Over a period of several decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers encased the Los Angeles River in concrete to protect the region against the kind of flooding that had surprised and damaged the city in the 1930s — but also, crucially, to withstand the rare but even more torrential floods that were known to sweep across the basin every generation or so. The Army Corps did its job too well, and its top thinkers and planners now acknowledge that flood protection need not mean covering over every bit of natural riverbed.
The point is that the Army Corps has never limited itself to the quickest, easiest and cheapest solution, but has most often focused on the best, given the state of knowledge at the time.
The task facing the engineers now is how best to revitalize an 11-mile stretch of the river known as the Glendale Narrows, and to focus on the desired outcomes: a widened channel and increased wildlife habitat, to be sure, but also better access to the river for Angelenos, in keeping with the project's status as a top priority under the Urban Waters Federal Partnership and the America's Great Outdoors program.
There are several alternatives being considered. An outpouring of support for the comprehensive revitalization plan known as Alternative 20 — support from Angelenos, from elected officials and from environmentalists and recreation advocates — got the attention of Army Corps leaders, who had been leaning toward a minimalist approach known as Alternative 13.
The more comprehensive plan would physically link the waterway with the adjacent neighborhoods, which is the purpose of federal involvement. It would include terracing instead of barriers to connect the restored river to the adjacent communities. It would embrace the still-undeveloped Los Angeles State Historic Park, incorporate an old rail yard in Lincoln Heights and connect with the Verdugo Wash near Glendale.
Alternative 13 is cheap, as such projects go, and it would allow the engineers to tell themselves that, yes, they restored some of the ecosystem that was lost when they began pouring concrete in the first half of the 20th century. But that approach would represent a short-term vision unbefitting the Army Corps' legacy of projects planned at least as much for future generations as for the present. It would keep the river separated from its urban context even as it removes some concrete.
Alternative 20 would be an investment in the future of both the river and the city, which of course are intimately linked. It would be more in keeping with the Army Corps' mission to build things to last.