Slow Water

Slow Water

It may still look like a giant drain ditch, but the Los Angeles River is on the road to recovery. In recent years, the waterway has welcomed new parks, bike paths, greenways, art projects, and bridges—and dozens more projects remain in the docket. However, delays to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study have stymied improvements to the riverbed itself, which include the partial greening of its banks and the deepening of its waters. There is much debate about whether the study, which started in 2006, will be ready by the end of the year, as has been promised.

Significant improvements began in 2007, when the city’s Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan—designed by local landscape design firm Mia Lehrer + Associates in coordination with the Bureau of Engineering—laid the groundwork for improvements in and around the river, which was lined with concrete in the 1930s to manage severe flooding. In 2010 the EPA declared the river a "navigable waterway," and in 2012 the bill SB 1201 made it more than a flood control channel. Improvement funds have come in from city, state, and federal sources.

Dozens of amenities have sprouted up along the entire river’s length in recent years, from the Glendale Narrows/Elysian Valley bike path, stretching from Griffith park to Elysian Park; to the LA River Greenway, a grouping of public spaces filled with native plantings and public art. Many more are in the works, while LA River Expeditions leads kayaking tours down the river. A pilot program will open up much of the Glendale Narrows to wider public boating and recreation this summer.

But beyond peripheral uses, the Revitalization Master Plan also calls for removing much (but not all) of the concrete, deepening much of the river, and, in some cases, providing underground channels or flanking box culverts for floodwater. It also calls for creating new natural habitat zones around the river. Yet none of that can happen until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes its Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study. The study is examining, among other things, the potential flood and habitat risks of altering the river’s makeup. It focuses on an 11-mile stretch of the river from the San Fernando Valley to Downtown Los Angeles.

The study, funded equally by city and federal monies, began in 2006 and has moved at a glacial pace since then, slowed by bureaucratic procedure and funding shortfalls (the cost has ballooned to $9 million, largely due to the delay). Completion was scheduled for the end of this year, but there is disagreement over whether that will happen. Lewis MacAdams, president of the non-profit Friends of the LA River (FOLAR), while acknowledging that the Corps moves “slower than a banana slug moving across a redwood,” is confident that the study will be completed, largely due to a $1 million gift from a FOLAR supporter. “They have said in writing it’s going to happen,” said MacAdams.

But Carol Armstrong, director of the Los Angeles River Project Office for the city’s Bureau of Engineering, is concerned that it might not "if a cognitive shift doesn’t take place that will value urban landscapes as much as more pristine spaces–one that allows us to continue adding acres to the Everglades, but also recognizes that changing a concrete channel in LA is an important national ecosystem investment, too."

The Corps is leaving the answer up in the air. According to David Van Dorpe, chief of the civil works branch for the Corps’ Los Angeles District, the Corps needs to decide whether it will include the project in its federally funded General Investigation Program. At press time that decision was expected to come in the next month.

Armstrong does note that the Los Angeles district of the Corps has been a “fantastic partner.” What’s been harder is convincing people in Washington that making big investments in an urban area makes sense.

The Corps is not the only factor making this undertaking difficult. Since the river crosses so many jurisdictions—eight council districts, for instance—its coordination is a bureaucratic nightmare. Plans to approve a River Improvement Ordinance (RIO) District that would oversee development around the waterway have been held up by politicians and developers. In addition, the land use element of the city’s general plan is composed of 35 individual plans and the river intersects with ten of them.

Once the Corps’ study is completed, and if it approves changes to the riverbed, the next hurdle will be money. That and, according to MacAdams, convincing a cult following that, despite its portrayal in movies and images, the LA River was never supposed to be concrete. “The river has served the people of Los Angeles for almost 90 years in its current form,” said Van Dorpe. “We realize that the needs of the community have changed. It’s time to think about the next 90 years and what the river will mean to us in the future.”