Tu B’Shevat: Stop and smell the roses — but keep on planting, too

My Israeli-born friend, Ofer Raveh, assures me that Tu B’Shevat is celebrated and important in the Jewish state. “Trees are planted everywhere,” he told me. “And we eat fruits, especially from the kind that Israel is blessed with and are mentioned in Torah: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.”

My experience with the birthday of the trees here in Los Angeles has been less engaging. Some years, when my children were in school, there was a trip to the environmental nonprofit TreePeople. Other years, there were songs about Israel, and paper plates of nuts and dates for a children’s version of the kabbalists’ Tu B’Shevat seder.

In the United States, Tu B’Shevat is often called the Jewish Arbor Day, after an American holiday created in the 19th century. It’s also called Jewish Earth Day, after the holiday created in 1970.

In talmudic times, the holiday had an important purpose: It helped people keep track of the age of their trees. Leviticus 19:23-25 requires that no one in Israel eat a tree’s fruit for its first three years. In the fourth year, the fruit must be dedicated to God, and in the fifth, the fruits can be eaten by everyone.

That’s all there was to Tu B’Shevat. Like many Jewish rituals and observances, it has been repurposed and reimagined over time, but it is still called the Rosh Hashanah L’illanot or the new year of the trees.

There are four new years on the Jewish calendar. On the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah), creation turns a year older, while the months actually start from the first of Nisan. Cattle get older on the first day of Elul, and the trees mark their new year on the 15th of Shevat.

So Tu B’Shevat was a day of counting trees, of considering the success of human stewardship, before it became a day of planting. There’s plenty of evidence in Jewish texts that our tradition is very pro tree planting. First-century sage Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai said, “If you have a sapling in your hand, ready to plant, and the Mashiach comes, plant the tree first and then go to greet him.”

Planting trees has been seen as a sure way to make the world a better place since long before the modern ecology movement. We want trees in the desert and the parkways of our city streets, on the banks of our rivers, in our parks and on our playgrounds. They breathe out, we breathe in.

The phrase bal taschit, from the admonition in Deuteronomy not to destroy trees in a time of war, has been taken up by Jews concerned about the future of the planet. Do not destroy. There’s an implication in it of caution. A proposal to revive the first of Elul as a new year of the animals imagines a day to pay attention, as we prepare for the new year of life, to our relationship with the other living beings here. It would be a day to stop, to notice what’s going on and then to start over.

In the information-overloaded 21st century, it might be useful to have a day, like Tu B’Shevat, to stop, to just be in the world and see ourselves as part of a whole. Not to stop planting altogether, but to take purposeful notice of what is before we determine what will be.

Storms spark an abundance of caution in L.A. mountains

During a lull in last week’s battery of El Niño storms, Jim Hardie stood in a freshly dug culvert in the TreePeople park, at the crest of Coldwater Canyon Avenue, and pointed up a steep trail.

“You can imagine, when its really pouring, rain is just cascading down that trail,” he said.

Hardie is director of park operations for TreePeople, overseeing a 45-acre slice of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s his job to think about how to redirect torrential rains so they don’t wipe out trails where Angelenos come to “escape the craziness” of what he called “life below” during a Jan. 7 interview.

Los Angeles long ago tamed its river, once a moody and potent force of destruction, into a series of concrete channels, but its residents still perennially struggle against occasional hard rains to keep the region’s roads clear and its encompassing wilderness intact.

Meteorologists have predicted this year’s El Niño event, a warming of Pacific Ocean waters that can result in storms, could be stronger than usual. 

Last week’s rainfall already tested the people and agencies responsible for keeping cars and hikers moving through the mountains that ring Los Angeles.

Earlier that day, Hardie and 12 volunteers had cleared a channel in a main trail for the next rains. Standing between a pair of miniature earthen levies, he explained the operating hypothesis: that water would empty through the new cleft, down a drain and into a lush valley below, rather than wiping out the small plateau where he stood.

“We had dug this out two weeks ago, knowing this storm was coming,” he said. “But this morning, from the rains Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday — this was filled [with mud] to about here.” 

He raised his hands to his shins, which were still clad in kneepads that enabled him to kneel without muddying his jeans.

In Franklin Canyon Park, a mud-slicked road was closed on Jan. 7.

Hardie was a volunteer during the last El Niño event, in 1997, and remembers portions of trails getting wiped off the mountain — precisely what he’s trying to avoid this year.

Farther north, like Hardie, Rabbi Joe Menashe is tasked with accounting for the rain pouring onto the land in his charge. Menashe is executive director of Camp Ramah, a popular Jewish summer camp in Ojai.

“A camp director’s job is to worry in general,” Menashe said. 

These days, mudslides and other water damage are on his list of things to worry about.

“Our maintenance crew has been running around throwing up sandbags and clearing drains constantly,” he said.

Camp Ramah has few visitors until the summer, particularly when compared with the hills around Los Angeles, where hiking is a very feasible prospect year-round. 

Last week’s mud and looming clouds didn’t deter a multitude of hikers from TreePeople, where the parking lot stood mostly full in the midafternoon.

“Parks are supposed to be open,” said Dash Stolarz, the public affairs director for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) in L.A. “So we go out of our way to keep the parks open.”

MRCA oversees 72,000 acres of parkland, from Simi Valley to downtown, including Franklin Canyon Park, directly across the road from TreePeople.

The agency is keeping an eye on the streams and waterways that crisscross those parks, working to keep flood channels clear of debris and, in particular, looking out for homeless people who could be caught in the torrent, Stolarz said. 

At any given time, 31 employees and another dozen or so volunteers are on hand to rescue stranded hikers, remove debris or clear downed trees, she said.

She’s stark about the potential dangers: “Fast-moving water kills people.”

TreePeople park director Jim Hardie stands in a freshly dug culvert.

The organization’s efforts are part of a citywide push to safely channel the pouring rain away from its residents, especially its most vulnerable.

On Jan. 6, as storm clouds disgorged over L.A., Mayor Eric Garcetti logged onto the online forum Reddit to address questions and concerns about the much-anticipated El Niño drenching.

“We cleaned 40,000 storm drains in preparation for the rains and 70 catch basins, all of which have been upgraded in recent years,” Garcetti wrote in response to a user’s question about drain infrastructure.

He also discussed at length efforts to protect the city’s homeless population during the storm, such as opening extra shelter space and deploying outreach teams.

Back at TreePeople, Hardie stressed the group’s work to turn the destructive potential of the downpour into a boon for the parched city. 

TreePeople is a nonprofit organization that, in addition to running the park, works to pressure Los Angeles and its residents to use water more wisely and adopt other environmental measures. Below the park’s entrance plaza, a 216,000-gallon cistern collects water through a sand and felt filter, water that can later be used to nourish the park’s plants during dry months.

“We joke that if the end ever comes, we’ll go down and hide in the cistern,” Hardie said.

The park overlooks the San Fernando Valley, and as heavy storm clouds hung over Burbank and Studio City, an apocalypse seemed none too far-fetched, but not too daunting, either.

If the end came, Hardie joked, “We’d be here up in our own kind of island in the sky.”

