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This Way, L.a

The Los Angeles River is Pointing To a New Future For The Region. The Soulless WaterwayThat Made This a Bigger Place Now Could Make It a Better One.

December 03, 2000|WADE GRAHAM | Wade Graham has written on the environment and science for The New Yorker and Harper's. He is a principal of the L.A. landscape design firm Nicholas/Graham, LLC

Carl Blum was among those huddling under umbrellas outside the bungalow. By several accounts, the then-deputy director of public works had a revelation. "Something happened to Carl that day," says Lipkis--though the epiphany may have been more gradual, helped along by the Department of Public Works having been sued by TreePeople and Friends of the L.A. River to prevent the clearing of growth from the Glendale Narrows, and having watched, in his 36-year career, an ever-growing portion of flood-control dollars being given to "nonstructural," non-concrete projects.

"From an engineering standpoint it can all be done," Blum says. "People say the engineers only know how to do concrete, but that's what society wanted at that point." Now he and the county's engineers are collaborating with TreePeople to find an alternative to a long-delayed, $42-million storm drain the county planned to build in Sun Valley. Using an elaborate computer model developed by the group, the drain will be replaced by a combination of detention basins, cisterns, dry wells and tree planting. An additional tens of millions will be shared by other government agencies looking for gains in air quality, energy, parks, water supply and sanitation.

For its $42-million contribution, the county will not only solve the flooding problem in Sun Valley, but can also keep every drop of a storm that lasts up to four days in that watershed and out of the L.A. River.

How long will it take before the concrete can start to come out of the river? Blum and Lipkis guess 25 to 50 years, depending on how committed Angelenos are and how fast urban renewal proceeds. "We will have to retrofit vast tracts of land to make a difference," admits Lipkis.

Blum says: "A lot of it will be a paradigm shift in people's minds. A lot of education has to take place. Five years ago there was a small handful of people; now you can fill meeting rooms, but there are still 10 million people here, so you have to change the mind set of the citizens who, in turn, influence the politicians. I see us turning the Titanic," he says, then reconsiders. "Not the Titanic, the Queen Mary. It's going to be slow, but eventually you get there."

If it is any consolation to the visionaries, Rome, with its engineered Tiber River, wasn't built in a day. Even the Corps of Engineers needed decades to do its relentless work in Los Angeles.

As for the steelhead, heroic ones continue to turn up in Southern California streams, testing the waters for a possible comeback. There are rumors that a big one was caught a few months ago in Long Beach, nosing from the blue Pacific into the mouth of the L.A. River.

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