Ideas for L.A. River Not Set in Concrete : Environment: Return of the waterway to a natural state is backed by critics of water waste. A sandy bottom would help replenish ground water.


Last February's downpours sent more than a year's supply of water for a million people surging down the Los Angeles River and out to sea.

Some of this water would have been saved if the concrete-lined river still had a natural sandy bottom. The water would have soaked through the soil to replenish ground-water supplies that are a crucial hedge against drought.

Instead, the river functioned just as designed--as a massive plumbing system that flushes rainwater quickly to the ocean.

The storms showed how the immense feats of water engineering that have shaped Los Angeles seem to act at cross-purposes. After building massive aqueducts to transport water hundreds of miles from the Sierra, officials thought nothing of wasting the water that falls from the sky.

"This community is in deep doo-doo with respect to its water supply," yet "there's a huge gob of water that goes down the chute . . . every time it rains," said Don Nichols, head of the hydraulic and water conservation division of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

When the Los Angeles River was channelized for flood control beginning in the late 1930s, "the basic principle was get the water to the ocean as fast as possible," said Lewis MacAdams, a co-founder of the environmental group Friends of the Los Angeles River. "Nobody stopped to think that there might be a use for that water."

To MacAdams and other critics, the waste of water was but a seasonal reminder of the irrationality of Los Angeles' flood control system--a system that put a once-attractive river into a concrete tube, destroying opportunities for recreation, wildlife nurture and aesthetic relief.

An increasingly vocal network of environmentalists, politicians, urban planners and community activists is hoping to restore the river to some semblance of its natural state. They want to rip up the concrete and develop wetlands, bike paths, trails and parks along the river, which flows 58 miles from the confluence of Bell and Calabasas creeks in Canoga Park to the sea at Long Beach.

The river should be transformed, in the words of a Sierra Club newsletter, "from a bad joke for Johnny Carson back into a real river."

"I think that the Los Angeles River is a museum piece which reflects old attitudes toward the natural environment in Los Angeles," said Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo. "It reflects a belief that there would be no shortage of water. It reflects a willingness to use concrete to solve natural problems."

A revitalized river, Woo said, could "be just as much a part of the city landscape as the Santa Monica Mountains or Mulholland Drive, as far as giving continuity to a city where, all too often, social continuity is missing."

Such hopes have sparked an explosion of proposals and studies on the river's future. They have even fostered a narrow consensus among river advocates and flood control officials with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the public works department--who agree that some amount of riverfront recreation and beautification is possible.

But there have been no detailed studies on how much restoration is possible without reduction of the river's capacity to contain the biggest storms.

And in the absence of this data, flood control officials say they are certain that there is no going back to a natural stream, since the economic and social costs of acquiring the flood way would be prohibitive.

"Who could really argue with wanting to have a more natural river?" said Joe Evelyn, chief of the hydrology and hydraulics branch of the Los Angeles district office of the Corps of Engineers, which runs the flood control system along with the county public works department.

"But there's a price to be paid" that river advocates "haven't fully faced up . . . to," Evelyn said.

In fact, while enthusiasm grows for greening up the river, the corps is proposing to pour more concrete on the lower 21 miles, from the confluence with the Rio Hondo at South Gate to the mouth at Long Beach. The reason, says the corps, is that the lower river channel no longer can contain a so-called 100-year flood--a storm so severe it has one chance in 100 of occurring in any one year. Increased urban runoff has reduced the level of protection so that it is now only adequate for a 25- to 50-year flood.

As a remedy, the corps has proposed building a concrete wall atop the river levees along that stretch, at an estimated cost of $379 million. Congress has not voted on funding for the project.

River advocates are staunchly opposed, contending that the dwindling effectiveness of the lower channel proves that pouring concrete doesn't work. In fact, they say, the flood control project encouraged the very process of urban growth that has rendered it inadequate.

