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Funding for Los Angeles River cleanup in doubt as El Niño begins

As the winter storms of El Niño began to pummel Southern California this week, Los Angeles County officials said federal funding to clean out debris from the Los Angeles River and control flooding has not materialized.

Officials with the county Department of Public Works said Tuesday that they had learned the day before that the Army Corps of Engineers had not received the $4.5 million needed to do maintenance on the river basin in the lead-up to El Niño.

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The county's elected supervisors voted to send a letter to Congress and to the assistant secretary of the Army calling for them to immediately appropriate the funding needed for the area of the river between its Burbank western channel and the 2 Freeway.

“Without this maintenance, this portion of the Los Angeles River will only provide a low level of flood protection, which is especially critical under the current El Niño conditions,” supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl wrote.

But the supervisors also took county staff to task for not alerting them sooner that the funding was in question.

"Right now, we're playing catch-up in the middle of a storm," Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said. "It's that type of lack of planning that I get frustrated with."

Officials with the Los Angeles district of the Army Corps of Engineers said they are still seeking the $4.5 million to complete the priority clean-up projects in the river, but the needs of Los Angeles are in competition with other areas that have already been hit with severe flooding.

“We’re competing against flooding in the state of Missouri, state of Texas and Illinois,” said deputy district engineer David Van Dorpe. “They have flood damages, and we’re trying to make sure we don’t have a bad situation here.”

In the meantime, he said the district had shifted about half a million dollars that would have gone to other maintenance projects to work on clearing portions of the L.A. River basin.

“We’re going to reschedule the work we had planned this year to address the highest-priority items,” he said.

County staff have been doing work to clean out other flood basins and storm drains around the county to control flooding. Public Works Director Gail Farber said they had also closed some mountain roads and bike paths along the rivers.

"We expect road flooding and hazardous driving conditions," she said. 

Sheriff's deputies and outreach workers have also been combing riverbeds for the last few months seeking to persuade homeless people camping there to move into shelters or to other sites ahead of the rain and potential flooding.

Sheriff's officials said Tuesday that they had seen a significant reduction in the number of people camping in the San Gabriel riverbed since the summer.

The supervisors voted last year to extend the county-funded portion of the countywide winter shelter program by two months and to increase the number of beds funded to 861 from 600.

On Tuesday, they also voted to put $2 million toward interim and permanent housing for people living in shelters and on the streets. The supervisors asked that the money go particularly to get homeless women off the streets.

A report by county officials is expected out later this week that will lay out long-term strategies for addressing homelessness and will help county supervisors develop a plan for spending $100 million set aside for the purpose last year.

More than $20 million of that money has already been parceled out ahead of the report's release, but the $2 million approved Tuesday came from a separate pot of discretionary money from Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' district.

Twitter: @sewella

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:25 p.m.: This article updated with information from Army Corps of Engineers officials.

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