Reviving the L.A. River

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The prospect of restoring the Los Angeles River as wildlife habitat, recreation opportunity and civic amenity may have once sounded like a whimsical notion whipped up on the spur of the moment by a handful of dreamers. If it ever was, it’s certainly not now.

Yes, there are dreamers, but they have been at it for nearly 30 years and have used science, planning, engineering and advocacy to hammer their dreams into a well-thought-out program to transform an ugly concrete storm drain into the city’s vital, and verdant, central artery. City officials are more than on board, having devoted time and attention to the river’s potential. The federal government has gone beyond mere support, selecting this river as a “priority project” in the Urban Waters Federal Partnership and the America’s Great Outdoors program to reconnect Americans, and especially youth in urban areas, to nature. The L.A. River watershed is one of only seven such first-phase Urban Waters projects nationwide. The Army Corps of Engineers, which encased the river in concrete in the 20th century to control flooding, agrees that flood protection and river revitalization are compatible and not only accepts but is ready to lead efforts to bring the channel back to life.

So there is little question as to whether the Los Angeles River, for so long a punch line, will undergo a rebirth. An 11-mile stretch known as the Glendale Narrows — where plants already grow in a rare non-concrete portion of the river’s bottom, where Spanish explorers took their first Communion in what would become a pueblo, where a young Los Angeles drew its water, where the San Fernando Valley meets the rest of the Los Angeles — will be revitalized. The only remaining issue is whether the Army Corps will be content to go only halfway and leave the rest of the job to some future generation, or whether it will instead restore a greater amount of ecosystem and provide a greater amount of human accessibility, so that Angelenos now living will see the full benefit of the dreams, the plans and the work.


The Army Corps should reconsider its initial nod toward a smaller-scale (and less costly) plan known as Alternative 13, which meets the minimum objectives of the revitalization and does far too little to make the years of planning and the level of government support worthwhile, and instead embrace Alternative 20 and send its recommendation of that more expansive plan to Congress. Angelenos should attend Thursday evening’s public hearing and express their support for the better plan.

Both plans would widen a portion of the channel and increase habitat, the Army Corps’ primary objective. Only Alternative 20 melds the restored river into Los Angeles State Historic Park, the area north of Chinatown perhaps better known as the Cornfields. It was here that 19th century rail travelers to Los Angeles disembarked, saw the works that lifted water from the river to quench the thirst of a growing city, and likely spent their first night in town. It is here that activists blocked a warehouse project and won funding for park space at the beginning of the current century, and envisioned a heritage parkway with the express goal of linking urban dwellers not just with open green space but with the natural wildlife corridor that a restored river will become. It would be a foolish waste of an opportunity to revive the river but leave it unconnected to the park.

The broader plan also incorporates the so-called Piggyback rail yard in Lincoln Heights and the Verdugo Wash near Glendale. It includes more terracing of the channel, allowing more public access. And public access is crucial; the Army Corps’ task is to maximize ecosystem restoration, but local and federal backing is premised as well on the fact that the Los Angeles River is an urban waterway, and revitalization is intended to provide access to the one-quarter of the city’s population, much of it economically disadvantaged, that lives within half a mile of the river.

It is also worth noting that Alternative 20 calls for greater federal participation, with a mix — about a third in contributions from local sources, the rest from the federal government — that more closely mirrors the traditional role of Washington in ecosystem restoration projects. The option that the Army Corps prefers for now reverses that balance and, if adopted, would undermine the commitment that the U.S. says it wants to make in restoring urban waterways.

The hearing begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Atrium of the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens, 570 West Avenue 26, Los Angeles.