The Los Angeles River, the urban waterway often besmirched by graffiti, pollution and Hollywood car chases, has finally gotten a break: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped up as its protector.
In an unusual move, the EPA has told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it is stepping into an obscure debate over whether the river and its tributary streams are "traditional navigable waters."
The bureaucratic designation helps determine whether the upper reaches of the river's watershed in the foothills around Los Angeles deserve protection under the federal Clean Water Act.
"It's import for us to protect urban rivers and waterways around the country," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, an EPA assistant administrator for water. "We are stepping up to ensure that the Clean Water Act tools are applied consistently and fairly and we all work together to protect the L.A. River."
Grumbles sent a letter Sunday to the Corps of Engineers, explaining that his agency would make the final determination of what are navigable waters in the L.A. River and in the Santa Cruz River in Arizona.
The issue, he said, has become important since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Clean Water Act protections against pollution would apply to a stream or wetland if it had a "significant nexus" with "traditional navigable waters."
That has been an issue on the L.A. River since a rancher wanted to fill some stream beds in the Santa Susana Mountains north of Chatsworth.
The rancher's request prompted the Corps of Engineers to review the entire river and determine that just a few of its 50-plus miles could be considered navigable.
The Corps' determination would make it easier to develop portions of foothills and mountains that shed water into the L.A. River because developments would not need certain federal permits.
The EPA agrees with the Corps' designation that some of the miles are navigable, Grumbles said. "We think it's important to look at the rest of the river."
He also said the EPA was stepping in to clarify issues raised by the Supreme Court decision and figure out what "navigable" means in the arid West, where rivers typically flow only during wet seasons or when filled with treated water from sewage plants.
Grumbles declined to prejudge a final decision on how much of the river might be considered navigable, and therefore on how much of its 834-square-mile watershed should be protected.
He expected the EPA's review to be completed in coming months.
Environmental groups, which have been critical of the EPA over clean-water rules, view the EPA's move as a hopeful sign.
"The bottom line is that more protection is coming for the L.A. River," said David Beckman, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "It's very good for the city's restoration efforts."