Celebrating Sukkot in a time of drought

While preparing for Sukkot in drought-ridden California, I hoped that the holiday’s joy had not dried up alongside much of the state’s water supply. For a holiday also called “the season of our joy,” one that celebrates the harvest and is filled with greenery and fruit, I worried about how the lack of rain would affect our celebration here and in other areas of the parched West.

[How Israel’s water solutions can save California]

In my Los Angeles neighborhood, trees were dying all around, including a birch in my front yard that reminded me of one from my childhood home. And in a season when the shaky sukkah is meant to represent the fragility of life, fire was giving us the shakes as well. At Rosh Hashanah, we heard that the entire town of Middletown, in Northern California, had burned down. A first cousin of my wife lives there; luckily he and his wife were not home at the time and their home was one of the few not destroyed.

Southern California is in the fourth year of drought. From 2011 to 2015, the recorded total for rainfall in downtown L.A. was a record low 29.14 inches. Forests and hillsides across the state are brown, parched and ready to go up in flames, as they did in the Valley Fire in Lake County. The Valley Fire has blackened over 75,000 acres, making it the fourth most destructive wildfire in California history.

To adapt to the water shortage, some of my neighbors were removing their green lawns and replacing them with rocks, bark and artificial grass. Would my sukkah need to adapt as well? According to the Rabbinical Assembly and other sources, the skach, or roof covering of the sukkah, must be of material that grew from the ground. But with everyone in Los Angeles required to cut back on their watering, would there still be enough palm fronds around — most Angelenos use the fronds for skach, since windy days often find my neighborhood streets littered with them  — to cover my sukkah roof? Would my celebration of Sukkot somehow endanger the trees, even the palms?

Wondering how my city’s trees were faring, I spoke with Andy Lipkis, the president of an organization called TreePeople, which he founded in 1973. Lipkis — who began planting trees when he was 15 years old — and his nonprofit have been leaders in the citizen-forestry movement, helping to plant about 2 million trees, and are working to “transform L.A.’s landscapes into living, healthy watersheds.”

Lipkis told me that in terms of sukkah roofing, I need not worry.

“The palm trees are not dying from the drought. There is no shortage of palm fronds or other potential greenery,” he said, much to my relief. But just as quickly he added that due to the drought, we were at a “point of risk.”

Lipkis had seen the trees dying around L.A., including the ones in the park surrounding his organization’s headquarters.

“We’ve lost dozens of big old trees,” including oaks, he said. The situation is exacerbated because ground squirrels and other rodents, looking for water, eat the tree roots, which results in the trees turning brown and eventually toppling, he said.

He reminded me that especially in this time of drought in semi-arid Los Angeles, “we are in the sukkah to connect with the sources of our lives, our food and our water.”

Lipkis also wanted me to think about why Sukkot, his favorite holiday, was created.

“The rabbis, way back, knew that people forget about the vital importance of trees in sustaining our lives, including producing our food,” he said.

Trees “act like tanks capturing the rain in their sponge-like area of their roots. Instead of the water running off, they put it back in the aquifer,” said Lipkis who has used his expertise in water management and technology to influence policymakers in city government.

Realizing that water-wise, “the infrastructure we built can no longer be relied on to meet all our needs,” and acting very much like a tree, Lipkis has come up with his own plan to capture rainwater — a plan to which city agencies have been paying attention.

Using a system built from a connected series of plastic, hollow highway barriers — in their usual use, are filled with water to give them weight — Lipkis has devised and placed on the side of his house a “temporary, experimental, 1,000-gallon” cistern to catch rainwater running off the roof via a downspout.

“You do a little re-engineering,” said Lipkis, who recalled that in the Bible, the kings who built cisterns in the arid land of Israel were celebrated.

During a recent storm here on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Lipkis, awakened by the rain, rose at 3:45 a.m. to find the system already had 200 gallons, he said. By 7 a.m., when Lipkis went off to observe the holiday, the cistern was full, he said.

As a result, the lemon, lime, olive and fig trees that have been struggling in his front yard are now being sustained with the water he has collected.

Lipkis — who usually builds a sukkah out of giant timber bamboo and a few palm fronds thrown on the top — said he won’t be constructing a sukkah this year. Instead he’ll be using his energy to help 10 other households to install a similar cistern system in their yards.

Later that day, inspired by our conversation and with cisterns on my mind, I went into my backyard. I found a wheelbarrow filled with four inches of water from that same Rosh Hashanah storm. I poured it onto a struggling lemon tree that would soon fill my view from the opening of my sukkah.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him atedmojace@gmail.com.)

Sukkot, rain and Andy Lipkis’ vision for L.A.’s salvation from the drought

On the afternoon of Oct. 16, the final day of Sukkot, Jews will begin the annual practice of inserting a short but key line into the Amidah prayer: Mashiv haruach u morid hageshem: “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

In Jewish tradition, Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and, as it happens, for California as well. This year, in the Golden State, morid hageshem takes on heightened meaning, given that the nation’s most populous state is in its third consecutive year of drought, with about 80 percent of California experiencing “exceptional drought” conditions, the most severe on a five-tier scale according to the United States Drought Monitor. 

And there is no end in sight, with the Climate Prediction Center forecasting that, at least through the end of the year, the state’s drought likely will persist and possibly even intensify.

Only 5.84 inches of rain have fallen in Los Angeles since the beginning of 2014 — about half the average amount — or, put another way, 39.2 billion fewer gallons of rainwater than falls on the city’s 469 square miles in a year of average rainfall.

But the problem is even bigger than those numbers indicate. In Los Angeles, an inordinate amount of the rain that falls on us makes no contribution to the city’s water supply — an estimated 80 percent of our rainfall flows directly into storm drains and heads out into the ocean, wasted before ever being used. One consequence is that for each gallon of water not captured, one gallon must be imported.

Los Angeles imports about 90 percent of its water from the Owens Valley in Eastern California (270 miles away), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (380 miles away) and the Colorado River Aqueduct near Parker Dam — a 242-mile channel along the California-Arizona border (280 miles away) that was built and is operated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). The MWD sells the water wholesale, supplying 1.7 billion gallons of water daily for use by 19 million people across Southern California. 

“The largest single use of electricity in the entire state of California is to pump water over those mountains into Los Angeles,” said Andy Lipkis, founder and president of the nonprofit TreePeople. He pointed toward the mountain ranges abutting the Grapevine, the route through which our Sierra-sourced water flows through a huge — and hugely expensive — system of aqueducts and tunnels. 

TreePeople founder and president Andy Lipkis during construction of the cistern.

Lipkis, who made his name through his devotion to planting and preserving L.A.’s trees, has now also turned his attention to water conservation. He thinks L.A.’s complex and bureaucratic water system is completely nuts — and also completely fixable.

At a recent interview at TreePeople’s hilltop headquarters on Mulholland Drive, next to Coldwater Canyon Park, Lipkis explained how a city desperately thirsty for water could benefit from TreePeople’s decades of planting some 2 million trees and reproducing their natural water-storing ability.

