In an unprecedented first, river advocates threw a party to welcome the first U.S. Army Corps female district commander to Los Angeles. Spanish guitars played as guests from a multi-pronged coalition of community groups, private enterprise and government officials sipped sangria to welcome Col. Kim Colloton at the Los Angeles River Center plaza.
The river center is a stronghold of advocacy groups, which include Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco Foundation. The audience and speakers included two Los Angeles city councilmembers, the mayor of Burbank, and representatives of local cities, the state and the federal government.
“This has never been done before,” said Lewis MacAdams, founder of FOLAR, and, until recently, a longtime self-proclaimed “enemy” of the Corps. But MacAdams, along with others, increasingly see the Corps as part of the solution, not the problem.
“It’s going to get more challenging as the interest gets wider, as more and more people view the river as an asset toward open space, and renewal, and improvement of the city,” Alejandro Ortiz, FOLAR chairman said. “You would wonder if the Corps of Engineers is the ideal partner. At first thought, you might think it’s not, but as it turns out the Army Corps of Engineers is the guiding light toward salvation. And salvation has a name. It’s Option 20.”
At stake is how much money the federal government is willing to put into implementing an ecosystem restoration that could possibly remake the Los Angeles River into a vital part of the city. Last week, the Los Angeles City Council made it officially known that it wanted to see the biggest package possible, that’s $1 billion (Alternative 20), which would be spent on the river from Glendale Narrows to downtown, an 11-mile area. There are three other “best buy” alternatives that will be spelled soon-to-be-released report, each with a lesser price tag.
“Just from my short month here in my new job, and by this synergy that I have felt and seen tonight, I can feel that we are united in a vision to protect, restore and maximize this river’s benefits for future generations,” Col. Colloton said to the crowd of around 200.
The crowd found out that the long-awaited ARBOR study, which names four possible paths to ecosystem restoration, will be available for public comment on Sept. 13. There will be an email box to make it easy for people to voice their opinions on the Corps’ website. How much money is spent must be voted on and approved by Congress.
In preparation for what could be remembered as an historic city council vote, three councilmembers made their case poolside for the most expensive restoration of the Los Angeles River at over $1 billion. It was a continuation of a public relations campaign over the summer to convince Washington to open its strained pocketbook in favor of a local project with considerable political capital.
The press conference, strategically held at Downey Pool, close to both the river and Los Angeles State Historic Park, presaged the first time since 2006 that the city would declare its priority publicly. Ironically, its partner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, didn’t attend.
“I think you’re going to see an unprecedented push and an unprecedented effort of collaboration. We are dead serious about this, and we are aspiring to work together, to collaborate, to pool all the resources, working with the state, but also preparing to go to Washington, working with the Army Crops of Engineers to get the biggest package that we can for the city,” said newly elected Councilmember Gil Cedillo.
He, together with council colleagues Mitch O’Farrell and Tom LeBonge, made it clear that the city wants the federal government to spend $1 billion over the next several years to restore the Los Angeles River to at least a semblance of what it once was, as will be outlined in the Corps’ Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study (ARBOR), which cost $10 million and seven years to complete.
Even though the actual study, along with its four restoration alternatives, won’t be released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until Sept. 20, politicians and river advocates are lining up in support of the most expensive plan. After ARBOR’s release, there will be a 45-day public comment period and a public meeting on Oct. 17. Although a month away from the report’s official release by the Army Corps., the broad outline has been available for weeks.
A few hours later, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously “to endorse a Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study alternative that results in the most expansive ecosystem restoration.”
Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti sent a letter to Washington advocating for the same thing.
“The ARBOR study Alternative 20 will begin to reweave the city and the watershed together,” said Lewis MacAdams, who established Friends of the Los Angeles River, and is now considered the “grandfather” of the current restoration effort. “It will bring the river together with the mountains, and it will bring the people together with the habitat, miles of concrete will be destroyed. It would begin to payback with this billion dollars all the work that’s been done to destroy the L.A. River.”
MacAdams recounted how, as an old-time Army Corps of Engineers fighter, he was surprised to be invited to a teleconference between the L.A. District and the national headquarters in Washington a couple of months ago. He went on to say he was shocked when I saw what was going to become the proposal of the L.A. district, Alternative 20.
By contrast, Alternative 13., said to be favored in Washington and the least expensive of the plans, has a projected cost of just under $450 million to pull concrete and make other habitat changes along the 11 miles of the river from downtown to Griffith Park.
“We’re Los Angeles. We deserve a $1 billion investment in the Los Angeles River. We’re going to fight for this,” O’Farrell said.
