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Don't Turn the Los Angeles River into a Concrete Jungle

August 11, 1996|Jan Chatten-Brown and Mark Ryavec | Jan Chatten-Brown, an environmental attorney, represents the Friends of the L.A. River.; Mark Ryavec is a member of the board of directors of the American Ocean Campaign

County residents have one last opportunity to transform the Los Angeles River from a concrete storm channel into an urban waterway and recreational playground.

A $300-million plan to top off the river's levees with another four feet of concrete along 21 of its 43 miles has been put on hold. The higher walls would have effectively foreclosed plans for re-greening the river. Unfortunately, the concrete may still pour unless the Board of Supervisors abandons a simplistic approach to flood control.

In response to a lawsuit brought by environmental and community organizations, a Superior Court judge recently ruled that the supervisors did not fully evaluate feasible alternatives before approving a new flood-control project, which includes the elevated walls, in April 1995. Up until the court's ruling, the County Department of Public Works, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, were clinging to a 3,000-year-old Greek and Roman concept of flood control: What's the quickest way to get rainwater to the ocean, period?

Now the board must hold a hearing to consider alternatives submitted by the Friends of the L.A. River. The hearing, which may come as soon as Aug. 20, gives new meaning to the term "watershed event." The supervisors will have to decide whether to pursue a holistic concept of watershed management for the river, or to continue to treat it as little more than an elongated toilet.

For the last seven years, the Department of Public Works has claimed that higher concrete walls are needed because the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was about to release new flood-insurance maps showing that the areas adjacent to the river--an 82-square-mile swatch of Southeast cities, including Long Beach--are at risk to of epic flood. Unless the walls were under construction, the department contended, flood-insurance costs would rise and building restrictions be imposed. But these flood-hazard maps have not been released, and probably won't be for quite some time.

Still, recent flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers strongly suggest that channelization can aggravate the impact of flood waters. Thus, the channelization model should be assessed against the benefits that could flow from other approaches to flood control. For example, many U.S. cities, such as Chicago and San Antonio, have turned their rivers into showpieces, triggering economic revitalization.

Although much of the L.A. River is corseted in concrete, parts of it, such as the Sepulveda Basin, are among the region's most prized recreational areas. Segments with sandy bottoms attract an amazing number of birds and wildlife.

If the river were viewed as a waterway and eco-system, the almost countless possibilities for creating parks, bikeways, walkways, athletic fields, bird and wildlife observation areas, and canoeing and rowing courses would be immediately apparent. These facilities are desperately needed in the park-poor neighborhoods along the river's course.

The watershed approach will reap other benefits, too: more and safer drinking water and less polluted urban runoff. We receive enough annual rainfall to supply a large part of our water needs. But instead of using this water to recharge our aquifers, we channel it to the ocean. At the same time, we import water, at great cost, from other parts of the state.

Although the Regional Water Quality Board has just adopted a storm-water permit requiring the county and municipalities to institute "best management practices" to reduce polluted urban runoff, no one has given serious consideration to creating vegetated, permeable surfaces, like parks and athletic fields, along the river to filter out pollutants and reduce the volume and velocity of polluted storm water. This is surprising, since the Department of Public Works already operates an extensive system of 29 water-spreading grounds along the San Gabriel River. This system annually conserves, on average, 210,000 acre-feet of local storm water, conservatively estimated to be worth $72 million, that otherwise would go to the sea.

In the course of the lawsuit, attorneys for both sides came close to an agreement requiring the county and Army Corps of Engineers to develop a framework for a watershed-management plan. A task force was to examine opportunities for environmental restoration, water conservation, improvements to water quality, storm-water management and runoff control, and potential for new recreational facilities. The settlement would also have made funds available to retain experts who could help craft and cost-out the alternatives.

The settlement also would have included the city of Los Angeles, with its Department of Water and Power, and the Metropolitan Water District on the task force, bringing to the table agencies that could--and should--finance elements of a multiuse watershed plan, because one of the benefits would be groundwater recharge. New water supplies, along with the potential for significant increases in property values and redevelopment of some of the most neglected parts of the city, could make the un-paving of the river a financial winner for both the county and city.

At the upcoming hearing, the Board of Supervisors will, by deciding the fate of the Los Angeles River, shape part of our relationship to the natural environment. By stopping the concrete trucks and approving the watershed study and task force, they can help us turn miles of concrete into living, green matter.

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