Lipkis believes we can use technology to replicate citywide a tree’s natural and remarkable ability to capture and store rainwater. He predicts that if Los Angeles implements such a system, it would become both less reliant on imported water and less prone to flooding.  And maybe — Lipkis emphasizes that it’s a big maybe — the region could also become a little bit more flush with cash if a larger rainwater capture system bring about a smaller water bureaucracy and lower electric costs from not having to pump so much water over those mountains.

From a seed company to $4 million

An outdoorsy guy most comfortable in sneakers and shorts, Lipkis doesn’t look like a man who would be sought after by policymakers who want to get Los Angeles out of its state of perpetual water crisis. Yet, Lipkis founded TreePeople when he was just 18 and has grown it into a nonprofit with 45 employees, thousands of volunteers and a $4 million annual budget that is allowing the organization to use its technological know-how to influence politicians and leaders within L.A.’s massive water bureaucracy.

TreePeople got its start in 1973 as the California Conservation Project, with $10,000 Lipkis raised to plant 8,000 seedlings in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles. Those seedlings now have grown into smog-tolerant trees and have helped reduce the impact of the smog emanating from the city below. Lipkis often has said his inspiration grew out of summers he spent at Camp JCA Shalom.

By now, TreePeople has planted about 2 million trees and continues to do so with the help of an army of volunteers, and, in the process, Lipkis’ vision has broadened, so that he’s now hoping to bring a new ecology to L.A. based on what he’s learned about how trees function, and not only by planting more and more trees, but by bringing tree-inspired technologies such as rainwater cisterns, underground storage tanks and highly water absorbent gardens to as many homes, neighborhoods and schools as possible.

The encouraging point about TreePeople is this: Lipkis’ ideas don’t seek to reinvent the wheel, or the tree. Among one of the many life-giving features of the tree is the ability to capture rainfall, filter water into the ground, and then refill clean water in those natural underground aquifers that we all rely upon to store and provide clean water. Not to mention trees’ ability to cool urban areas and grow food, two of TreePeople’s other core missions.

Lipkis thinks that in addition to planting more trees across the city (including in densely urban areas) he can re-create a tree’s natural rain capture process. 

Lipkis’ enthusiasm was clear as he walked through a miniature urban landscape built on the TreePeople property, which demonstrates the difference between the quality of rainwater that has traveled over city surfaces, into sewers, through drains and into the ocean, versus rainwater that is engineered to flow into the ground, where it can be purified and stored naturally. 

Today’s cities, and L.A. in particular, were built to push whatever rain falls on their streets — billions of gallons of it, along with tons of trash of various sorts picked up en route — out to the ocean. All this waste occurs even as we search desperately for a solution to our water shortage. Even when the current drought ends, Los Angeles and much of the surrounding desert region still will rely on a water transportation system that needs rethinking, and is already being rethought by water officials in Orange County and San Diego. Orange County already has an operational wastewater purification plant, while in San Diego, a desalination plant is in the works. 

In Los Angeles, the good news for Lipkis, and the rest of us, is that city leaders and key local water agencies already are recognizing his tree-centered strategy as one method to address Southern California’s water shortage. The bad news is that the government’s water bureaucracy in Los Angeles is massive and it could take years for good ideas to blossom into policy.

Working closely with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the Department of Public Works and the Bureau of Sanitation to mass-scale rainwater-capture technology to Los Angeles, Lipkis projects that distributing and installing millions of rain cisterns that could hold thousands of gallons of water to residents across the city (just one relatively simple rain-capture technology) could be accomplished in a few years, as it was in parts of Australia, or it could take more than two decades —“It depends on the commitment of politicians,” Lipkis said.

His other hoped-for projects include installing massive underground cisterns and groundwater infiltrators under large public properties, such as parks and schools, which already has been done effectively by TreePeople at multiple sites in the San Fernando Valley.

For Lipkis, the most encouraging development is the recent acknowledgement by the city’s water bureaucracy at LADWP that improving stormwater capture infrastructure is a must. At a meeting in April, Lipkis said, James McDaniel, LADWP’s outgoing head of water — who was on vacation when the Journal sought comment — cited rain capture as the fastest way to bring new water to Angelenos.

The department’s Stormwater Capture Master Plan, begun in 2013, highlights many of TreePeople’s rain capture projects. It is set to be completed next year and outlines for lawmakers how the city can “increase the local water supply and reduce the dependence on expensive imported water.”

The TreePeople solution

Elmer Avenue, a residential block in Sun Valley, a neighborhood of L.A. 20 miles northwest of downtown, is dotted with one-story single-family homes. Parts of Sun Valley, including Elmer Avenue, used to have hazardous flooding problems, and until 2008, this street not only had no sidewalks or streetlamps, it didn’t have any storm drains.

Rainwater from neighborhoods north of Elmer Avenue would flow downhill and gather in giant puddles on the street, making driving and walking nearly impossible during and after a rainfall. For TreePeople and a group of other nonprofits and agencies led by the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (now the Council for Watershed Health), Elmer Avenue’s predicament became a perfect site to experiment with a rainwater capture model.

Today, the street looks like one of the newest residential blocks in the city — new sidewalks, a newly paved road and, to Lipkis’ delight, a sophisticated rainwater-capture system. Front yards are filled with plants and native trees that require little water to survive but also store large amounts of moisture. When rainwater hits the street, it flows into drains that direct the water to a 5.2 million-gallon underground infiltration apparatus, which then filters the water into the ground. That’s where nature takes over and brings it to a natural underground aquifer. 

Rain that falls on houses is directed via gutters into rain barrels, onto lawns, and to porous driveways as well as to trees and swales — depressions that store water until they soak into the ground — next to the sidewalk. And if the swale fills up? The excess flows into the street, where it then flows to a nearby drain that leads to a large underground water storage device that eventually will redirect the water into a natural aquifer.

This simple but effective system echoes similar rainwater-capture projects that TreePeople has implemented at Hillery T. Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima, the Hall House in South Los Angeles and at Sun Valley Park. With these experiments, TreePeople has demonstrated on a small scale what Lipkis believes Los Angeles should, can and eventually will do on a much larger one.

Left: A playground at Broadous Elementary School in Pacoima before intervention by TreePeople.
Right: Hidden underground technology now drains the landscaped field, preventing flooding and preserving water for use.

Mark Pestrella, chief deputy director for L.A.’s Department of Public Works, has worked closely with TreePeople on reducing flooding in Sun Valley and increasing its rainwater capture. “It’s scalable across all of the county of Los Angeles,” Pestrella said, alluding to the fact that while transforming Los Angeles and L.A. County’s water bureaucracy would be a major hurdle, he is grateful his department “thankfully listened” to TreePeople when it proposed a solution to Sun Valley’s flood issues.

Unlike “environmental groups [that] raise money for policy for various things” and aren’t held accountable when they don’t make a positive change, as Lipkis put it, TreePeople already has garnered the attention of a who’s-who of the local water bureaucracy and water agencies and officials, who have cited the group’s projects in Sun Valley and in other parts of the city as evidence that rainwater capture is one part of the water solution. 

In late October, TreePeople will lead a trip to Australia that will include officials from LADWP, the Department of Public Works, the Bureau of Sanitation, the L.A. City Council, the state’s water board and staffers from the offices of Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Lipkis’ goal is to show local and state water policymakers how Australia has dealt with a perpetual water crisis by harvesting rainwater.