Once the river was lined with concrete, previously flood-prone lands became available for development. And development--especially in the San Fernando Valley and upstream areas--has vastly increased storm water flows by putting impervious surfaces such as rooftops and streets where there once was absorptive earth.

Opponents of the proposed concrete wall have urged the corps to seek alternatives that are more environmentally friendly. Along with more controls on development and local runoff, they want the concrete removed, greenbelts planted, and the channel widened in spots in order to slow the water down and give it room to spread and seep. On the rare occasions when the greenbelts flooded, the damage would be modest.

"The corps hasn't explored that because the corps has only one way of thinking," MacAdams complained.

However, corps and county flood control officials said a cursory review shows that a natural channel would have to be five to eight times wider than the concrete one to provide adequate flood protection. They said the cost of buying up the flood way and relocating residents, roads and bridges could run into the billions.

"When you get into a situation where you know the costs are prohibitive, then you don't go any further," said Pat Luvender, a planner with the corps.

"Any proposals for the river have to work as flood control," agreed Arthur Golding, an architect who chairs the Los Angeles River Task Force of the American Institute of Architects.

"But the fact is, the river doesn't work . . . as a plumbing system," Golding said, "so changes are required. The question is, what changes?"

If the river's flood way were reserved as a greenbelt, the land "would serve a double purpose--flood control and park use--not conflicting but positively beneficial to each other," one report concluded.

Building expensive flood control works is a policy that "defeats itself," the study went on. "It compels large outlays for costly construction on narrow rights of way which would not be necessary on wider rights of way."

This was not the Sierra Club talking in 1992.

It was a group of engineers and planners urging, in 1930, that the river be left in its natural state.

The report was produced by consultants to a Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce committee investigating the shortage of parks and open space.

It called on officials to set aside the banks of the city's namesake river and other lands as parks for future residents.

These flood-prone lands would be cheap, the study reasoned. And if utilized as greenbelts, there would be no need to manipulate the river to protect against floods.

Creating parks that also functioned as flood ways, the report said, could solve "both problems at a much lower cost."

As suggested by the report, the river was regarded as an asset long before Los Angeles had environmental groups or a skyline bathed in smog.

The river was a source of inspiration for prominent early visitors and leaders, including Father Juan de Crespi, a member of the Portola expedition of 1769.

"On either side of the river there are very large, very green bottomlands, seeming from afar to be cornfields because of their greenness . . ." he wrote. "To my mind this spot can be given the preference in everything, in soil, water, and trees, of which it has a good amount. . . . Once we had reached this inviting spot, six or eight heathens came to the camp from a good sized village living here at this pleasing spot among the trees on this pleasant river, really a garden."

More than a century later, William Mulholland, patriarch of the Los Angeles water system, described the river in rapturous terms.

It was "a beautiful, limpid little stream with willows on its banks," Mulholland wrote. "It was so attractive to me that it at once became something about which my whole scheme of life was woven. I loved it so much."

But the river was more than a place of serenity, where children hunted tadpoles and crayfish. During heavy rains, it could also become a destructive torrent, cutting through its sandy banks like a hot knife through butter.

During the winter of 1861-62, storms brought great piles of driftwood down the Arroyo Seco that formed dams in the river and forced it to cut new channels. "The deposited driftwood provided fuel for the residents of Los Angeles for several years," wrote Stephen Van Wormer, an historical consultant to the corps.

During floods a few years later, so much water spilled over the banks of the lower river that it cut a permanent new channel and shifted its mouth to Long Beach, some 15 miles from present-day Marina del Rey, where it previously entered the sea.

By the time of the 1930 report, some flood controls were in place. However, as long as this remained a local responsibility--rather than a national effort subsidized by taxpayers from Vermont to Texas--the river would stay largely untamed.

Still, it was not the time nor the place for a free-flowing stream. The growing city was uniquely "imbued with . . . willfulness in battling nature," according to author Christopher Rand. Moreover, severe flooding in 1934 and 1938 on the river and nearby streams caused about 90 deaths and millions of dollars in property loss.

