Bureaucratic Shoals Slow River Effort

Times Staff Writer

As a frequent visitor to the Los Angeles River near downtown, Tony Taylor says he has been passed around from agency to agency when he has tried to get vegetation trimmed or graffiti painted over.

So it irks him when environmentalists and politicians hold a news conference to announce yet one more beautification project along the river's edge.

When the cameras leave, says Taylor, river visitors face this: graffiti, gang members causing havoc, encampments of the homeless, loose dogs attacking wildlife.

Instead of politicians announcing new projects, he says, "they should take care of what's already there."

Taylor's frustration highlights a problem that river advocates -- environmentalists and public officials -- have been wrestling with for years:

Even as new projects signal the continuing effort to revitalize the river, officials haven't been able to devise a comprehensive system of maintenance, security and liability that some say is necessary to create a greenbelt along the 51-mile waterway.

Those responsibilities fall into a patchwork of jurisdictions, from local to federal agencies to private environmental groups that have some sort of claim to the river or have built projects along it.

"This is so convoluted that I'm having difficulty describing it," said Scott Wilson, a longtime river advocate and founder of Northeast Trees, sitting in one of the "pocket parks" his nonprofit group has built along the river.

Officials and river advocates say the various groups and agencies with jurisdiction don't always work together or have a single vision for the river's future.

And with so many players involved, mistakes can happen. River advocates recall times when one group planted vegetation to beautify the river, only to have a public agency's maintenance crew inadvertently tear it out -- as happened to one of Northeast Trees' projects.

Maintenance, security and liability are important issues to address, say those involved in river issues, because recreational improvements, such as parks and trails, are drawing more people to the river for recreation.

Increasingly, advocates are recognizing the need to work together. In August, Los Angeles formed an ad hoc committee on the river chaired by City Councilman Ed Reyes. The city hopes the panel will function as a clearinghouse that finally brings together all the relevant agencies and groups to deal with a host of issues.

Some of the agencies that have jurisdiction around the river or that are involved in projects relating to it are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, the governments of the 13 cities the river crosses, Northeast Trees and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Exhibit A

The pocket park near downtown where Wilson spoke illustrates how lines of responsibility can be tangled:

The park was built by Northeast Trees, which got a permit from county Public Works, which required someone to commit to maintaining the site. The nonprofit group lacks the means to maintain its pocket parks, so the conservancy assumed responsibility for that and liability. If visitors to the park take a couple steps toward the river embankment, however, they cross into the turf of Public Works or the Army Corps of Engineers.

Just upstream, other parcels can have completely different arrangements, and questions of liability or maintenance can be unclear. In addition to governments, some individuals own portions of the riverbank -- and even parts of the riverbed.

Liability, maintenance and security have been concerns of advocates since the county Board of Supervisors produced a river master plan in the early 1990s.

"Currently there's no single governmental entity" overseeing those three matters, said Maria Lopez, a representative of the county Department of Public Works and project manager for the Los Angeles River Master Plan. "Progress has been impeded by this fact."

As part of that plan, the supervisors sanctioned an advisory subcommittee that has met quarterly for about five years trying to develop ways of handling the three issues.

The 50-member subcommittee is made up of representatives of the 13 cities the river crosses, environmental groups and county, state and federal agencies.

But so far, "it's a problem we have not solved," said Wilson, a member of the panel. "I think that we really need to resolve this before we move further along."

The subcommittee has always recognized that a more formal system of maintenance, security and liability for the whole river is needed, Lopez said.

The solutions the panel has pondered -- albeit preliminary -- have included creating a river authority that would coordinate handling of the three issues.

Another possibility is giving jurisdiction over the whole river to the state Parks and Recreation Department. Or maybe having all the currently involved agencies share the responsibilities -- which could be formalized and made a priority.

Money a Challenge

But any solution would require funding, and that's the next challenge, Lopez said. State legislation or a countywide bond measure may be necessary to provide the money.

"With this growing interest" in the river, "now, it's really creating a push to resolve this sooner," Lopez said. "Now we are having interest from the city of L.A. If every city had an ad hoc committee, that would be great."

Though some residents have long complained about problems with maintenance, security and liability, there are other issues likely to surface in the infant movement to convert what is really a flood-control channel into a natural river.

At its first two meetings the L.A. ad hoc committee, which includes Reyes and four other council members, has focused on taking inventory of work already done at the river.

There's so much to understand. The jurisdictions. The law enforcement agencies that could patrol different parts of the river. What chemicals are being dumped into the waterway. What funds -- from local to federal -- are available for projects.

Reyes said it's too early to say how problems should be handled in the long-term revitalization effort.

"We are talking about a whole range of responsibilities that are spread out by many jurisdictions," he said. "These are the type of issues that this committee was formed to get more clarity" on.

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