Lipkis’ water dream is not an environmentalist’s pipe dream, either. LADWP noted in its 2010 Urban Water Management Plan that “TreePeople has demonstrated that rainwater is a viable local water resource,” and that the water agency and the nonprofit have agreed to work closely to identify opportunities for “widespread groundwater recharge.”

Andy Shrader, director of environmental affairs for L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who sits on MWD’s board, said Koretz, too, “has been pushing MWD to increase their local water projects to include stormwater.”

“[With] the TreePeople model where you put a cistern in somebody’s front yard and try to capture as much as you can,” Shrader said, “you can really [use that water to] take care of especially your outdoor watering needs pretty handily.”

Also on board are Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar — who said there is “no question” L.A. needs a more ambitious rainwater-capture plan —and Garcetti, who wrote in his 2014-15 budget summary that he wants to cut L.A.’s reliance on imported water in half by 2025. It’s evident that an updated water policy is on the agenda of L.A.’s political class, the ones who might make it happen.

A piece of a larger puzzle

To be sure, the Elmer Avenue project was expensive. It cost $2.7 million to remodel just one residential block. To re-create this throughout Los Angeles, a city with 6,500 miles of paved roads, would not be practical, says Stephanie Pincetl, director of UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, who nevertheless believes rainwater capture should and will play a key role in any sustainable water solution.

“The problem with Elmer Avenue is that it really, really was too expensive to do widely,” Pincetl said. She instead proposes that new and existing buildings in Los Angeles be retrofitted as “low-impact” sites so as to include technologies to filter rain into the ground instead of into the flood control system that pumps water into the sea. 

“Find opportunities on all properties to infiltrate rainwater,” Pincetl said. “That is the future if, in fact, we are serious about water conservation and using the precious resources that we have.”

Los Angeles, Pincetl added, was built “when we thought we could import as much water as we needed.” And at a time at the beginning of the 20th century, when transporting water was cheap and the sources were plentiful, why not? “There was no idea of conservation,” she said.

Conservation, rainwater capture, wastewater (i.e. sewage) recycling — all of it will play some role in L.A.’s water fix, and all of it already has been used to some extent as far away as Australia and as near as Orange County.

One small and logistically simple part of the water solution would be the use of rainwater cisterns, which can be hooked up and retrofitted to a home’s gutter. Coastal cities in Australia that have climates similar to Los Angeles’ are now models for this simple means of water conservation. There, residents consume only about 60 gallons of municipal water per day, compared to the approximately 150 gallons per day used by the average home Los Angeles. 

In South East Queensland, for example, homes without rain cisterns used 135 gallons of municipal water per day compared to 101 gallons in homes with cisterns, a 12,000-gallon difference over the course of the year, for just one home.

Just to the south of Los Angeles, Orange County has developed its own water solution, a $481 million wastewater purification — “toilet to tap” — plant that uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light to purify 70 million gallons of recycled water every day, providing enough water for about 100,000 people’s daily use. 

Michael Marcus, Orange County Water District’s general manager, said his county is able to meet 72 percent of its water needs from its groundwater basin, one-third of which is filled up by purified wastewater. 

As a result, Marcus said, Orange County purchases most of the rest of its water from the municipal water district, a stark contrast to Los Angeles’ 90 percent reliance on imported water. “If we didn’t have that,” Marcus added. “We’d be in very, very desperate shape.” In terms of cost, Orange County spends about $500 per acre-foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons, when factoring the nearly $100 million in grants it received to construct the purification plant. But even removing those grants, the county is spending about $850 per acre-foot, Marcus said, still less than the $900 to $1,000 charged by MWD in Los Angeles for its imported water. 

“The [cost] lines have crossed,” Marcus said, referring to the fact that as the water supply shrinks and its price rises, previously expensive-looking solutions like water recycling and rainwater capture suddenly make more financial sense. 

Los Angeles already has embarked on a wastewater purification experiment —the West Basin Municipal Water District in L.A. provides purified wastewater to 17 coastal cities in the county.

David Nahai, who formerly served from 2007 to 2009 as CEO of LADWP and is now a consultant on water technology and renewable energy, makes the point that imported water “ain’t cheap and it ain’t unlimited.” As a result, the Orange County solution and the TreePeople solution today should appear more affordable in light of the inevitable future costs of maintaining a system that so heavily relies on imported water.

Of course, relying on rain provides its own uncertainty, namely, how much rain actually falls. “It’s part of the solution. It’s not the solution,” said Mark Gold, acting director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “It’s got to be in conjunction with recycled water.”

“It isn’t going to be cheap,” he said, “but you’ve got to look at it in the context of the cost of importing water.

“It’s going to cost billions of dollars one way or the other, so the question before us is how much of that is going to be based on improving water infrastructure from imported water supply, and how much is going to be from modernizing infrastructure from our local water supply?”

A plan that saves water and saves money would also help fund badly needed maintenance of the city’s water transportation infrastructure — LADWP is tasked with replacing main water lines only once every 300 years. Although reducing the wait time to once every 100 years would cost about $4 billion, one cost of not having the money to make needed repairs was made apparent in July when a 90-year-old water main near UCLA burst and flooded Sunset Boulevard and the campus with upward of 20 million gallons of water.

100 agencies to do nature’s work

UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities is in the process of analyzing Los Angeles County’s system of water importation, production, distribution and governance. It already has counted more than 100 government and private entities currently involved in slicing up the water pie.

Any new or modernized water structure, no matter how efficient or intelligent, undoubtedly will involve bureaucracy, some reliance on far-off sources and will also still need to involve a flood control system that pumps some rainwater into the ocean. 

But, as Lipkis suggests, the bureaucracy may not have to be so large. 

In Los Angeles, the current inefficient water delivery system means the water that flows out of your tap may have arrived from multiple sources, because so many government agencies are involved in moving it through deserts and over mountains to get to your home, while also making sure that it is safe to use.

When rain falls, for example, around the town of Green River, Wyo., 830 miles from Los Angeles, it seeps into a watershed basin, flows into the Green River, which feeds the Colorado River, which flows southwest through Utah and Arizona before reaching the intake point of the Colorado River Aqueduct north of Parker Dam that is operated by the MWD.

It is at that point that MWD must pump the water 280 miles from the aqueduct to Los Angeles, a major technological challenge. A 2011 Los Angeles Times story described the enormous amount of electricity required at just one of the five pumping plants along the route: On a single November day in 2011, the Julian Hinds Pumping Plant, east of Indio, had to propel more than 6 million tons of water over a 441-foot-high mountain. It took six 12,500-horsepower electric motors to get the water to a Riverside County reservoir.

And that’s just the water that feeds Los Angeles from the east. Another source is rain that falls in the northern Sierra Nevada, which finds its way to the 1.1 trillion-gallon-capacity Lake Oroville Reservoir, then must travel 450 miles to get to Los Angeles. 

Flowing downhill and emptying eventually into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (one of three of L.A.’s import sources), the California Aqueduct then ferries the water south in huge snaking pipes across the flat Central Valley and over the Grapevine, side by side with the notoriously steep run of the I-5 freeway. 