The Buddhists say that the curse of the human realm is change. And if you live long enough, you tend to agree with them.
Of course, even if you haven’t lived a long time, only a fool won’t recognize that change comes in two flavors: good and bad. Maybe some would quibble with me and argue change can be neutral, but those changes aren’t the ones any of us remember. A neutral change is akin to no change. Most of us see the world in Manichaean terms — a big word for good versus evil. Change is flavored by one side or the other.
Maybe that’s a tad too much philosophy for a Monday morning, perhaps a shadow of tomorrow’s election, but change felt palpable on the river this weekend, and I wondered which flavor it would eventually be.
I took advantage of the 80-degree weather to explore three favorite fishy spots, looking for carp. One thing that doesn’t change — I often get skunked by these elusive fish. Water in the Glendale Narrows section is two-to-three feet deep in most spots. Consequently, fish see you as quickly as you spot them. And, at least on the fly, sight fishing is the best way to land one, and it has certain risks.
My boots scraped down the river’s rip-rap skin, close to the giant bunkerlike concrete abutments that once held electric Red Line tracks, jutting out from the old Glendale Avenue bridge. There, the wide concrete swatch of the river’s artificial bottom is entirely concrete, and as I watched the water’s constant flow, I realized this vista I’d taken for granted was vulnerable to change.
By now, if you follow “riverly” events, you know that clothier Miss Me has breathed new life into the stalled keystone environmental feasibility study with a substantial gift. As Molly Peterson reported for KPCC: “The Army Corps of Engineers study, nicknamed ARBOR (Alternative with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization), was $970,000 short of the $9.7 million needed to proceed.”
And the clothing company has offered almost $1 million to close that funding gap. The Corps lead planner Kathleen Bergmann recently told me that the money has to pass through some approval hoops. “We are moving forward on last year’s funds. While funds have been offered, we must receive permission to receive those funds, and sign an agreement. Congress has set up a very precise method for doing this, and must be notified as well. We are in the process of taking those steps to get approval to receive the funds.”
So green is green, and it’s great to know that the money is finally available, even given the ridiculous amount of time it’s taken to fully fund the study during the Great Recession.
“Remember that the fundamental purpose of the Study is to improve the ecosystem values in the LA River– and that means riparian habitat that is good for wildlife, including fish species,” said Carol Armstrong, director of the Los Angeles River Project office. “The Study will go public with its alternatives early next year. Once finished, it will recommend one of those as its recommended project, which will then go to Washington, DC, for approval by the federal powers-that-be. So, those alternatives are under development now. Basically we’re moving from Study to Project now that the Study is fully funded.”
I believe it’s a given that at least sections of concrete are on their way out. Since I began this post on a mystical note, look at the signs.
— The Paddle the River program, although only around for eight weeks a year, is in its second year, with a five-year contract. Now apparently, program leaders have aspirations to paddle the seven miles of Glendale Narrows as well.
— Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB1201 into law this year, which broadens the L.A. County Dept. of Public Works 100-year-old mission of flood control and storm water management to include education and recreation. Friends of the L.A. River and UCLA’s Environmental Law Clinic spearheaded the effort that was then introduced by State Senator Kevin de Leon.
— I haven’t heard of any tickets being issued to those plying the river’s bottom during the last few years.
— Also, I haven’t heard of LAPD harassment of activists since Jenny Price’s river tour was disrupted over a turf war some three years ago.
Add to all that Arroyo Seco Foundation Exec Tim Brick’s recent grant acquisition of over $3 million to improve the Hahamongna watershed above JPL in Pasadena. As he wrote me in an email, “A key goal of this project is to improve conditions for the trout and other fish in the Arroyo stream. The water intake facilities were not designed to protect the fish, but we want to change that by redesigning the facilities and improving the habitat there. This brief video shows the facilities and the area to be improved: Water Facilities in Hahamongna Canyon.”
It’s time for optimism, to see the change as very good. In other words, this puppy is going to happen, because after decades of inertia, the political will has arrived to bring in the bucks.
But am I the only one who gets a little nervous with big money?
As I trudged along in the autumn heat, marveling at this wonderful liquid behemoth, I wondered what the change would actually look like, and I felt that nagging bite of Manichaeism again. I want to be able to fly fish, enjoy the din of the I-5, ponder the eastern vistas of Griffith Park. I don’t want to buy souvenir T-shirts a la San Antonio’s River Walk stalls, although enjoying a crafted beer by water’s edge wouldn’t be all bad.