Until a few years ago, the few Angelenos who knew there was a Los Angeles River spoke of it in the past tense. The river had been massively channelized, hemmed in by railroads and freeways and industrial parks, buried beneath 3 million barrels of concrete and treated as a storm drain and an open sewer by the dozen or more local, state and federal agencies ostensibly responsible for its well-being.
But Los Angeles continued to grow. The largest, most densely populated county in the United States added almost 1.5 million people during the 1980s. By 1990, L.A. had less parkland per capita than any metropolitan area in the United States.
Faced with an open-space crisis to go with all our other crises, Los Angeles rediscovered the river in its own back yard. Running from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach (the Queen Mary is the toothpick in the river's mouth), there it was--the Los Angeles. For the first time, Angelenos began to speak about the river's future.
The city convened a Los Angeles River Task Force. The county Department of Public Works began to develop a river master plan. At least half a dozen studies and reports were generated, including the first-ever biological inventory of the river, conducted by the L.A. County Museum of Natural History. Every study was useful. Each contributed to a growing body of knowledge about a river that had been ignored except as a flood threat for 80 years.
In 1990, the state Legislature asked the state Coastal Conservancy to assess the river's potential for public access, recreation and wildlife enhancement. The result is the just-issued "Los Angeles River Park and Recreation Area Study."
The report profiles all 12 riverfront cities from Glendale and Burbank, south through the city of Los Angeles and southeast L.A. County to Compton and Long Beach; inventories parklands near the river, and prioritizes opportunities for local parkland acquisition. This is the first study that looks at the river as a whole. Anyone interested in restoration of the Los Angeles River should have a copy.
The study documents almost a century of neglect. There is still no legal access to the river or its tributaries. Would-be bird watchers, bicyclists and canoeists are still greeted with locked gates and L.A. County's rusting "No Trespassing: $500 Fine and 6 Months in Jail" signs. Only two bike paths run along any portion of the river--none in the Valley--and neither is landscaped or has rest stops. The report says that one, the Lario Trail, is "in a severe state of disrepair and is impassable in many locations." For 50 miles, there is no place along the river to sit down.
At the same time, the report confirms how much we've already got to work with.
Almost a quarter of the river's bed--including a two-mile wilderness stretch in the Sepulveda Basin and six miles from Griffith Park to just north of downtown that parallels the Golden State Freeway--is not lined with concrete. Along these stretches, fed by nearly 100 million gallons a day of treated runoff from the Tillman and L.A.-Glendale water reclamation plants, the Los Angeles harbors a rich biota that includes amphibians, reptiles, several species of fish and almost 200 species of birds.
The conclusion? The Los Angeles River has the potential to become one of the basin's greatest recreational resources, a 250-mile greenway through the heart of the region, a source of desperately needed parks and recreational facilities from the San Gabriel Mountains to the sea.
The conservancy's study recommends that parks and recreation--including bike, pedestrian and equestrian paths, nature-study areas and extensive landscaping--become a high-priority land use for the entire river corridor. Linear parks and trails should be incorporated into future commercial, residential and industrial riverfront development. New land uses should not obstruct public access to the river corridor. All these recommendations parallel riverfront development standards in Los Angeles' new General Plan.
Specific recommendations for the Valley include expansion of Burbank's Buena Vista Park, so far one of the few public accesses along the river; the creation of a Crystal Springs Park, where Glendale is considering establishing an environmental education center; the construction of a Sepulveda Basin nature trail between the river and Balboa Park, and development of a bikeway from the Valley to Long Beach via downtown's Union Station. Design of Phase 1 of the bikeway is under way.
The weakness of the study is its political dimension.
The conservancy simply calls for better integration of flood control, ground water recharge, habitat and open space uses without saying how that is to be achieved. But no current agency seems willing or able to plan for this integration, much less carry it out.
The conservancy, while acknowledging that the fragmentation of authority makes "comprehensive planning for the entire watershed a difficult and complicated undertaking," can only recommend a vague "mechanism for coordination." It will take a new agency, long proposed by the Friends of the Los Angeles River--a countywide Los Angeles River Conservancy--to carry out the Coastal Conservancy's ambitious and visionary plans.