LA Sanitation & Environment Services Leads U.S. In Protecting Biodiversity & Measuring Urban Ecosystem Health

Enrique Zaldivar

With over 1,200 native plant and animal species across 502.7 square miles (468.7 square miles of land and 34.0 square miles of water), the City of Los Angeles is one of three Global Biodiversity Hotspots in the US. TPR spoke with LA Sanitation and Environment Director and General Manager Enrique Zaldivar and Assistant General Manager Dr. Mas Dojiri about the challenges facing biodiversity globally and, as the city agency charged with protection of the environment and public health, LA SAN’s work to create a Biodiversity Index to quantify the vitality of the diverse urban ecosystems in Los Angeles and measure the impact of clean water and environmental protection efforts.

Begin by sharing how LA Sanitation and Environment is responding to Mayor Garcetti’s  Sustainable City pLAn and the New Green Deal – specifically, how its new biodiversity index will measure all the City’s environmental protection efforts.

GM. Enrique Zaldivar: From the time Councilmember Paul Koretz introduced the idea in Council to when the mayor's office embraced using biodiversity as an indicator for the environmental health of the city as an ecosystem, biodiversity has come to mean something very essential to us.

Biodiversity is a true denominator of many, if not all, of LASAN’s efforts because in the end, the protection of the environment and public health should be reflected by the health of the ecosystem and biodiversity in an urban environment.

What we want to develop is a baseline from which we can measure the progress of all of our environmental protection efforts that we have made as a department and as a city. 

For the benefit of our readers, how critically important to LASAN’s mission is measuring and protecting biodiversity?

Dr. Mas Dojiri: If you look at the global situation, the United Nations just came out with a report that said within the next few decades—not centuries, in less than 100 years—1 million plant and animal species will go extinct, completely gone from the face of the earth. In the last 50 years, North America has lost 3 billion birds. Since 1970, we have lost 50 percent of our plant and animal species globally. If you look at the newspaper reports in Australia, they estimate that they’re going to lose half a billion animals to those fires (updated recently to one billion animals).

 A recent article found that globally we have lost 90 percent of our pollinating bees. While that number may be inflated, in the US alone, we’ve lost about 40 to 50 percent of our pollinating honeybees. Albert Einstein posited that if we lose pollinating bees, humans—7 billion people—will have four years before we all starve to death. That is how critical biodiversity is. These statistics really surprised me and upset me to be honest, and made me realize how extremely important biodiversity really is.

In the year 2100, ocean acidification— the forgotten stepchild of climate change—may have wiped out all the hard-shell mollusks—abalone, oysters, clams, scallops, mussels— because the water will be too acidic for them to develop hard shells. By 2050, there may be no commercial fisheries because it won't be economically feasible for commercial fisherman—they'll be so few fish out there. In fact, there'll be more plastics, by mass, than fish in the ocean by 2050; those numbers are alarming.

Urbanization, overpopulation, and continued development—along with pesticides—are adversely impacting the planet’s biodiversity. The fragmentation of quality of habitat with no connection between those fragments is a big problem that we face.

LASAN’s mission includes managing clean water, solid resources, and watershed resources for 4 million Angelenos. Elaborate on the nexus between that important work and biodiversity?

Enrique Zaldivar: The LA River is a perfect example of how the efforts of our Clean Water Program translate to the biodiversity of an ecosystem. Clean water will support flora and fauna in the LA River, enhancing the biodiversity of both native species and, in some cases, naturalized species.

We at LA Sanitation & Environment work to ensure that the LA River has clean and healthy water to support that ecosystem—whether it's our wastewater, which produces all of the recycled water that gives life to the LA River in dry periods, or the stormwater that finds its way to the LA River naturally.

That is the direct nexus—the health of one of the largest ecosystems in our region is a direct reflection of the work we do at LASAN, which is why we measured biodiversity within the City of LA using the Singapore Index first, then eventually developed a LA-specific Biodiversity Index that we will use to measure the health of the urban ecosystem in Los Angeles. On solid resources, our ability to maintain public health with regards to the management of solid waste is critical, but also very important are the conservation of resources and the elimination of waste under Mayor Garcetti’s Zero Waste Initiative—Those also have a direct correlation to biodiversity.

One of our smaller programs—that is perhaps not understood enough—is our Brownfields Remediation Program, which has the incredible potential of reclaiming sites that oftentimes are abandoned and have a negative environmental impact. Our efforts to reclaim the sites and turn them into something beneficial, including open space, watershed management facilities—like stormwater infiltration systems—or features such as wetlands or greenways, come together and directly translates to enhancing biodiversity.

Dr. Dojiri, please unpack this new biodiversity index history for our readers and what the city anticipates learning by developing a customized LA-specific index?