Pumping water from the Chrisman Pumping Plant over those mountains requires 44,000-horsepower pumps.

At the Edmonston Pumping Plant 14 miles away at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains (84 miles north of downtown L.A.), an official with the California Department of Water Resources told a Capital Public Radio reporter in an October 2013 interview that it takes 14 pumps to push water the 2,000 feet over the mountain. 

More power still is needed to transport the water to reach homes and businesses in Los Angeles, and MWD is not in the business of retail sales — that’s where LADWP comes in. As the largest municipal utility in the nation, LADWP purchased more than 126 billion gallons of drinkable water in fiscal year 2013, and 145 billion gallons this fiscal year, for $280 million and about $300 million, respectively, from MWD’s pumped-in water. Last fiscal year, LADWP sold 179 billion gallons of water for more than $1 billion to homes, apartments, businesses and factories throughout Los Angeles, almost all of which eventually became sewage treated for solid waste and piped into the Los Angeles River, Los Angeles Harbor, Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific Ocean. 

In its 2010 Urban Water Management Plan — which is updated every five years as required by state law — LADWP acknowledged the city’s deficient rainwater-capture infrastructure, noting current facilities “are inadequate for capturing runoff during very wet years.” The agency laid out an ambitious $251 million rainwater-capture program in collaboration with the Department of Public Works that it aims to complete by 2018. Although the report and its suggestions do not carry the force of law, it serves as a “master plan” and guidebook for agencies involved in water use and water supply.

The plan calls for doubling Los Angeles’ current rain-capture capabilities to about 40 percent of rainfall, up from the current 20 percent.

Furthering the costs, and the waste, is the problem of flooding by undirected rainfall. L.A. County’s Flood Control District has the herculean task of minimizing flooding by using a massive system of 14 dams and reservoirs, 487 miles of canals and 2,900 miles of underground drains to make sure that the majority of the rain that doesn’t feed into the ground makes it to the ocean.

It is difficult to get an exact figure on how much this gargantuan system costs on an annual basis, but the Department of Public Works’ budget for fiscal year 2014-15 is more than $2 billion, with its “water resources” service area making up 44 percent of that, or about $661 million.

On the enforcement side, California’s and L.A.’s water shortage have led to irksome water-use restrictions, fines of up to $500 for wasting water, #droughtshaming Twitter hashtags used by citizen water tattlers and “water cops,” LADWP inspectors who hand out warning letters and who have the authority to levy fines.

When nature isn’t allowed to do its work, as Lipkis said, government fills in.

Cast against this seemingly endless list of departments and agencies that bring water to our taps and keep it out of our streets, schools and yards is the tree, simple in its appearance but complex and vital in its function.

Lipkis likes to cite two events when discussing rain — he mentioned them both during the interview and in a follow-up email. In 2013, although only 3.6 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles, that rain would have generated 29 billion gallons of fresh, drinkable water — enough to give 6,500 gallons to all of this city’s 4 million residents “had it been captured in cisterns, swales and aquifer recharge facilities,” Lipkis said. “It wasn’t, but could have been.”

When just 4 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles in late February, TreePeople’s underground cistern collected 81,000 gallons of water. And that water was on hand one particularly hot summer day, when an L.A. fire engine came to Coldwater Canyon Park, red lights flashing, tasked with finding water that could be used by fire helicopters in the event that the local (imported) water supply was disrupted.

Pulling up to the cul-de-sac where TreePeople has a massive underground water cistern, the fire engine stopped, and a firefighter asked Lipkis for his help. The firefighter said words that, unless changes come about, all too many residents and government officials across the city also could be saying soon:  

“We heard you had water.”


For the Record:

Oct. 20: This article has been changed to reflect that David Nahai served as CEO of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from 2007 to 2009; an earlier version said he “briefly served as CEO of LADWP.”

TreePeople Gets $50,000 for Reforestation

TreePeople, the environmental nonprofit committed to greening Los Angeles with trees, received a $50,000 donation on Feb. 24 from the Sempra Energy Foundation for reforestation efforts in the San Bernardino Mountains. TreePeople plans to restore more than 185,000 acres that were damaged by wildfires in 2003 and 2007.

Get it done

About 15 years ago some stick-like things began appearing on the hard, ugly stretch of Venice Boulevard from where it crosses Lincoln and continues to the beach.

The sticks were trees, but pitifully thin, with trunks a woman could wrap her fingers around and no more than a handful of leaves. Cynical locals like myself were certain the trees would end up stolen, vandalized or turned into a homeless person’s campfire.

I wasn’t alone in wondering what hapless fool saw four barren lanes of L.A. asphalt and imagined a tree-shaded boulevard.

Then I met Jim Murez.

He and Melanie and their two kids were members of Mishkon Tephilo, the Venice congregation my wife was leading back then.

No one could tell me for sure what Jim did, but rumor had it he had something to do with the appearance of the sticks.

And it wasn’t until three weeks ago, a few days before the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, that I heard the whole story.

Murez, 55, created and manages the Venice Farmers’ Market, held each Friday morning by the public library. I cornered him there and made him tell me.

Like most tree stories in Los Angeles, it begins with Andy Lipkis, the founder of TreePeople, who was also a high school classmate of Murez.

“Andy came to the market one day and told me, ‘Did you know you could get a half a million dollars to plant trees?'” Murez said as we stood by the itinerant latte vendor (this is the Venice Farmers’ Market, after all). It was 1992. Assemblyman Richard Katz had sponsored AB 471, which provided funds for the “environmental mitigation” following the widening of the boulevard, and the funds were sitting around unused.

In two weeks Murez wrote a 60-page proposal for his community group, the Venice Action Committee. Six months later he received $492,000 to plant 1,400 trees along Venice Boulevard and in the surrounding neighborhoods, including three parks and five schools.

Murez chose indigenous varieties, mostly California sycamores. The idea was to conserve water and create a dramatic shady canopy for the wide street. He resisted a professional landscaper’s idea to line the street, Hollywood-style, with palm trees.

“Telephone poles with grass skirts,” he calls them.

The trees arrived, barely 1.5 inches in diameter and no taller than the curly headed Murez, who stands about 6-foot-1.

Murez turned to a Youth at Risk city-funded jobs programs to provide much of the planting labor, and local residents and school groups pitched in.

“Everybody was pleased something had happened,” Murez recalled.

But few expected the trees to last. And again, they wouldn’t have, unless some hapless fool hadn’t spent his free time pulling a 400-gallon water tank behind his one-ton pickup. That would be Murez.

The city only guaranteed irrigation until 1999. After that, Murez took up the task. It took him a full day each week.

Over the years, Murez wet-nursed the trees. He wasn’t Johnny Appleseed, spraying out seeds and hoping they’d take. He wasn’t ElzÃ(c)ard Bouffier, the character in the Jean Giono story who turns a barren valley into an oak woodland by spreading acorns far and wide. Murez did what he did by sticking by his dream He cajoled the local government bureaucracy. The city, for instance, was supposed to contribute water, but never installed meters for the irrigation. So Murez got the bill, which was in the thousands, and he had to fight.

“People told the city, ‘You can’t bill this guy for watering your trees,'” Murez said.

