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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / Robert A. Jones

New Hope for the Greening of a Concrete River

August 28, 1996|Robert A. Jones

An amazing development has taken place. While no one was looking, the Los Angeles River was given a chance to break free of its concrete walls and flow through the city as a green, living waterway once again. Miracles do happen. The matter will be decided soon by the Board of Supervisors, and the odds are better than you might think.

When we last left the saga of the L.A. River in April, the situation looked gloomy indeed. Responding to a threat of flooding, the county and the Army Corps of Engineers had proposed to spend $300 million entombing the river in more concrete and ever-higher walls. What's more, the supervisors had endorsed the project, giving the back of their hand to any and all who begged for a more natural approach.

In short, it was business as usual. While Chicago, San Antonio and other cities have given new life to their downtowns by restoring their rivers, Los Angeles didn't seem to care. An open sewer was good enough.

Then, the miracle. Actually, it was a series of small miracles. The group known as Friends of the Los Angeles River persuaded Jan Chatten-Brown, one of the city's better-known environmental attorneys, to take up their cause. Earlier this summer, she persuaded a judge that the county had not observed all the niceties in its environmental review of the concrete pouring.

That meant the decision would be returned to the supervisors after the technical corrections were made. Ordinarily, such a victory would have accomplished little more than a chance to see the supervisors rubber-stamp their original decision.

But! In the meantime, the old-boy network of concrete-pourers began to erode. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which had been pressing for a flood control plan and threatening to impose draconian insurance rates on homeowners in the flood plain, suddenly announced that it would take another year to make good on its threats.

That gave the supervisors until mid-1997 to work out a better plan. Then other agency heavyweights began jumping on the river bandwagon. The Los Angeles City Council, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Environmental Protection Agency all promoted a task force to look for new ways to tame the flood hazard and rebuild the river at the same time. Even the Army Corps made noises about new approaches to the river.

So is it time to pop the corks? No. The moment of truth is now scheduled for next Tuesday when the supervisors will face the river question. "We will never have a better chance," said Chatten-Brown. "But it can easily slip away if the supervisors repeat their mistake."

This vote matters so much because of the money involved. Not in our lifetimes, most likely, will $300 million be available for a reworking of the L.A. River. Downstream communities such as Downey are worried, understandably, that any plan other than higher walls might leave them under several feet of water when, or if, the projected 100-year flood arrives.

But as Mark Ryavec, a City Hall lobbyist and one of the river's supporters, has pointed out, the flood problem exists precisely because of the concretizing of the river and its watershed in the San Fernando Valley. If more runoff from storms was absorbed by the watershed in the Valley--as it used to be--the flooding problem downstream would not exist.

So, argues Ryavec, why not solve the problem by building settling basins and a natural river bottom in the Valley area, allowing storm water to drain into aquifers. Not only would such a plan reduce storm runoff, it would increase the city's water supply.

Other possibilities include the coordination of releases from the many dams on the river and its tributaries during storms. One DWP official estimates that as much as 15% of storm runoff could be saved in this fashion.

Of course, all these arguments were made to the supervisors the last time around. The supervisors listened and then voted to pour concrete.

Why should it be different this time? Because something, subtle and undefinable, has changed. Perhaps it's the voices of the L.A. City Council and so many others who are calling for a new day on the river; perhaps it's the tone of doubt in the voices of the concrete-pourers themselves. Perhaps it's a new edge of professionalism among the river supporters. In some way, the momentum has shifted.

The last time, for example, the single dissenting voice on the supervisors was that of Zev Yaroslavsky. This time, Donald Knabe, the aide to Deane Dana who's running for his boss' seat, says that he would have "no problem" urging his boss to vote in favor of an alternative river plan if certain conditions existed. Other supervisors have suggested similar sentiments.

What conditions are those? The supes say they need a formal letter from the FEMA stating the one-year grace period. The original announcement by FEMA came in a letter to Friends of the L.A. River.

Second, the supes say they need a letter from the Army Corps saying the $300-million funding for the project will not be thrown into jeopardy by further study.

Of the two, the first should be easy to satisfy. The second, an assurance from the Corps, already has been made verbally to some participants but not in writing.

Look, this issue will not make or break Los Angeles. But neither is it minor. Cities are made endurable, even lovable, by the accumulation of small graces like a park or a plaza or a stretch of living river in the right place at the right time. Los Angeles, the perennial adolescent city, has never paid much attention to those small graces.

It's time the city--and the county--prove they can do otherwise. Stay tuned.

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