Dr. Mas Dojiri: On May 10th of 2017, Councilmember Paul Koretz put forth a motion to city council calling to maintain or enhance biodiversity within the City of LA.

The City of Los Angeles is one of 36 Biodiversity Hotspot Cities that have been designated worldwide, and one of three—along with Honolulu and Houston—designated in the United States. To be designated a biodiversity hotspot a city must have a lot of endemic species—meaning they’re specific to a particular location and can’t be found anywhere else in the world—which we have a lot here in Los Angeles, and those endemic species need to be threatened, in danger of being extirpated from the region, or going extinct. That part of the designation is not so great.

Complying with the requirements of the motion, we convened a stakeholder group of residents from the greater Los Angeles area interested in listening and finding out why we're designing this program and an interdepartmental stakeholder group consisting of city departments: Bureau of Engineering, the Port of LA, the Planning Department, Rec and Parks, etc. Then, we formed a very important group, the Expert Council, which consists of academics from local universities—USC, UCLA, Loyola Marymount, Cal State LA— the LA County Museum of Natural History scientists, the Nature Conservancy, Friends of the LA River, Heal the Bay, among several others.

We set up a gauntlet and convened the Expert Council at the LA Zoo to measure the biodiversity within the city using what is known as the Singapore Index. It’s a pretty good biodiversity index, but doesn’t fit the City of LA very well.

There were a number of indicators that were challenging to use and others that were really not applicable, because the habitats within the 600 square-mile City of LA vary so much—from really urbanized, built-out areas like South LA, Downtown LA, and the Wilshire corridor to more natural areas like Griffith Park or the Santa Monica and Santa Susana Mountains with a lot of native plants and animals.

But the Singapore Index was a great starting point for us to convene and get a baseline for the biodiversity in the City of LA and for developing a customized LA-specific index. From there, we parceled out somewhere between 17 and 20 ecological subregions that we call ecotopes, in order to make environmental management decisions based on what we need to do in each of these ecological subregions. 

How far along is LASAN in the process of developing this customized index?

Dr. Mas Dojiri: We’ve actually developed the customized LA Biodiversity Index. It has been drafted; we have the Biodiversity Index table, the scoring, and right now we're finalizing it. We want to collect photos of local plants and animals, and we're hoping to actually produce this by the end of March 2020. We're really close as far as the narrative and writeup is concerned, but it's just a matter of putting it together in a reader friendly and aesthetically pleasing booklet.

GM Zaldivar: In closing, is the report, which is expect to be released soon, likely to be a compelling precedent for other urban regions and cities?

Enrique Zaldivar: I know it’s going to have that sort of propagating impact. What has been discussed largely in eclectic, scientific inner circles has now begun—with us and other cities—to be brought into everyday engineering and environmental practices.

We've been great stewards of clean water for sure. Our Japanese Garden is a mecca for the use of recycled water, as well as the creating an incredible opportunity for habitat and biodiversity enhancement. If you go to Lake Machado near San Pedro, it creates clean water, but also this incredible ecotope with a localized biodiversity with greater implications for species like migratory birds.

We’re definitely rich in endemic species, but we're also a great layover for some of the migratory species. For other places around the country, I'm certainly introducing this as a more fundamental indicator of clean water and responsible environmental management. To the extent that one can realize the impact of something so ubiquitous, it has a different impact on every resident.

We have also applied an environmental justice aspect to this because folks who believe in community gardens or growing their own crops definitely need the bees and other pollinators. Folks who grow their own fruit will also benefit similarly from us providing the right environment for bees to thrive, or at least for now, to ensure that they remain vibrant. We know that it's going to have a broader applicability in the water space, solid resources space, and watershed space.

Dr. Mas Dojiri: I certainly agree. We're hoping the LA Biodiversity Index has a ripple effect. If we can increase the biodiversity in the second largest city in the United States, that’s great. But if you look at the entire earth, LA is just a dot; it's so small. I hope we not only increase the biodiversity within the city, but also give a roadmap for other localities to follow in our footsteps.

Last year, I was invited to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to give a presentation on our LA Index and ecotope concept at the Hotspot Cities Symposium. There were probably about 20 international city representatives there.


And just recently, the lead creator of the Singapore Index, Dr. Lena Chang, invited me to give a presentation at the 10th Anniversary of the Singapore Index Workshop in Singapore, with 19 different countries represented. It was the first time in four workshops that the United States was represented. It went really well, and I ended up presenting LASAN Biodiversity Team’s recommendations on how to improve the Singapore Index, so hopefully that ripple effect can propagate.

“Biodiversity is a true denominator of many, if not all, of LA San’s efforts because in the end, the protection of the environment and public health should be reflected by the health of the ecosystem and the biodiversity in an urban environment.” —Enrique Zaldivar