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A River Doesn’t Run Through It : Normally dry L.A. River is flooded with policy questions

The Los Angeles River might usefully be regarded as a Rorschach test of sorts for the future direction of this region. The questions it poses to those who visit its graffiti-scared shores and peer into its murky, trash-strewn waters are: Which past will be prologue here? Does the relentless concreting of open spaces push us toward more of the same? Or can natural resources be reclaimed and enhanced for a variety of public uses?

In the months to come, there will be a significant debate on this matter. The narrow issue is how best to protect downstream neighborhoods and cities from flooding. The challenge for public agencies and community groups is to find a way to better control the river while at the same time restoring it as a watershed and recreational resource.

Six decades after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to channelize the river, there is little middle ground; the stark choice is more concrete or less.

Before the concrete was laid, the Los Angeles River, like most, was unpredictable. It often flooded in winter, dried up in summer and occasionally changed its course. Now the river is 58 miles of man-made dams, reservoirs and storm drains originating north of the San Fernando Valley and emptying into the sea at Long Beach.

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Ironically, channelization has made the river more dangerous in some ways. Although there is barely a trickle much of the year, more than six people, on average, drown in the river every winter. It is then that storm waters--which before the 1930s percolated into the ground to replenish natural watersheds--race to sea at up to 45 m.p.h.

With continued urban development, some say, the threat of river flooding has increased. The Federal Emergency Management Agency fears that an extreme rain would push river waters over existing levees, flooding downstream cities. Although critics have questioned FEMA’s risk analysis, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the L.A. County Department of Public Works are determined to raise the levees, elevating walls four to eight feet on the lower Los Angeles and the Rio Hondo, a main tributary south of Downtown. Construction could start in the spring, and public dollars may be forthcoming for the levee work sooner than for worthy infrastructure projects such as the Alameda Corridor, which will speed cargo back and forth between local ports and inland rail links.

So concrete inexorably begets more concrete? Some say no. Community groups, including Friends of the Los Angeles River and some farsighted local officials, are discussing a different future, one which addresses the threat of flooding while incorporating the river into the recreational life of the city. Urban rivers elsewhere, even some as channelized and waterless as the Los Angeles River is most of the time, often both serve as a tool of flood control and draw people who want to stroll, bike or just sit.

Significantly, among the places this could happen are the gritty, park-poor neighborhoods that line long stretches of the Los Angeles River. Levees, set back from the river banks on reclaimed parkland, could provide flood protection as well as space to play and relax. But time is growing short. Absent grass-roots consensus on an alternative, Los Angeles County and the Corps of Engineers could be mixing the concrete within months. Serious dialogue is beginning between agency officials and residents in riverside communities; it must continue.

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