By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The L.A. River is one of the city's most powerful loci for visions to make L.A. more livable.Because it turns out that when you get people together to think about how to restore the river, the conversations quickly turn not to wild fantasies but to vital agendas. Want to restore the river? Okay, here's what you have to do.
1. Green the banks.
2. Clean the water.
3. Remove concrete. Though not necessarily all of it -- remember that the legendary Seine runs through Paris within a concrete channel.
As you talk about greening the banks, you're inevitably going to lament the fact that L.A., of all American cities, has the least park space per capita. Parks can be vital meeting and recreational spaces -- which L.A. neighborhoods are so short on. They are walkable and bikeable spaces -- which L.A. is terribly short on. Trees and other vegetation clean the air: We can use more of that. Soft ground drains rainwater back into the aquifer: The Owens Valley and every Western state would be delighted. And just as the poorest urban communities generally suffer the worst environmental problems -- and L.A. is an egregious offender, and a hub for environmental-justice activism -- the poorer, almost entirely nonwhite communities on the L.A. River in downtown and South L.A. are among the most carved-up and park-starved. Maywood has a scarce 0.8 percent of its land in parks, while Boston has 9, New York City has 17, and the city of L.A. has 4. West L.A. has 1,300 park acres; Southeast L.A. has 75.
How do you clean the water? What people dump into the river directly is the least of it. You have to strategize how to clean up the whole stew of pollutants that washes off lawns, roads, driveways, gas stations and parking lots into the storm drains. You have to join the increasingly mainstream efforts -- as Santa Monica is doing -- to find alternatives to the shelves and shelves of toxic products we all rely on, and that wreak such damage on human health and on the city's air, water and wildlife. And again, the worst health problems -- the dumps, the spills, the EPA superfund sites -- are in the poorest communities.
Can you remove concrete? Is it possible? If you dare to pursue the most heretical and hard-fought goal, you need to control floods in the L.A. basin by . . . well, how? The central strategy is to reduce the volume of storm water in the channel. To start, capture and use more water on-site -- L.A. shoots more than half the water it gets from the sky, for free, directly to the ocean (which is measurably less water-starved). And it's not a trivial amount: By one estimate, a truly heavy winter storm can pelt L.A. with a year's water supply. Also, restore small patches of wetlands to hold and divert floods -- which also renews the aquifer, filters and cleans the water, and restores wildlife habitat. And it's a smart idea to use less water, too. All of which, in turn, would reduce L.A.'s fabled thirst for the water imports that drain and damage watersheds in the Sierras and the Rockies.
In short: You have to build a 51-mile greenway that could be the backbone of a basin-wide network of greenbelts and bikeways; clean up hazardous threats to public health across half of L.A.; and restore the health of the river's watershed, which is a huge and essential step toward reversing two centuries of environmental devastation.
Even shorter: Restoring the L.A. River is about far more than the river. It's about L.A. -- and beyond.
The L.A. River has become a unifying force in L.A. A lot of agendas meet on the river. That's logical, since the river literally connects this fragmented megalopolis. It is one of the few things that does. And the campaign to restore the river draws connections among causes that too often remain separate -- making clear why a green-space shortage is a social-justice issue, and why a big urban area still requires ecosystem management, and how vast economic inequities are also serious environmental problems. Like an antidote to partial blindness, the river makes visible these connections up and down the L.A. basin. If you want to build new parks in Maywood, it helps if you think about parks, habitat, flood control, community, lawn care and water economics in Sherman Oaks.
So the movement has forged, not surprisingly, a few of the city's more remarkable and wide-ranging coalitions. The Chinatown Yard Alliance has brought together such players as FoLAR, the Sierra Club, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, Mothers of East Los Angeles and the Latino Urban Forum. The Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (founded in 1996 by Heal the Bay activist Dorothy Green) brings dozens of stakeholders -- water agencies, FoLAR, the Mayor's Office, cities north and south, the EPA, TreePeople, the Corps, County Public Works, the Forest Service -- voluntarily to the same table to coordinate water-related projects in L.A. (and what isn't one?) and to work toward an integrated approach to sustainable watershed management. Like the Council, the brand-new Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, which will purchase, preserve and improve lands for open space in the San Gabriel and lower L.A. River watersheds, joins disparate interests -- city governments, environmentalists, water managers, county supervisors -- that to anyone familiar with L.A. politics look more like a recipe for a Molotov cocktail than a viable working alliance. All of these coalitions, however, have proved that they can make dramatic on-the-ground progress to reform L.A.'s worst habits.
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