He persevered, involving his neighbors, leveraging state and local funds, and standing up to the ravages of urban life.

“Basically, I have to make sure the trees don’t get chopped down,” he said. He still calls the city to intervene when a homeowner wrongly prunes a tree: “You don’t top a big tree, you clip from the bottom,” he said.

And the trees are big. Now almost 15 years old, the sycamores top out at 30 feet with thick, sturdy trunks. Their spreading canopies and wide, palmate leaves filter the sunlight and create an archway to the sea. In spring, when the sycamores leaf out in bright green, the drive down Venice is as breathtaking as the ocean itself.

Yes, Tu B’Shevat passed a while ago — the natural time to write about Jim Murez. But a big primary election is a more recent memory — a time when we chose a man or woman to lead us, to do the things we believe we can’t do ourselves, to be, in the overused parlance of Campaign ’08, the candidate of change.

Then comes Jim Murez, to remind us that, in the end, we’re our own best agents of change.

All of which doesn’t answer my original question: What does Jim Murez do?

I asked him, finally.

“I guess you could say I’m a computer consultant,” he said. “I patented the first portable computer in the mid-70s. But that’s not what I do. I’ve spent 20 years running the Venice Farmer’s Market, but …” Murez’s voice trailed off, unhappy with any one answer. “I just do stuff,” he said finally. “I’m a doer.”

Take Tu B’Shevat to heart and start healing nature

These are the times for which Tu B’Shevat was created. The rabbis who envisioned this holiday were prophetic: They knew we would need to be reminded on a regular basis about howimportant trees are to our lives. And trees have never been more important to our survival than they are today.

Trees heal and protect us. They are our planet’s life support system. In our collective ignorance, we’ve unwittingly done so much damage to the natural systems upon which our lives depend that their ability to support us has been severely compromised. Climate change is just one consequence unfolding today.

So what do trees do? Most of us know they produce oxygen and take in carbon dioxide. Less obvious is the crucial role trees and forests play in moderating climate, preventing floods, filtering water pollution, ensuring water supply, lowering energy demands and preventing skin cancer.

Trees don’t ask for anything as they perform these services. As a result, humans forget how important they are. When we forget or no longer understand our need for trees and forests, we also neglect the need to plant, nurture and protect them. The result? Havoc.

Throughout history, as civilizations have forgotten and allowed forests to be destroyed, they’ve perished. It’s a fairly simple cycle. When trees and forests are cut down, they are replaced with deserts. Floods, erosion, desertification, drought and famine replace fertile soil, abundance and stability. Our rabbis knew this. People forget.

Today, climate change provides an urgent reminder of the connections between trees and life support. At the most basic level, more trees equals more carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.

But in Los Angeles, trees do much more. As trees shade asphalt surfaces, they reduce overall urban temperatures. Properly planted trees can reduce the “urban heat island effect” by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. As trees shade buildings, they reduce our need for air conditioning. One mature tree located for maximum shade can reduce a homeowner’s energy bills by as much as 10 percent.

Perhaps even more important is trees’ potential for reducing what is the largest single use of electricity in the state of California — the 20 percent of our state’s energy required to run the pumps that bring water to Los Angeles.

But don’t Los Angeles’ trees use this water? To some extent they do. But over their lifetime, if appropriately planted and cared for, trees can provide amazing water conservation services. Essentially, trees recharge our groundwater. Think of them as nature’s sponges.

Imagine a typical L.A. winter rainstorm. First picture the water as it hits our typical cityscape of driveways, parking lots and streets. The drops hit the ground and quickly surge, picking up toxins and trash and washing through storm drains into the sea, polluting, wasting and costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in water and flood control costs.

Now picture this rainwater as it lands on a tree. Imagine a healthy, mature tree — one surrounded by mulched earth. Here the rain’s fall is broken as it hits the canopy of leaves, where it is softened and slowed down. From there, the water drips gradually into the ground, cleaned and filtered through the soil as it goes.

A very large, mature oak tree (with a 100-foot diameter canopy) in a deeply mulched setting can retain as much as 57,000 gallons of water — two swimming pools’ worth — over an average year. That’s water that, if allowed to soak into our local aquifer, could help replace the water we transport (with fossil fuels) from the Colorado River and other distant sources.

What I’ve just described is the forest’s natural water cycle — it’s what operated in our region before we came along and in our ignorance, disregarded, overpaved and broke it. At TreePeople, the organization I’ve led for more than 34 years, our dream is to restore this cycle and in the process heal our city and make it sustainable.

How do we do that? We are working with volunteers from communities across the county to literally break up the concrete and asphalt and put the forest back in place. We are educating people about all the things that a forest can do and engaging them to bring those natural cycles back.

Clearly we have a big job. At one time, Los Angeles was a lovely, natural ecosystem. Now the city is two-thirds paved.

We have become one of the most unsustainable urban areas on the planet. But we can turn that around. And it can start with you this Tu B’Shevat if we take Tu B’Shevat to heart and engage in stewardship and healing of nature, so that nature can heal and protect us.

Everyone can play a role in this healing. You can plant trees in your home landscape, schoolyards, streets and parking lots. You can do this as an individual, a family, a congregation, business or club. You can plant fruit trees with low-income families to help increase their access to nutrition. You can work with your neighbors to green and beautify your neighborhoods and restore your connection with community.

You can also be an advocate for sufficient county and city funding to ensure that public trees are properly cared for.

To successfully do this healing work requires learning the tree lessons we’ve forgotten and adding new skills of community engagement to ensure the new trees can both survive and thrive.

TreePeople can be a resource. We provide training, tools, resources and volunteers to help people bring green to schools, streets, parks and damaged natural areas.

These truly are the times Tu B’Shevat was created for. To honor the deepest intent of the holiday, consider making a deeper commitment to trees and the environment. Consider making it a priority to heal and restore our natural systems all year round. In the balance is a chance to repair the significant damage we’ve done, and a chance to be a healing force that benefits us all.

Andy Lipkis is the founder of TreePeople.

The city branches into the Tu B’Shevat business to make L.A. naturally beautiful

Kiwi didn’t look good. The branches of the 2-year-old African tulip tree were spindly, its leaves sparse and brittle, ready to snap off.

“I think Kiwi hasn’t gotten enough water and rich soil to survive. Or maybe it’s frozen from the cold,” said Alana Billik, 9, as she and her brother Jeremy, 6, poured water around the tree’s base. They did the same for Miranda, another African tulip next to Kiwi.

“A year ago both were doing fine, with flowers underneath,” said Jeremy, remembering their last visit with the two trees.

Two years ago, the Billik children, along with their parents Shelley and Brad, came from Encino to Venice on a rainy Sunday morning to plant trees in one corner of Glen Alla Park, a small urban tract near the intersection of Culver City Boulevard and the Marina Freeway.

It was the annual planting for Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, sponsored by local nonprofit environmental organizations TreePeople and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (CoejlSC). Along with about 50 other parents and children, they had dug, planted, staked, mulched and even named approximately 60 trees.

“This goes to show that you have to select the right species for an area and plan for long-term care,” said Shelley Billik, noting that the oak trees planted that same day were now thriving.

Trees are serious business.

