Brown Acres: Let’s Talk About the Sewers
by Gary Phillips
There’s this guy named Klee Irwin and he’s an herbalist, naturalist kind of huckster. I know about him not because I’ve finally turned the corner on a diet that one day I’m eating freshly steamed broccoli, which I enjoy, and another day eating a chili cheeseburger, which I also like unfortunately. I know of him from his infomercial with his interlocutor Dr. James Chappell (a Ph.D. in holistic nutrition) and their pimping of the mighty Dual Action Cleanse 2. Irwin looks like director John Waters’ stranger cousin, a character Jimmy Fallon would have played when he was on SNL. He is a man on a mission, for he is concerned that our turds aren’t what they could be—and of course how his product will help us crap like a champ. As recounted on the Ridiculous Infomercial Review site, Irwin has noted:
I'll never forget the first time I saw my four-year-old daughter's bowel movement in the toilet. It literally scared me. She wasn't more than 45 pounds, but her bowel movement was about as thick as my wrist and about as long as her arm. And I thought, “Oh my God.” I got scared. I was going to call my wife. I thought, “How could something that big come of something—a little child—that small.” And I thought, I'm six feet tall and I weigh 190 pounds and by proportion to my size compared to hers my bowel movements were very inadequate to say the least.
Having recently had my second colonoscopy, I take the size and length of my bowel movements serious, not Klee Irwin serious, but serious nonetheless. One does need to expunge one’s waste. What I don’t often think about is where the heck does that waste go once I flush the toilet. Good thing then that Anna Sklar was on the job and in 2008 Angel City Press published her book Brown Acres: An Intimate History of the Los Angeles Sewers.
In the book’s initial pages, Sklar observed that a mere 150 years ago, L.A.’s citizenry were using open ditches to dispose of their pesky body waste. Yet 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, she continued, the Babylonians had created a sewer system using retained storm water to flush waste into drains. That in Pakistan in this same time period, drainage systems were located in the streets. Not surprisingly, she further wrote, it was the Romans who built quite the efficient sewerage, as the term goes, system. The aqueduct system their engineers constructed in 510 BC dumped into the Tiber River. There were also “rooms of easement” where senate members and such would sit on latrines and discuss the affairs of the day.
The ongoing struggle in Los Angeles on how to dispose of our sludge is the dominant theme in the book. Like the recently aired Too Big to Fail on HBO, essentially a boardroom drama about capitalism on the brink in 2008, Brown Acres manages to take a technical subject and make it compelling. As you do in fiction, regardless of whether it’s about dog catchers or detectives, it’s about the characters and their peculiarities, and how these traits meld and clash with others, that creates interest. Sklar puts on stage individuals who only city staffers and wonkish readers of insular trade magazines would know about.
For instance there was L.A. native Fred Eaton, elected the City Engineer in 1885, a self-taught engineer. He designed our first extensive sewerage system, and taking his que from the French, designed it so this part would remain separate from the storm system,, given the region’s unpredictable rainfall. He founded the Water and Power Department and with William Mulholland, who once worked for Eaton, they advocated the plan for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, using the water from the Owens Valley. Eaton also became mayor.
While not quite Shakespearian in its magnitude, there was a mighty feud that went on for decades between City Engineer Lloyd Aldrich and Mayor Fletcher Bowron. Aldrich was one of the founders of the Works Projects Administration, and Bowron, a former judge, was a self-styled New Deal Republican, a reform candidate who unseated the corrupt Mayor of L.A., Frank Shaw—Aldrich’s friend. Both men had contempt for the other and each would try to maneuver around his opponent to get their way. Once when Aldrich got the City Council to okay a million dollar sewage charge for repairs, Bowron vetoed the measure because Aldrich hadn’t consulted with his office. Aldrich ran three times unsuccessfully against Bowron in mayoral races.
It took the election of Tom Bradley, against underhanded racist attacks by the incumbent Sam Yorty, to change up the all-white and all-male composition of the Board of Public Works, the overseers of our sewer system. He appointed the first African American, Latino and woman to the board. There’s a hilarious bit Sklar recounts when Bradley was running for governor, and sensitive to his environmental record, and the City was getting blasted by the Environmental Protection Agency for improperly disposing of our waste. Sure enough there was a spill, yet again, at the Hyperion Plant. Bradley wasn’t immediately informed and when he learned about it later, was pissed. Thereafter a “Sani-Gram” was instituted wherein the mayor, his chief assistant and deputy mayor among others would be immediately notified if and when this type of incident occurred again.
What emerges in Brown Acres is a metaphor of the inner workings of any big city and what it takes to make it function on a day-to-day basis. The butting of heads and egos over who had the best ideas—or ideas that work given various restrictions; fights over water reclamation; is sea life harmed or aided by sludge (an ongoing discussion); proponents and opponents of treated sludge for fertilizer; the politics and deals involved in passing sewer bonds (currently a raise by 9% a year for the next five years of the sewer service charge is being discussed by the City); how best to keep sewer pipes from corroding; and who took the blame and who gets the praise for the inevitable and semi-regular breakdowns and spills.
Today, five major sewer lines bring some 375 million gallons per day (MGD) to the Hyperion Plant on the beach. Through this one plant passes the lion’s share of the 450 MGD the residents of the City of Los Angeles produce via more than 6,500 miles of pipelines and pumping stations, the largest wastewater system in the country. That’s a lot of shit. It may not per household always be the length and girth Klee Irwin values, but by golly, it’s shit nonetheless. If there’s any one lesson from Sklar’s book to be learned, you can’t just dump it in the ocean, or bury it in sand or wish it all away. You gotta work hard to get rid of sludge, and be thinking ahead of ways and means to do so in the future.