By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
To its credit, City Hall is prescient enough to try to resolve these jurisdictional issues before they become a problem. The city has proposed the creation of three new bodies to serve as custodians of the river: the River Authority, a county/city partnership with the Corps; the River Foundation, a nonprofit that would help raise private funds for greening efforts; and the River Revitalization Corporation, a CRA-guided entity that would lead efforts to develop the areas along the river’s banks but outside its right of way.
While the consolidation of power along the river is an important first step in preventing a repeat of 1930, no amount of jurisdictional meandering can circumvent the Corps’ authority over the flood-control channel. Any plans that alter the river’s capacity to drain water — either through the removal of concrete, planting of vegetation, or purely aesthetic design changes in the shape of floodwalls — must meet the Corps’ safety standards.
And in the post-Katrina world, the Corps is taking no chances. “This is the largest drainage area in the United States,” says Catherine Shuman, lead planner of the Corps’ L.A. River study, “and flood control and public safety are our primary concerns. If the engineering is possible, we can start the bulldozers tomorrow and tear up the concrete. But right now, we just don’t know. It may be sometime before we do.”
“Sometime” could mean five years, it could mean a decade, or it could mean a lifetime.
The main problem, of which there are many, is that since the river was canalized, thousands of homes have been built in the natural floodplain — mainly in Long Beach and the areas closer to the river’s mouth. Remove concrete in sections upriver, and the water slows down. When water slows down, it begins to rise, and if it rises too much, it can top floodwalls farther downstream in the danger zones. Any changes to the shape of the channel can potentially have this effect — even simply terracing the floodwalls can pose problems.
“We’ve had several models that were successful, but we’ve had others that breached,” Shuman says.
For now, the point is moot. Though Congress recently budgeted $25 million for the Corps to conduct intensive studies of the river, that money has not yet been allotted, nor have the rules been established for how the money should be spent when and if it’s granted. Greening the river may not even be on the feds’ radar — they may simply want a review of traditional flood-control efforts.
Perhaps the most feasible green option in the immediate future may be to keep the concrete channel intact but to rely on a series of pumps to push water outside the right of way for use in the creation of riparian park habitats in the areas surrounding the river. As a consequence, the majority of river greening would fall to the River Revitalization Corporation. In theory, this should be a good thing. Because these new green spaces are outside the river’s right of way, and would not play an active role in flood control, it means they would fall exclusively under city jurisdiction, and MacAdams’ vision for a new, 100-plus-acre piggyback park could be realized without tortuous cross-agency oversight.
But the entire area is zoned for industrial use, and under a directive from the mayor, the Planning Department has labeled it a “job-preservation” site. The CRA has no plans to green the piggyback yards, nor anywhere else on the east bank of the central city corridor.
“The mayor not only wants to keep all this land for industrial use,” says MacAdams, shaking his head, “but he wants to expand industry down here.”
“I was shocked when I heard about that,” says Lehrer. “But I guess if you’re the mayor, you get rid of jobs at your own peril.”
Still, MacAdams says, “You would think acres of prime riverside land could have better use than a rail yard and an aggregate pile. Every other major city in the country is moving yards like this away from downtown. Five years or so from now, this rail yard is going to get pushed to the outskirts somewhere, and people are going to start trying to find a new use for this land.
“If we want this land to be park space, we need to jump the gun and start the conversation now,” he adds.
As MacAdams and I continue to survey the landscape, two L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies suddenly approach us from behind. “You can’t be here,” one of them tells us. “How do we know you’re not terrorists, planning your escape route?”
MacAdams and I look at each other perplexed, but decide not to push the issue. As we get in the car to leave, MacAdams lets loose a stifled laugh. “Wow,” he says. “Now I’m a terrorist just for looking at the river. It’s the perfect example of the invisibility of downtown.”