This is not news to the Jews. As far back as the first century, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai advised, “If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the Messiah is here!’ first finish planting the tree and then go greet the Messiah.”

Those words still echo loudly 2,000 years later as we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, a holiday with no prescribed mitzvot, that originally marked the start of the fiscal year for Israel’s farmers. Today, this minor feast day has been transformed into a Jewish Earth Day that celebrates our vital and visceral connection to the land. It has become a time to reflect on and renew our imperiled environment and to remind ourselves that we are God’s partner in creation.

This year, as Jews living in Los Angeles, we are teaming up not only with God but also with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has launched an ambitious drive to plant 1 million new trees in Los Angeles neighborhoods, schoolyards and parks, on both public and private properties, over the next several years.

His Million Tree Initiative kicked off Sept. 30, spearheaded by the Department of Public Works in conjunction with various nonprofit groups. Its goal is to make Los Angeles the “largest, cleanest and greenest” city in the United States.

On Feb. 4, Lisa Lainer Fagan will be doing her part. The Encino resident is bringing not only her family, but also her entire “Living a Jewish Life” Havurah from Valley Beth Shalom — 10 adults and 27 kids ages 2 to 11 — to a combined Tu B’Shevat/Million Tree planting sponsored by TreePeople, CoejlSC and the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

The group has previously conducted Tu B’Shevat seders, a tradition originated by the 16th century kabbalists in Tsfat that incorporates eating various foods from the land of Israel, but this year they decided to get their hands dirty, literally, planting trees.

“It’s different when you go out into the real world,” Fagan said.

For Fagan’s group and for volunteers from Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple, Nashuva and USC Hillel — an expected total of about 200 people — the “real world” this Tu B’Shevat will be Runyon Canyon Park, a 130-acre “urban wilderness” located two blocks north of Hollywood Boulevard, west of the 101 Hollywood Freeway and extending north to Mulholland Drive.

“It needs rehabilitation,” TreePeople’s Forestry Director Jim Summers said.

He pointed out that Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which selects the sites, has already organized plantings in Harbor City’s Harbor Regional Park and Lake View Terrace’s Hansen Dam Recreation Area and is now concentrating on the city’s center. This planting will put 300 1-gallon native California oaks and sycamores in the park.

“Tons of work goes into these plantings,” said CoejlSC co-founder Lee Wallach, explaining that not only does the location have to be carefully chosen but so does the type of tree and the exact spot where each one is to be planted. It’s putting “the right tree in the right place,” as environmentalists like to emphasize.

Volunteers for the Feb. 4 event are requested to commit for the entire four hours, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., to give them ample time to learn, plant and participate in the accompanying ceremonies — and still arrive home before the 3 p.m. Super Bowl kickoff.

“We’re asking people not to just go and plop a tree in the ground. We’re asking people to take time and think about what they’re doing,” Wallach said.

The Tu B’Shevat planting, like all plantings facilitated by CoejlSC and TreePeople, begins with 20 minutes of training. Volunteers are supplied with gloves and other necessary equipment, including digging tools to loosen the soil and dibble sticks to compact the soil after the holes have been dug.

They’re taught safety, such as holding the shovel down and not slinging it over their shoulders like one of the Seven Dwarfs. They’re taught to roll their tree out of the container and gently massage its roots to loosen them up. And they’re instructed how to build a berm, or circular ridge, around the tree and fill it with mulch to hold in water.

In many plantings, including this one, they’ll also be taught to set their tree inside a specially constructed chicken wire cage, positioning it two inches above the ground, to prevent gophers from eating the roots.

But for TreePeople and CoejlSC, the object isn’t just to plant a tree; it’s also to connect people personally and spiritually to their tree and to make them aware of nature’s splendor and its fragility.

PBS: ‘Los Angeles — Dream of A Different City’

Sick of traffic? Sick of smog? Sick of urban sprawl?

Don’t just complain about it. See what’s being done to change it.
On Jan. 11, KCET will air a Los Angeles-focused segment of its acclaimed series “Edens Lost & Found.”

This one-hour installment of the multipart series titled, “Los Angeles: Dream a Different City,” will focus on community leaders and groups in the greater L.A. area who are finding solutions to what a century of almost unchecked growth has wrought on our landscape and our lives.

The segment begins with host Jimmy Smits providing a quick overview of a familiar litany of problems besetting Los Angeles. There are traffic-choked interchanges, vast tracts of unchecked development, a trickle of water to slake a thirsty city and brownish air.

“If Southern California can solve these problems, there just might be hope for the rest of the world,” Smits says.

Producer and director Harry Wiland and Dale Bell track down the people and groups who have found ways to confront these problems. To watch the documentary is to find much reason for hope:

  • TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis, who talks of discovering the importance of trees during summers at a Jewish camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, shows how urban forestry and water recovery projects throughout the city can provide shade, lower electricity usage and replenish groundwater.

    The 35-year campaign has gained powerful allies. TreePeople’s main on-screen advocate is L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose first act as mayor was to plant a tree. And County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says of the groundwater recovery efforts, “If it works it will revolutionize the way we do flood control.”

  • Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River and Melanie Winter of The River Project show how the battle to re-green the 58-mile cement ditch will reshape the city.
  • Darrell Clarke and Presley Burroughs of Friends 4 Expo Transit speaks of his 21-year struggle to get a light-rail line from downtown to the beach.

“It’s a ladder for upward mobility,” Burroughs says.

That last theme is crucial to the filmmakers. A good amount of the program looks at how economically depressed areas in Boyle Heights, the north San Fernando Valley and El Monte benefit from re-connecting and fighting for Los Angeles’ environment. “Improving L.A.’s natural environment,” says the mayor on screen, “will improve families and the economy.”

“Eden’s Lost and Found” is part of a series that also looks at innovative solutions in Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and other American cities. A companion book and DVD provide ample information for would-be activists.

Wiland, a Venice resident and Jewish activist, sees the effort as part of a larger educational and social campaign. “We want everyone to be involved in dreaming a different city,” he said.


A Sense of Israel

The Israel Ministry booth opened with a special ribbon-cutting ceremony with Israel’s top ministers and Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz. More than 100 people gathered to watch at the 75th annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly as the ministers cut the ribbon and welcomed visitors into the Israel booth.
The interactive booth stimulated the senses, as videos and music of the country were played. Views of Israel adorned the walls, and guests were invited to taste the country’s celebrated chocolates, wine and cheese.

High Marks to TENS

On a recent Sunday, TENS, Temple Emanuel’s New Sisterhood members and their spouses laced up their sneakers for a great cause. Team TENS joined more than 1,000 participants at the starting line for the second annual Run for Her to raise much needed funds for ovarian cancer research, as well as to raise awareness for the deadly disease.

TENS co-founders Johanna Besterman, Lisa Rosenblatt and Sydnie Suskind welcomed the sisterhood sponsors and said, “Ovarian cancer is an important issue that women need to understand better. TENS is all about educating and empowering women.”

“I’m thrilled that Team TENS raised $4,000 for a cause that touches so many of us in so many ways,” said Suskind, who explained the event was a personal issue, because she was walking in memory of her grandmother, who died of ovarian cancer.

