The River Is More Than a Storm Drain : Local coordination is essential in managing our critical watersheds

Autumn along the Los Angeles River can yield surprises. Don't linger beside the steep concrete banks strewn with beer bottle shards; look instead into the water. Here, where the river flows briskly through the south end of Griffith Park or where the water widens as it moves past Elysian Park, there are tall, leafy trees, cattails and butterflies. Bird calls compete with the freeway noise and a crayfish or two skitters just below the water surface.

Wilderness the Los Angeles River is not. But neither should it remain just a storm drain, flushing runoff to the sea at Long Beach. The river, like other local water resources originally devoted to a single purpose, can accommodate others. What those other uses should be and how they can be incorporated with the river's historic function as a storm channel is now under discussion. Indeed, the potential for three other important regional water sources--the Santa Ana River watershed, the Calleguas Creek in Ventura County and Santa Monica Bay--are also on the table in a promising planning process just getting underway.

Surprisingly there is no mandate for localities to coordinate flood control efforts with those directed at water reclamation and water quality. Yet there is every reason to do just that, especially in this arid region. Planners have come to recognize how interconnected these activities are and, with no big new sources of water likely for Southern California, how important it is to efficiently use, save and even reuse the water we do have.

So at the prodding of Dorothy Green of Heal the Bay, about 40 representatives of public agencies and community groups sat down last month. They talked about their interests, responsibilities and sometimes strong differences about how to manage these watersheds.

Those discussions are scheduled to continue. The process of reaching consensus, particularly among groups long at odds over the use of the Los Angeles River watershed, could be difficult but doesn't have to be. Los Angeles County is anxious to start on planned improvements along the lower stretches of the river that include raising the height of concrete embankments to prevent flooding in severe storms. As a result, the county has been reluctant to seriously discuss potential recreational uses of the river area or enhancement of upstream ground water supplies until the new walls are under way. A lawsuit filed by community groups opposed to the wall project at first stiffened the county's back on this issue. But the county and the others also understand that flood control and watershed management are not mutually exclusive; the more water retained upstream, in dams and natural aquifers, the lower the flood risk downstream. That's why they must keep talking.

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