Author and researcher Sayd Randle recently posted one of the most in-depth history’s ever written about a California wastewater treatment plant.
How does a cultural anthropologist become interested in sewage and Hyperion – a wastewater treatment plant occasionally featured in major Hollywood movies? Her own story is as fascinating as the one she wrote about Hyperion.
1. Why the interest in Hyperion and why write so passionately about wastewater?
I’m a cultural anthropologist by training, so my goal in studying Hyperion was to get a deeper understanding of the people of Los Angeles. In general, I think large-scale infrastructure is a key site for learning about a culture. Exploring the histories of these material networks, you learn so much about a society’s values, priorities, and self-perception.
Sewer networks and sewage treatment plants represent a huge investment of labor and resources directed towards a particular set of ideas about (and ideals of) safety, cleanliness, and the public good. Learning how the infrastructure developed is also learning how those notions evolved over time.
That said, I stumbled into Hyperion’s story mostly by chance. In the summer of 2012 I was doing some research on Southern California home water use and culture, and a friend invited me along to a Hyperion tour he was organizing. While there, the tour guide talked about the awards the plant had won for design aesthetics, and told some stories all of the movies that had used the the site as a set.
Those anecdotes got me wondering about the other moments that the physical stuff of the plant had become visible to (and politically charged for) the public relying on it. That curiosity led me to Aldous Huxley and Mike Davis and Anna Sklar and Bruce Sharpsteen and the L.A. Times archives. Hyperion’s got a rich history, and it was a lot of fun to dig into.
2. You mention in your story public faith in infrastructure, engineers and regulators has crumbled – have you seen any utilities doing a good job rebuilding public faith?
It’s no secret that providing essential services like water supply and wastewater disposal is a tough gig, especially in terms of public appreciation. When things run smoothly, your well-functioning network fades into the background of peoples’ consciousnesses. But when something goes awry, everyone’s ready to jump down your throat (though, not necessarily to pony up the funds to fix the problem).
But it’s hard to deny that these days, a lot of the critiques of infrastructure in the U.S. are well founded. In many cases, our water and wastewater networks are not serving people well, particularly in low income communities of color. Everyone’s talking about the Flint crisis for exactly these reasons, but California itself has cities and rural communities where poor and working class families struggle to access safe (or sometimes, any) tap water at all – Gardena and East Porterville come immediately to mind.
If utilities want to build public trust, they must show the people that they are doing the work to provide safe, reliable services to all of their constituents. And by “show the people” I’m not talking about good marketing of existing practices – I mean, making meaningful investments in critical infrastructure in historically underserved communities.
Public utilities in the U.S. operate on terrain shaped by an economic system that tends towards inequality. They often struggle to procure adequate funding for their operations, circumstances that circumscribe their ability to function. Even so, it’s tough to credibly deny that infrastructure is often better made and maintained within a given jurisdiction’s wealthier neighborhoods. If utilities want credibility, this needs to change.
I’d call out the [City of] L.A. [Bureau of] Sanitation’s implementation of the 2004 Collection System Settlement Agreement as a pretty good success story in this regard, radically reducing sewer overflows that long plagued neighborhoods like majority-minority South L.A.. Yes, the aggressive work plan was undertaken due to a lawsuit. And yes, it took awhile to complete. But by dramatically improving basic services in an underserved section of the city, the utility displayed the kind of commitment to equity that goes a long way towards building public trust.
Relatedly, I’d also mention the water agencies (including East Bay MUD, City of Beverly Hills) who have publicized the names of their biggest water wasters and doled out excessive use fines. Yes, current laws make these actions tricky.
But based on my extended research in the LA area, I can say with great confidence that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is doing itself no public opinion favors by keeping the identity of the Wet Prince of Bel Air a secret. Agencies must signal to the public that they’re not pawns of their richest constituents, and this kind of action is a powerful symbolic move in that direction.
3. Your history highlights a boom and bust cycle many public infrastructure facilities face – where do you think Los Angeles is heading with their water & wastewater system?
From all I’ve heard and read, the City of L.A. plans to make major investments in all sorts of water infrastructure in the next couple of decades. Completing the San Fernando Valley groundwater cleanup, upgrading the Tujunga and Pacoima spreading grounds, bringing indirect potable reuse on-line up at the Tillman treatment plant – all are big investments that signal an interest in producing more local water supply for municipal use.
These are timely projects. Climate models suggest that key sources of the city’s imported water – like the Sierras – will become far less dependable in the decades to come. None of the upgrades will be cheap, but the city looks well positioned to draw on funds from the 2014 water bond to help move things forward.
To me, what seems more interesting – and potentially more transformative – than new investments in these large-scale, centralized facilities is the turn towards distributed green infrastructure. Read through the LADWP’s Stormwater Capture Master Plan (SCMP) or any of the L.A. region’s Enhanced Watershed Management Plans (EWMPs) and you’ll notice a shift towards smaller scale projects designed to capture stormwater on-site and infiltrate it into the groundwater basin.
The plans call for siting this kind of infrastructure in both public spaces (like parks and city right-of-ways) and private parcels (including home-scale retrofits, like the Water LA program).
This is an approach that excites many technical and activist folks as a solution for the region. It has a completely different spatial logic than most of the water infrastructure we rely on today, and requires different forms of expertise for its design and maintenance. A major investment in these projects could radically change the way that water flows through our cities. And the EWMP and SCMP models suggest these change would bring both better local water quality and new local water supplies.
But the money, man. All the estimates I’ve seen suggest that implementing the EWMPs will cost billions, and the SCMP projects don’t look cheap, either. And at this stage, neither are really funded.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine this infrastructure getting built (let alone maintained) without a steady dedicated funding stream, through something like a new parcel fee… a version of which got shot down before even reaching L.A. County voters back in 2012. So while I think that a move toward green infrastructure could be a promising future for L.A. water management, it’s far from inevitable.
4. What would you like to do next when it comes to water?
I would love to write a piece about wastewater treatment plant operators! Through my research on Hyperion, I learned so much about how politicians and activists understand and represent this kind of infrastructure. But the voices of the people who work in the plant day-to-day and really know its ins and outs are a lot harder to excavate from the historical record.
I think that interviewing and spending time with the professionals who keep the plants running would be fascinating for me, and well worth reading about for the public.
Wow thanks for the interview Sayd! You want to write about us sewer peeps!?!? You’re welcome to visit us California sewer folks any ol’ time.
Thanks Sayd for your passion for clean water and your incredible history of Hyperion. Who wants to be the first wastewater professional profiled by Sayd! Step up and put your name and brief story into the comments field below and we’ll forward the recommendations along.
We mentioned Sayd’s history of Hyperion is a long story about one treatment plant. We should mention some other outstanding books that dive into the world of California wastewater…
- Brown Acres by Anna Skalar (a history of LA’s sewer system mentioned by Sayd above)
- Perfect Storm – The Los Osos Sewer Saga by Barbara Wolcott