The Army Corps of Engineers would solve our flood-control problems by pouring thousands more tons of ugly concrete. It would build walls up to 10 feet high on the banks of the Los Angeles River and rebuild 27 bridges in the southern 21 miles of the river, to match the height of the walls. All of this just to prevent flooding during a hundred-year storm. There ought to be another way, and there is.
Heal the Bay and Friends of the Los Angeles River, in coalition with other environmental groups, are trying to force the corps to seriously consider an approach to flood control that works with nature, not against it, that is both environmentally and economically more sensible and aesthetically more pleasing. It is an approach that looks to removing concrete where practicable, storing much of the rainwater and expanding parks and other natural places for people and wildlife in the midst of the city.
We don't have a lot of time. The Army corps has projected serious flooding in Long Beach and 10 other communities south of where the Rio Hondo joins the Los Angeles River. Along the northern stretch of the river, the San Fernando Valley has grown much faster than anticipated. Trees, wetlands, ponds and other natural features that once let rain runoff percolate back to the water table are long gone. Only the Sepulveda Basin remains to capture the floods for gradual release over time.
The corps solution is to accommodate the increase in flow with old technology that has always been a temporary stopgap, never a lasting solution. What we ask is that they consider planting trees, replacing as much concrete as possible with permeable surfaces, building parks, bike and hiking trails and new ponds and catchments for water, restoring wetlands and capturing as much water on site as possible.
Heal the Bay is proposing a model land-use ordinance to accomplish this goal, which does not mean bulldozing Burbank and planting a forest in its place. The solutions we propose are friendly, familiar and compatible with urban life. The belts and ribbons of green that we propose would tie communities together instead of separating them as freeways do now.
This holistic approach to storm water management has many benefits beyond protecting homes and businesses from flooding. Trees take up water, but they also take up carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and their shade on our blacktop and buildings reduces the need for air conditioning.
Water now lost to the sea would soak into the ground, replenishing aquifers, or be purified in wetlands providing wildlife habitat in the middle of the city. One example of this is the restoration of Arroyo Seco along the Pasadena Freeway, including removal of some concrete and rehabilitation of wildlife habitat. Parks can be built, or rebuilt, to function as miniatures of the Sepulveda Basin, like the one near the old Pan Pacific Auditorium, which catches and holds water during storms and converts back to a neighborhood park when it dries out. Rivers and streams should be widened, not paved, with parks and trees planted along their banks.
Our city has the smallest amount of park land per capita of any major city in the world. We desperately need more.
Other pieces of this flood-control puzzle include small ponds, cisterns, porous paving and parking lots that direct water runoff into planting areas, not storm drains. The states of Florida and Maryland mandate the use of many such techniques. Phoenix requires business and commercial sites to capture whatever rain falls on them. At Santa Monica's Water Gardens office park, negotiations between the developer and the city produced a design to capture rainwater in ponds that also enhance the project's beauty. Conversations are taking place between Heal the Bay, Los Angeles County and the Treepeople on a redesign of the Coliseum parking lot.
Gaining a fundamental reconsideration of storm-water management will not be easy. Laws as well as long-held attitudes must change. Environmental organizations are coming together on these issues, but can mount a successful campaign only with the support of homeowners and other community groups.
The Army Corps' plans give us a rallying point to force consideration of alternatives that will not only be aesthetically pleasing but also make more sense economically and environmentally. They will cost less, generate more jobs and increase property values.