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District Partnering on the L.A. River

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with local, state and federal partners to bring vitality back to the Los Angeles River, without losing sight of the river’s role in flood risk management.
By Daniel J. Calderón

The Los Angeles River runs 51-mi through Southern California, including a stretch right through Los Angeles. The river is known more for its concrete banks and barren areas, rather than the meandering waterway with natural habitats that it is in certain parts.
Photos Courtesy USACE

For some, the Los Angeles River is simply a concrete channel with a small dribble of water cutting a path through the middle of Los Angeles. Most people are not aware of the 51-mi of river winding its way through Southern California then ending up at Long Beach Harbor. For many, the iconic image of the river comes from movies like “Grease,” “Transformers,” or, even more recently, “In Time.” For those who see the river in such simple terms, the notion of a waterway with habitat alongside the banks is as far-fetched as snow on the sun. The iconic image of concrete sides precludes the possibility of life in such a restrained body of water.

The truth, however, is stronger than the icon.

The popularized image of the Los Angeles River has only been around since the 1940s. Before that, it was a free-flowing river subject to movement of up to 7-mi east or west of its banks during any given year. This was fine for the river but detrimental for the city growing around it. After a series of floods, the local government requested support from the federal government and in the late 1930s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) went to work to determine what solution would provide the best protection for Angelinos.

“Flood risk management was the overriding concern at the time,” according to Col. Mark Toy, USA, Commander, USACE Los Angeles District. “When the channel was first designed and built, the best way to move the water through the city was along a concrete channel. Why? Because it went through the city quickly and kept the city as safe as possible from the effects of flooding.”

Growth over Time
In the years since USACE installed the channel, the city has grown along its banks. The river no longer meanders. Housing and business reside almost all the way up to the edge of the concrete channel in most areas. However, there are still places along the 51-mi stretch where a soft bottom remains in the river. There are still many reaches along which riparian habitat flourishes. And there are still areas in which it is possible to see into the river’s past and envision possibilities for the future.

USACE Los Angeles District has been a partner in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. The feasibility study and the integrated environmental impact statement are scheduled to be ready in 2013. The overall master plan calls for a new look at how residents and visitors can use the river in ways previously thought impossible.

“The District is committed to partnering with its stakeholders to combine effective flood damage reduction, habitat restoration and recreation in an urban area,” said Col. Toy. “Anyone who feels the current state of the Los Angeles River renders it anything less than a river vastly underestimates the positive impact it has on the citizens of Los Angeles. I believe in the possibilities for the citizens to enjoy the river at a closer level and my organization is working with our local partners to attain that goal.”

Beginning with the L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study with the City of Los Angeles in 2006, USACE Los Angeles has been a partner in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. The feasibility study and the integrated environmental impact statement are scheduled to be ready in 2013. USACE Los Angeles is evaluating alternatives to restore a 10-mi stretch of the river from the “headworks” to downtown. The study is looking at how the previous river management techniques have worked and how they can be tied together for a larger benefit. The overall master plan calls for a new look at how residents and visitors can use the river in ways previously thought impossible.

“What this plan does is it builds upon longstanding efforts of local non-profits and also the County of Los Angeles, who did a master plan in 1996,” said Carol Armstrong, Ph.D., Co-Director for Los Angeles Project Office for the City of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering. The master plan, according to Armstrong, “supports all of those efforts and it expands beyond them looking at how we can actually change the river’s concrete channel and we can extend greening, habitat connections and community revitalization amenities into the neighborhoods along the river.”

Strength in Partnerships
Non-profit organizations, like Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC), Tree People, Northeast Trees, and the Council for Watershed Health among others have thousands of members and a huge network. FOLAR has actively lobbied for an increased “greening” of the river since the 1980s. Armstrong says many current elected officials in the Los Angeles area have found memories of growing up along the river. They have been able to parlay their passion for the river into solutions, with some additional assistance and a renewed national interest in protecting and preserving natural resources.

The inaugural Paddle the L.A. River program allowed for no more than two trips per day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday beginning August 12, 2011 and ending September 25, 2011. The program was as much about education as it was access, with many of the tours featuring guest speakers talking about the history of the river and plans for its revitalization.

USACE Los Angeles’ feasibility study is a major step forward in moving from verbal, or written support, to action.

“The L.A. River Environmental Restoration Plan is seen as the ‘rising tide that lifts all boats,” according to Josephine Axt, Chief, USACE Los Angeles District Planning Division. “People are very cognizant of the Corps’ restoration mission. Los Angeles can turn a corner, in terms of what people have been trying to do, with this restoration study. I can’t overestimate how environmental groups and other city and county stakeholders see how important the study is in getting a large federal investment.”

