recreational activity or as a source of drinking water. The TMDL goal for the river is to reduce trash pollution by 100 percent by the year 2015. To manage this, the city must isolate its primary high trash-producing areas and instate strategies like street sweeping, catch-basin cleaning, trash pickup, and anti-littering police enforcement to be able to clean up the river.

Proposition O, through its Catch Basin Screen and Insert Project, has allowed for the installment of approximately 14,300 catch basin covers and 7,400 catch basin inserts to divert trash away from the Los Angeles River.

The trash that accumulates in the catch basins is collected twice a year by the Wastewater Collection Services Division of the Los Angeles Sanitation Department.

Jimmy Tonlin, a catch basin cleaner for the Department of Sanitation, says that he is responsible for cleaning the catch basins in South-East Los Angeles, and major parts of the San Fernando Valley. “We are supposed to clean the catch basins twice a year but my team and I clean them three times a year” to prevent overflow, he said. Tonlin and his team clean the catch basins using a vacuum pump, and then take the trash and sediment they collect from the trap to the Hyperion Water Treatment Facility, which deposits the trash into a landfill in the local area.

According to Ginachi Amah, a Water Resources Control Engineer for the Los Angeles Region of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, “placing inserts into catch basins costs on average $800 per insert. Thus the cost for implementing 150,000 catch basin diversions over the 574 square miles of the Los Angeles River Watershed, the total required to retrofit the entire watershed, is $120 million”, which would come out of California tax payers’ pockets she said. Also, to decrease the amount of trash going into the catch basins, street cleaning must be done at least monthly, which costs on average $20 per curb-mile.

Even with the catch basins diverting about 1,537 tons of trash a year, there is still plenty of trash in the river. The Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) do yearly cleanups, with help from their 2,210 volunteers. They collected 37,440 pounds of trash in 2007, trash that the catch basins missed. According to FoLAR’s collection data, the most common items of trash found during the 2007 cleanup were plastic bags, candy wrappers, chip bags, and Styrofoam cups. These items can choke, smother, suffocate and kill marine life, especially aquatic birds.

Since federal funding is not available to do annual water quality monitoring of the Los Angeles River, FoLAR is doing it independently. To test the water quality, they calculated the pH, temperature, amount of nutrients, turbidity (clearness of the water), total dissolved solids, and dissolved oxygen content, and examine how abnormal readings of these measurements correlate to negative consequences for the river habitat and ecosystem. The Los Angeles River failed to meet the “normal” good water guidelines determined by those standard measurements, and consequently received an F on FoLAR’s River Report Card in 2005. FoLAR monitored 22 sites along the Los Angeles River, which on average scored no higher than a D grade.

To clean up the river, FoLAR not only run river cleanups but it also maintains private incentives to keep the river clean with its “adopt-a-river” program, promoting environmental awareness and public action while focusing mainly on issues that affect the Los Angeles River. The adopt-a-river program started for the Los Angeles River by FoLAR involves not only private interests for keeping the rivers clean, but also invites school groups and volunteers to participate in river clean-ups. These volunteers pick up trash, while the private interests donate money for such efforts. The program’s sponsors, the city of Los Angeles and the private interests or stakeholders, coordinate with public education systems to increase communal awareness of the problem in our rivers. Essentially, the adopt-a-river program is all about the clean-up, maintenance and improvement about, and education about the Los Angeles River.

There are many ways that the average person can clean up the Los Angeles River thereby increasing the effectiveness of catch basins from their own backyards. Throw all trash into the proper receptacles, including the ubiquitous cigarette butts found all over Los Angeles beaches and especially in the Los Angeles River. When cleaning the sidewalk, instead of wasting water, use a broom and a dustpan instead; it prevents debris from washing down the drain with the water going to the ocean. Do not over-water lawns, and to increase the cost-effectiveness of water usage, water lawns at night to decrease evaporation rates. Never use fertilizer before a rainstorm, as the excess nutrient content, nitrogen in particular, increases the algal blooms in the river which suffocate the native fish. Finally, pet waste is extremely harmful to the river; pick up after your pet to prevent ruining an $800 catch basin.

Catch basins are vitally important in protecting Los Angeles’ aquatic environments from harm. No one wants to go to a beach littered with cigarette butts and packing peanuts. No one wants to see the river clogged with old tires and fast food trash. If everyone simply picked up after himself in a considerate manner, these riparian and marine environments could be more easily protected. Storm drains are not trash cans and the beach is not a dump. A clean car only equals a dirty river when normal trash collection methods are not observed; in other words, those who insist on eating fast food in their cars must toss their trash in the dumpster, not the river. And most importantly, Angelenos must have respect for the catch basins; they protect our wildlife and keep pollutants out of our water.