Other TENS members who participated in the event included team organizer Beth Lieberman, Sydney Turk Porter, Nessa Weinman, Bonnie Gottlieb, Lynda Barrad and Temple Emanuel President Sue Brucker.

Brucker was joined by her husband, Beverly Hills City Councilman Barry Brucker, in walking to honor his sister, Linda Dreyfuss, a 10-year ovarian cancer survivor. Brucker’s other sister, Michelle Millstone, and niece, Anna Millstone, flew in from Tucson to participate with Team TENS.

Also joining the lineup were Cantor Yonah Kliger, Noa Kliger and Steve Bell.
Each year, nearly 70,000 women die from gynecologic and breast cancers. Run for Her was created to promote greater awareness of ovarian cancer. Proceeds benefit the Cedars-Sinai Women’s Cancer Research Institute, part of the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Stand for Healthy Hearts

United Hostesses’ Charities (UHC) proved once again that everyone loves a good party when they hosted their 64th annual Dinner Dance at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. The charity donates the proceeds of the evening to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center United Hostesses’ Charities Cardiac/Stroke Emergency Care in the emergency department division of cardiology and the groundbreaking research of Dr. Prediman K. Shah.

The evening was highlighted by the presentation to of the United Hostesses’ Humanitarian Award 2006 to Shah and a wild and outrageous performance by The Village People.

UHC Vice President Sheryl Weissberg co-chaired the dinner Barbara Price. UHC president Marilyn Gilfenbain’s presence in the planning and execution of the affair could be distinctly felt.

Seen enjoying the revelry of the evening and bouncing on the dance floor to the strains of “Macho Man” were UHC supporters Lillian and Stuart Raffel, Nancy and Bernie Nebenzahl, Michelle and Allan Kaye, Nancy Kipper, Claudia Resnikoff and Karen Kay Platt.

TreePeople Spreads Love

It was a night to celebrate the tree huggers at TreePeople’s annual gala fundraiser, An Evening Under the Harvest Moon. The event honored Mr.-Good-for-anyone’s-environment actor, director, producer Peter Horton for his numerous contributions. The eco-friendly celebration held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire raised over $400,000 to support urban forestry programs.

The event was hosted by long-time environmental supporter Ted Danson and attending were such environmental activists as Jimmy Smits, David Zucker and Treepeople president and founder Andy Lipkis.

Proceeds benefit TreePeople’s forestry, environmental education and sustainability programs in Southern California. The evening included live and silent auctions, music and special guests. Also recognized was the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

“We’re grateful to our friends and supporters who have helped TreePeople make major strides in healing our environment,” Lipkis said. “Together we’re taking action to make Los Angeles a healthier place for all of us.”

The organization, started by teenagers in the 1970s, TreePeople has planted more than 2 million trees in the L.A. area with the help of hardworking volunteers and benefits TreePeople’s forestry, environmental education and sustainability programs in Southern California. The group’s latest project is to help Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his Million Trees LA Initiative.

For more information, call (818) 753-4600 or visit www.treepeople.org.

Q & A With Andy Lipkis

Andy Lipkis is founder and president of TreePeople, a nonprofit agency that has pioneered efforts at urban reforestation and creating a “sustainable city.” Documentarian Harry Wiland sat with Lipkis to talk about the impact of the Southern California wildfires and our possible responses to them.

Jewish Journal: Are you optimistic about the restoration of the forests that have been destroyed?

Andy Lipkis: It is hard to define at this moment because we are already years behind on restoring what has already been destroyed by past fires. There are also major challenges that we don’t understand — including the effects of global warming. It’s causing changes that may make it impossible to restore the higher altitude pine forests that have, up until now, been native to our region. Native chaparral areas are very good at restoring themselves and don’t really require much action on the part of humans. It is the upper-elevation pine forests that we are most concerned about.

JJ: What practical steps are you and TreePeople taking to begin the healing process?

AL: We have a history of 30 years. This is what I started at Camp JCA Shalom back in 1970 when the forests were dying. Smog weakened the trees and they were being killed off by an infestation of bark beetles. It is the same thing that is happening now. Healthy trees can fight off bark beetles. Weakened trees cannot. L.A. has really cleaned up its act over the past 30 years, but the last four years of drought has had a devastating impact and that has allowed for the infestation of the beetle.

We have just issued a call for volunteers who want to be trained in restoration activities. It’s important to know that it takes three years for trees to be ready for restoration activities. You have to find trees close to the burnt areas. They have to be from the same elevation and microclimate. It takes awhile to get everything coordinated. We have a tree nursery at TreePeople and we will be working with the Forest Service, and others, in an attempt to restore native species in our damaged forests.

There is a lot of controversy about approaches to restoration, from “leave it be” to dramatic intervention. TreePeople proposes an emergency fire symposium to have respected scientists, ecologists, foresters, restoration experts and economists brief all the relevant agencies and organizations to understand the damage and define the scope of needed restoration, coordinated approaches and, hopefully, come up with a consensus for action.

JJ: What are some of the lessons the rest of the country can learn from what happened?

AL: Six months ago we knew this was coming. We worked hard and got Gov. Davis to declare a state of emergency. This is what you have to do to get Washington to act. We saw the impending disaster. But Washington turned us down. What’s the lesson? We are very bad at prevention. FEMA is organized to respond to disasters. So much money could be saved, and so much misery averted, if we could invest a little bit on the front end for prevention. On the back end we are talking about the loss of billions of dollars, and the loss of life and property. And that’s where we are today.

JJ: How does your passion and commitment toward the creation of an integrated resource approach to caring for our ecosystem fit in with what you are trying to do to heal our scarred landscape?

AL: My mission is to inspire people to take personal responsibility for the urban forest, which means for the environment. You can’t do that without information. Events like this serve as a wake-up call. Everyone needs to understand that every single person living in this environment is a manager of the environment. We are mismanaging so much now and we don’t even know it. It’s nobody’s fault, but information can battle ignorance.

JJ: How does your Jewish tradition lend itself to the healing process?

AL: I’ve been trained to respond when people are hurting. Tikkun olam is about healing people and healing the earth. The community is responding to both. It is helping individuals and families get fed, clothed and find a place to live. But this is about more than human pain. We have to help restore the environment in which we live, or there will be even greater human pain. There are 18 million of us living in this ecosystem, depending on its air and watersheds for survival. We need to take physical and political action to make sure we get the resources and people we need to do the healing.

JJ: How does tikkun olam figure in the equation?

AL: It is our directive. The ecosystem we live in, in Southern California, depends on the air we breathe and the water we drink. They are two things that we can’t live without. A change in either will have a profound impact on our lives. It must be protected. Interestingly, the another meaning for tikkun olam is completing the circle. We live in an air cycle and a water cycle. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. The trees in the forest breathe in hydrogen and breathe out oxygen. Each fully grown tree holds thousands of gallons of water. If we don’t have enough trees, the cycle is broken and out of balance. We need to heal that cycle.

JJ: So this is about restoring nature’s balance?

AL: The point is to change the notion that we can control nature. Nature is proving that we cannot. We need to return to partnership.

For more information on TreePeople, including volunteer
and leadership training opportunities, visit