The study is expected to help pave the way for an increased partnership in finding ways to change the river for the ecological and economic benefit of Los Angeles. Axt cites the Rio Salado project in Tempe, Ariz., as an example of the positive effects of an ecosystem restoration project. Since USACE got involved, the city was able to clean up the area and create hiking and biking trails along the river there. That has provided added benefits to local businesses, which have seen an increase in traffic. Similar benefits are anticipated surrounding the Los Angeles River upon completion of the study.

USACE Los Angeles has been working with local, city, county and state partners to update the image of the Los Angeles River. Together, there is an understanding of how important the river is to the people of Los Angeles, so the team is working to ensure it maintains its functionality as a flood risk management project, but also embodies the need to restore a more aesthetic and approachable feel.

“The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan has been moving forward since its inception nearly a decade ago,” Col. Toy said. “It may not happen while I am District Commander, but my staff and I continue to work every day to realize the goals of that plan.”

Col. Mark Toy, USA, Commander, USACE Los Angeles District, joined project partners, politicians and journalists for the inaugural L.A. River tour in August 2011. "Providing safe and healthy recreation experiences to meet the needs of current and future generations is part of the Corps' Recreation Strategic Plan," said Col. Toy. "But I must be clear, nothing we do can jeopardize human safety or reduce the flood carrying capacity of this river."

LACC was lead partner for the Paddle the L.A. River program. As Yasmin Mero-Corona, Project Coordinator, LACC, explained, the organization was asked to lead the project along with seven other partners, adding that “it was something new to have a program like this out on the river.”

Along with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), LACC led dozens of Angelinos and visitors along a stretch of the river in the Sepulveda Basin. While the majority of the river is still a concrete channel, the successful non-motorized boating program showed possibilities for the future and provided an educational opportunity.

“If we educate people now instead of always trying to keep them out, that does several things,” according to Fernando Gomez, Chief Ranger for MRCA. “One, it actually gets people to know that they have a place to recreate, to use, to have in their backyard and know they can use it as opposed to driving hours to get to a river. That also prevents people from misusing the river, either from dumping trash or dumping their chemicals or their oil.”

In fact, in July 2012, LACC along with the San Joaquin River Stewardship Program received a permit from USACE Los Angeles to offer the program once again. And just like the inaugural event than last year, this year’s program was a rousing success, and is looking to be a catalyst for expanding the event to other parts of the river’s stretch.

Looking Ahead
In 2010, USACE Los Angeles and its Los Angeles River partners saw the beginning of President Obama’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which is designed to “achieve lasting conservation of the outdoor spaces that power our nation's economy, shape our culture, and build our outdoor traditions.” Along with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Urban Waters Movement, these initiatives propel agencies, organizations and individuals to make a difference. In fact, the Los Angeles River is one of the waterways named as part of the Urban Waters initiative. According to the strategic framework issued by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, , the efforts to protect urban water resources, the lifeblood of America’s communities, are part of EPA’s overall efforts to expand the conversation on environmentalism by engaging and empowering communities and partners to advance environmental protection.

In April 2012, 25-T of garbage were removed from the Los Angeles River and surrounding tree area during a cleanup project, the Friends of Los Angeles River (FOLAR) 23rd Annual La Gran Limpieza: The Great Los Angeles River CleanUp. The event drew roughly 4,000 volunteers spread out over 15 community sites along the river, and epitomizes the many government agencies and non-profit organizations that are committed to improving in and around the Los Angeles River.

While the initiatives lent additional gravitas to the push to improve conditions along the river, USACE and its partners understand the need for compromise and intelligent conversation about the way forward.

Summarizes Armstrong: “I think there has to be a balance because it is between people and nature. We have to live in concert. For a long time, we haven’t really valued nature like we should in Los Angeles and people realize that. If we were to remove all the river’s concrete then we would have to move everyone out of the floodplain and that’s not realistic at this time. What’s really exciting is that there are things we can do.”

USACE Los Angeles is committed to seeing the plan through and is seeking ways to continue to participate in education and recreation opportunities for residents and visitors. Axt said one major consideration is how to remove concrete from sections of the river. The agency is looking at possibilities for restoration of degraded habitat along the section of the river being studied as well as increased opportunities for the city to “turn its face to the river.”

“We will continue to balance public safety, water quality and channel integrity as we operate a system intended, first and foremost, for flood risk management,” Col. Toy remarked. “Providing safe and healthy recreation experiences to meet the needs of current and future generations is part of the Corps' Recreation Strategic Plan and is one way we in the Los Angeles District are Building Strong and Taking Care of People.”

America’s second largest metropolitan area may rest along the ocean, but there’s also a river that runs right through it—a river that deserves another look.

Daniel J. Calderón is Senior Public Affairs Specialist, USACE Los Angeles District; 603-230-6990, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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