It’s easy to have a problem with the Los Angeles River. For one thing, it isn’t there for much of the year. There’s very little or no water you see. It’s dry. D-R-Y. Still, upon my arrival in Los Angeles many years ago, long-time Angelinos assured me that the big dry concrete-lined flood control channel that runs through the San Fernando Valley and eventually finds its way to Long Beach was a “river.”
It’s not like downtown Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet to form the Ohio. Or the headwaters of the Mississippi up in northern Minnesota. It’s in no way similar to the lazy Severn River near Annapolis. Those are rivers with….you know….water. Rivers that don’t disappear for much of the year. The so-called “L.A. River” is something else. It’s all or nothing at all. It’s either running like a water buffalo in heat or it’s mostly dry as dirt. And the dry periods go on for months.
Nevertheless, our much-loved and often ballyhooed flood control channel commonly called the Los Angeles River, has been afforded a new dignity. Water or no water, the EPA has declared it to be a “traditional navigable water.”
They’ve gotta be kidding.
I know this is a big deal for those who want the river restored to its former glory, when seasonal rains flooded out huge sections of Los Angeles, putting people and their property in danger. The good old days before the aqueduct, when the river ran free. Like the 1930’s, when two floods claimed more than 50 lives.
Actually, a big part of the problem back then, was that the river apparently had no regular channel. It kept changing course and during the normally wet winter months it became an angry, raging torrent. Or torrents. Still does. It isn’t unusual for the water to rise to the top of the channel here in the San Fernando Valley, turning from a trickle into whitewater rapids. An unstoppable force, roaring ever forward until it passes just east of downtown Los Angeles. As rivers go, the Los Angeles River is totally psycho. A form of liquid schizophrenia that goes from being nearly non-existent in the summer to a life-threatening monster in the winter. A monster which must be contained and controlled.
The Army Corps of Engineers put an end to the chaos and death in the early 1960’s, enclosing most the the river’s 51 miles in concrete. Naturalists, preservationists, conservationists, tube-shooters and others have been irritated ever since, seeing not the creation of a flood control channel that will save lives and protect property, but the death of a natural river. Calls for restoration of the river’s beauty have continued. Eventually, a revitalization master plan was drawn up. A plan that aimed to restore the former beauty of the river “while maintaining safety and flood controls.” That’s cool, I guess. But calling it a “traditional navigable water?”
Try launching your boat in Studio City in July. See what that gets you.
But that’s not what this is all about.
The EPA’s declaration means that the Los Angeles River will now be protected by federal regulations limiting industrial discharge and protecting wetlands.
The New York Times reported: “Environmentalists cheered Jackson’s declaration as key to limiting destruction of the river’s tributaries and wetlands and expanding recreational opportunities for Los Angeles residents. They also said the move shows that Western rivers, despite their propensity to run dry because they are overtapped for irrigation and drinking supplies, deserve full protection under the Clean Water Act.”
“….limiting destruction of the river’s tributaries and wetlands.” That’s a biggie for the naturalists, some of whom advocate removing the concrete lining altogether and restoring the river’s natural vegetation. And it goes way beyond the river itself. Apparently, the declaration could be interpreted as being applicable to the river’s entire 834-square-mile watershed. That could be meaningful for many of us, if we start flooding out. That’s what nearly happened a little more than a decade ago, when a group of naturalists fought to prevent the Corps of Engineers from clearing out sections of the county’s flood control channels that were choked with trees, underbrush, old tires, shopping carts, mattresses, plastic bags, old underwear and other assorted “habitat.” Thing was, you see, we had an El Nino storm system coming in. There were predictions that thousands of homes might flood out if the flood control channels weren’t cleared of debris.
It wasn’t as though the county hadn’t been trying to get the job done.
“Last month, Jim Noyes, chief deputy director of the department of public works, told the board that the county had been trying for two years to obtain permission to clear out 95 flood control channels, many of which had lost more than half of their capacity to weeds and debris. If they overflow when El Nino brings anticipated storms, Noyes said, massive flooding could result.” LA Times - October, 1997
The potential for thousands flooding out while the Corps of Engineers waded through mountains of environmental red tape put in place by naturalists assisted by the federal government made the whole thing more than a little controversial. The Los Angeles Times published photos of debris-choked channels. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and a few others got involved and eventually the Corps of Engineers was allowed to clear out the trees, underbrush and assorted junk. They got it done just in time. The forecasters were right. The storm hit, the rain fell and our system of flood control channels struggled to deal with the predicted angry rush of water. The total seasonal rainfall for downtown Los Angeles in 1997/98 would be 30.01 inches, or 210% of normal. It created a torrent which in all likelihood would have caused at least some of our flood control channels to go critical had the “habitat” not been cleared away.
But back to just the Los Angeles River.
By declaring the “river” to be “navigable,” it would appear the EPA has thrown another roadblock in the path of those who would seek to put people and their property above the interests of some naturalists. Better think about it now. Some of the streets in Sherman Oaks flood out every time we’re hit with a heavy rainfall as it is. And our local flood control channel, also known as the Los Angeles River, is running near the top of its banks. When there’s rain. Otherwise, it’s dry.
Gonna leave now and take a walk down to the river. I’m not sure what I’ll find but according to the EPA the salmon should be running.