Updated: Feb 22
LA County Public Works’ Sterling Klippel guides a team dedicated to flood protection, stormwater capture and water conservation.
Growing up in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Sterling Klippel was a bit of a control freak – of water, that is.
"As a pre-teen, I used to build dams in my backyard with my fleet of toy trucks,” he recalls. “I would turn on the hose, and the water would flow down and fill in and then start spilling over the dam. Then I’d put a little piece of pipe in the dam (to allow water to flow through rather than over the dam). I’d also have a little plunge pool below it, and my trucks would drive around the crest of the project, just like I do today.”
Guiding the Flow
Today, as the principal engineer and assistant head of Los Angeles County Public Works Stormwater Engineering Division, Klippel oversees a flood protection and stormwater capture empire that includes 14 major dams, 27 spreading grounds, 247 debris basins, 3 seawater barriers and more than 500 miles of channels. These resources divert stormwater into spreading grounds to help recharge LA County’s groundwater basins and provide critical flood protection for its communities.
“I've always had a real passion for water and the control of water,” says Klippel. “I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to develop and manage large floodwater infrastructure projects and help maintain a sustainable local water resource for the people of LA County.”
Learning the Power of Water
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Klippel developed his attraction to water and water management during grade school when California was experiencing one of the most severe droughts in its history, circa 1976-77.
“I can remember major campaigns to conserve water here in Los Angeles and I guess they really had an impact on me,” he notes. “They made me realize that water is such a precious resource and that without it, there is no life.”
Water and power were also frequent topics of conversation around the Klippel dinner table. Klippel’s father, a principal utility management assistant with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), was instrumental in the utility’s development of the Castaic Pumped Storage Plant near Pyramid Lake, Calif. in the early 1970s.
Young Klippel got up-close-and-personal looks at the emerging facility––LADWP uses it to help meet demand for electricity late in the day when supplies of solar and wind power energy are waning––during periodic field trips to Castaic Lake with his dad.
Those field trips also became Klippel’s first glimpse of the Los Angeles Aqueduct System––a primary source of water for the City of Los Angeles––and the genesis of his enduring fascination with the water delivery and water management history of LA.
“From a young age, I was keenly interested in how we get our water here in LA using the aqueduct system designed by William Mulholland (chief engineer and early head of the LADWP predecessor organization),” he explains. “His work was truly visionary.”
Putting Education First
Klippel’s curiosity about water and how stuff works followed him to high school––Westchester High, near LAX––where he became a fixture on the honor roll. High school also turned him into a tutor, of sorts.
“During high school and later in college, I would help other students solve (engineering) problems, which ultimately made me understand the technical sides of things even better,” he recalls.
Klippel graduated high school in 1985 and matriculated at nearby California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) where he pursued his interests in water through an undergraduate program in civil engineering.
To help pay for college, he went to work for the City of LA. His first gig was a summer job hand watering greens at the city’s Rancho Park Golf Course. Over the next five years, however, his roles and responsibilities with the city grew, from landscape maintenance and construction to serving as an office engineering technician at LA City Hall. When he became a full-time LA City employee in 1988, he scaled back his college classes to part-time.
In 1991, Klippel went to work for LADWP as an office engineering technician. He prepared technical specifications for fleet vehicles and construction equipment needed for the agency’s water system projects and operations. But he also continued studying civil engineering, graduating CSULB with a bachelor’s degree in 1996.
In 1998, he accepted a position with Los Angeles County Public Works as a civil engineering assistant.
Restoring Reservoir Resiliency
Today, Klippel and his team of more than 100 engineers and technicians focus primarily on improving how LA County controls and manages stormwater, and increasingly, on how it captures and uses stormwater to recharge local groundwater basins.
Much of their work, he claims, revolves around reservoir restoration and ensuring the functional reliability and resiliency county’s dam system. A key subset of that work is sediment management.
“In the context of climate change, we’re seeing more frequent droughts now, which lead to more frequent wildfires in the mountains,” Klippel observes. “When wildfires occur in those watersheds, debris flows down and gets captured behind our major dams and smaller debris dams, effectively "filling in" or decreasing the capacity of our reservoirs."
His team's focus right now, he adds, is cleaning out that accumulated debris to make sure they've got the reservoir capacity to prevent local flooding, while also maintaining their stormwater capture activities.
Stormwater capture is also increasingly key to the LA water supply. Stormwater is channeled into areas known as “spreading grounds” where it percolates down through the soil to an aquifer below. Other water agencies such as LADWP pump the water out of the aquifer, purify it and add it to supplies of local drinking water.
“We’re currently looking at expanding our spreading ground facilities,” advises Klippel. “In recent years, we’ve looked at enlarging our spreading basins, installing new intake structures, and increasing their capacity to draw stormwater out of the channels.”
Current projects include the 150-acre Tujunga Spreading Grounds Enhancement, he adds. It will help increase the recharging of local groundwater basins, which will increase local water supplies and help reduce LA’s dependence on more expensive imported water.
Collaborating with Climate Change
Klippel’s work days begin early in the two-bedroom home in Westchester he shares with his wife.
After a bit of morning exercise, coffee and a bowl of Cheerios, Klippel drives about an hour north to his office at LA County Public Works headquarters in Alhambra, just south of Pasadena. Most days he spends working in the office, often guiding projects that involve collaborations with other agencies such LADWP, California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Teaching it Forward
He also makes it a point to mentor younger members of his staff.
“I really try to empower our young engineers with the idea that the (infrastructure) we’re maintaining was developed in the 1920s and ‘30s when they didn’t have calculators and fancy computers to analyze their work,” he says. “And remarkably, these structures are engineering marvels. When I encourage (our engineers) to put their own stamp on our current and future infrastructure, their eyes get big when they begin to truly grasp the importance of the work we do.”
Balancing Habitat with Community Health
If Klippel is lucky these days, he might get to slip away from the office to check progress on dam restoration projects in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains.
“Every day I go out in the field and see our dams is a wonderful day,” he offers. “There are a lot of animals and natural beauty out there, including currently a nesting pair of bald eagles.”
Seeing those eagles also reminds him of the delicate balance that LA County Works employees work to maintain between the infrastructure they’re developing to ensure a clean, healthy future for the citizens of LA and the natural habitat and wildlife that must co-exist with that infrastructure.
Keeping it Simple
In the end, Klippel observes, his mission and that of LA County Public Works is pretty simple: enhance the quality of life for the people of LA County by providing them with safe, clean, and reliable water.
“We're out here, the work we're doing is important. And don't let anybody tell you otherwise.”
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If you enjoyed reading this story, please check out my profile of David Pettijohn, director of water resources for LA Dept of Water and Power. Pettijohn leads Operation Next, an innovative way to recycle and reuse treated wastewater in Los Angeles, creating another sustainable source of fresh water for the city. If you'd like to suggest other people for me to profile on this blog, please send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.