These were also the Depression years, and people looked to public works projects to help the unemployed.

Congress passed legislation in 1936 that expanded the corps' authority to plan and pay for flood control projects. Soon thereafter, channelization of the river began, putting thousands of people to work.

This public investment to protect the private land along the river made it far more valuable--a barrier to acquiring it today.

The Los Angeles County Drainage Area project, as it became known, also involved construction of Sepulveda and Hansen dams and other impoundments; and channel work along the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River and tributary streams. In addition, earthen spreading grounds were sculpted in the East Valley and San Gabriel foothills to store some rainwater in the ground.

Along the main river channel, however, the plan was to eliminate the rainwater as quickly as possible. Concrete banks confined the flood way to a narrow space. And on all but 12 of the river's 58 miles, the soft bottom was replaced with a slick layer of concrete. The concrete bottom sped the water along, eliminating the resistance that mud, rocks and willows place in the path of flowing water.

"Visitors to Southern California should not be astonished at the sight of the immense, . . . concrete 'dry rivers' but admire the perspicacity of their builders," Van Wormer wrote in his paper for the corps.

For some, however, Los Angeles has become an object lesson in how not to approach flood control. In the Tucson area, for example, officials are buying land along natural watercourses to prevent it from being developed.

"People want to preserve the riparian habitat that exists along the natural watercourses and put them into public ownership so that they do not get transformed into concrete-lined channels," said David Smutzer, manager of the flood control planning and development division of the Pima County Transportation and Flood Control District.

"I hear it all the time," Smutzer said. Los Angeles "is the benchmark everybody uses here to justify why we should buy the land."

Today the corps itself is looking at ways to rejuvenate the Los Angeles River. The agency is spending $250,000 allocated by Congress to explore opportunities for recreation and wildlife enhancement on a 19-mile reach from Sepulveda Dam to the Arroyo Seco. The study is to be completed in January.

But river advocates have accused the corps of bad faith for slashing the study's size and scope. Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) last year had $1 million inserted in a water development spending bill to study the whole river. But the corps declined to use three-fourths of the money or to include the lower part of the river in the study, citing a conflict with its plan to raise the height of the river wall.

Other studies are more open-ended. The American Institute of Architects' Los Angeles River Task Force is preparing a "Prospectus for the Los Angeles River," a major report meant "to introduce a broad segment of the public to the idea of regenerating the river," said Golding, the task force chair.

The architects, planners, engineers and academics working on the report are volunteers. A $90,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy will cover production expenses, including printing at least 10,000 copies, he said.

In addition, county public works officials are preparing a master plan for the river that will identify possible sites for recreation and habitat improvement.

Separately, the public works department and Friends of the River are cooperating on developing proposals for the Taylor Yards, the sprawling Southern Pacific railroad yard that fronts on a soft bottom section of the river southeast of Griffith Park.

Under one scenario being considered, the county would acquire 185 acres of the rail yard. The channel would be widened to create habitat and a riverfront park. And a detention basin would be built there to hold water during heavy storms.

MacAdams of Friends of the River hopes the park-detention basin could become a prototype for similar sites at intervals along the river. This, he said, would reduce the pressure for more concrete on the lower river.

On a soft-bottom section of the river across from Taylor Yards, Kimball Garrett, an ornithologist with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, is getting a firsthand look at the river's potential.

As part of a wildlife study of the entire river--funded by the Coastal Conservancy and involving members of the museum staff--Garrett has been surveying a short stretch where he has found "an amazing diversity of wildlife."

On a little more than half a mile of river, Garrett since last fall has observed more than 100 species of birds, including "some fairly noticeable and spectacular things like great blue herons" and egrets. "People might be surprised that there are waterfowl, like mallards and cinnamon teal, that nest along the river," he said.

It's a good sign for the river, Garrett said. It means that to regenerate wildlife, "it's not as if one's starting from scratch."

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