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Earth Day Challenge

How L.A. Can Stop Dumping Plastic and Start Saving Water

This year, Earth Day’s organizers have made it their goal to secure a future that’s free from plastic pollution. When you think about plastic pollutants, you probably think of the massive garbage island circulating the Pacific Ocean. According to a recent study in the journal Scientific Reports, that patch of garbage is estimated to be large enough to form an island three times the size of France. But the clogging of our waters begins a lot closer to home.

In L.A. County, stormwater contributes to the more than 4,000 tons of trash and plastic that have to be cleaned off our beaches every year. It also picks up all sorts of chemicals from fertilizers, and other toxins as it flows over streets and (eventually) into the ocean.

But this scourge of dirty water isn’t inevitable; it’s preventable. Engineers are already using existing modern technologies and natural solutions to filter contaminants from rainwater.

Take the San Gabriel Valley; there, rainwater already finds its way into one of the “spreading grounds” —  shallow and deep basins that have sandy, gravelly, and cobbly bottoms, which filter rainwater as it passes into the ground. (You can think of them as natural Brita filters.) They work in combination with dams to capture as much water as possible and minimize the amount that flows to the ocean. Through the porous soil, the water is eventually pumped into treatment facilities and distributed to taps. But more funding is needed here to boost stormwater collection and make the system more climate resilient.

In other parts of the region, exciting projects are in their nascent stage. In the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Park stormwater capture project would collect dry weather urban runoff and stormwater to replenish fields, allowing families to spread out and play in communities where green space is scarce.

Future droplets may be harnessed in Sun Valley, where a proposal would transform a disused landfill into a meandering meadow. And yet another initiative will turn highway medians into stormwater gardens, interrupting the endless monotony of our roadways. Natural, green spaces like these help absorb water like a sponge, rather than funneling it out into the ocean — along with all that plastic trash.

L.A. County is continually making efforts to ensure that stormwater is captured, and flows through filters and into basins where it can be cleaned, instead of being dumped on L.A. neighborhoods and beaches. Far from being pie-in-the-sky visions, these plans represent a viable option for improving the resilience and sustainability of the county’s water supply.

L.A. County could one day capture, clean, and conserve water rather than importing it from hundreds of miles away — and, in so doing, better protect public health and the environment. On this Earth Day, that’s a vision we can all get behind.