Quick Mends: non-profits vie for L.A. River supporters

Then Councilmember Eric Garcetti opens a part of the bike path along the Los Angeles River in 2011. (Jim Burns)

Then Councilmember Eric Garcetti opens a part of the bike path along the Los Angeles River in 2011. (Jim Burns)

While river advocates await the public unveiling of the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study (nicknamed ARBOR), the p.r. battle for Angelino hearts and minds has already begun. In September, after several years of drafting and almost $10 million in cost, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release four alternatives, each with a different cost, and each with a different impact on the river. The public will then have 45 days to comment before a single alternative moves forward.

“It’s a doozy,” said one person close to the study, which is currently undergoing legal review.

As Carol Armstrong, director of the Los Angeles River Project office, told me last year,“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. 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.”

Think of it in terms of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon’s menu of procedures. You could go for some Botox injections to temporarily solve that wrinkly face, or throw in for a full-blown, long-lasting, facelift.

The facelift alternative is what the nonprofit Friends of the River advocates with the “Piggyback Alternative,” known to the Corps as Alternative 20. It is the most comprehensive approach to river restoration, according to FoLAR president and founder Lewis MacAdams. The estimated price tag is  $1 billion-plus to restore and remake 11 miles of the river between Union Station and Griffith Park.

Today, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp, another nonprofit, threw down with its 51-mile greenway project, which aims to have that much yardage in bike paths and foot trails along the river by 2020. That would essentially cover the entire length of the river from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. Currently, 26 miles along the river are open to bicyclists before they have to hit the mean streets, just north of downtown. Although not one of the alternatives, the 2020 Greenway plan aligns itself more naturally with Alternative 20 than with Alternative 13, said to be the Corps favorite in these times of tightening budgets.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

@jimgoesfishing

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New L.A. River funding brings new questions

From top left, clockwise, the tranquility of carp-filled pools, at the beginning of Glendale Narrows. Once you get past the city locks, you can see self-shadows and nifty bridge architecture. (Jim Burns)

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.

So let me ask you, what do you want?

— See you on the river, Jim Burns

President’s 2013 budget partially funds critical River Study project

About a hundred attended the City of L.A.'s River Update event Thursday evening. (Jim Burns)

“The River Study is moving. For the first time, it made it to the President’s budget,” Carol Armstrong said to a group of about 100 participants at the River Update event, held this evening at the L.A. River School.

Armstrong, the point person for the city’s many river projects, went on to explain how Councilmember Ed Reyes, Nancy Steele of the Council for Watershed Health, Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River and others went to Washington to talk to legislators about the important of funding the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study. The study is key to virtually all future plans to restore the river to a more natural state.  Begun in 2006 with the city as the local partner, it looks at the 10-mile stretch of soft bottom that stretches from Glendale Narrows, plus Headworks Reservoir in Burbank, through downtown to First Street. This area, part of which is across from Griffith Park, is the most popular with fly fishers looking to hook carp. Besides having a soft bottom – as opposed to concrete – it contains what the Corps calls “ecological value” and has the most water in it year around.

Although only $100,000 will come from the 2013 federal budget, the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power contributed $1 million, as did the leadership of the Army Corps, committing $350,000. When completed in 2013, the study will have cost almost $10 million.

In 1995, political restoration activities began with the county, which led to the City Council’s approval of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan in May, 2007, created with $3 million from the Department of Water and Power’s deep coffers. The plan contains many items, including revitalizing the river, greening adjacent neighborhoods and creating value through economic opportunities

As Josephine Axt, the Army Corps lead planner told the audience, don’t expect any real result until June, 2013. Still, the funding was good news for river advocates.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Will steelhead ever return to the L.A. River?

Twenty-five-inch steelhead trout caught in the Los Angeles River near Glendale, in January, 1940. (Courtesy family of Dr. Charles L. Hogue)

It may be a ridiculous notion to think the Los Angeles River could ever support a resident steelhead population.  In fact, it may be ridiculous to contemplate that this gritty icon of shoot-‘em-up movies like “To Live and Die in L.A.” will ever shed its miles of concrete, flood-control skin in favor of a sustainable habitat. Yet, talk to the various players in the multi-year, multi-million dollar reconstruction drama and a common theme emerges: steelhead restoration. Whether it’s actually feasible or not, the steelhead has become a symbol of the river’s potential rebirth. In the years to come, whether flapping fins or flummery will triumph, remains to be seen.

Problems abound with a restoration effort of this size, 51 miles through a morass of  cities, from the San Fernando Valley to the port of Long Beach. Those reading these pages outside of Los Angeles must wonder if steelhead ever swam in the river to begin with.  The answer, which is ironic even to those of us locals who regularly ply the water for carp, is “yes.”

“The southern steelhead Distinct Population Segment goes from the Santa Maria River in San Luis Obispo County down to the Border.  Say 50-75 years ago, the size of that population run was about 30,000 adults,” said Trout Unlimited’s Chuck Bonham, who will be the new director of the Department of Fish and Game, if his appointment is confirmed by the state senate. If you pull out a map and take a look at the enormous area he’s talking about, it’s obvious that even during the heyday, there weren’t a lot of fish.

Today, those numbers have plummeted in the area and are at zero in the river, itself. Southern California Steelhead have been on the Endangered Species list since 1997. To be put on it, a species must be viewed by scientists as imminently in danger of becoming extinct.

Although anecdotes (and the iconic picture above) point to the last steelhead being pulled from the Los Angeles River in 1940, activist and poet Lewis MacAdams, one of the three founders of FOLAR, has kept that mythology alive.  The river mantra is his: “When the steelhead return, we’ll know our job is done.”

In 1995, political restoration activities began with the county, which led to the City Council’s approval of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan in May, 2007, created with $3 million from the Department of Water and Power’s deep coffers. The plan contains many items – revitalizing the river, greening adjacent neighborhoods and creating value through economic opportunities – and includes more than a dozen references to steelhead. Key among them are “… ideally, developing fish passages, fish ladders, and riffle pools to allow for restoration of steelhead trout habitat.”

“It was a recognition by the design team and the city that fish habitat would be good and to strive for it as a goal,” said Ira Artz, the project manager at Tetra Tech, the environmental engineering and consulting firm responsible for the plan. According to the plan, “the long-term vision for the river involves restoring a continuous, functioning riparian ecosystem along the river corridor.” Improvements should include:

— Decreasing water temperature through shade

— Improving water quality

— Creating an unimpeded path from the ocean to the headwaters, along with areas to rest and to spawn

— Inducing a natural flow regime of high and low-flows

Two of the four have improved incrementally as of this writing, water quality and pathways.

Steelhead aside, getting any project shovel ready faces a myriad of political hurdles. According to city documents, the river flows through seven U.S. Congressional districts, 10 city council districts, approximately 20 neighborhood councils and 12 community plan areas. On top of that with about 10 million people, L.A. is the nation’s second largest urban region, and Long Beach down the road is one of the world’s busiest ports. It also happens to be where the river exits to the ocean.

Yet, there are the beginnings of a solution if you look north to one of the L.A. River’s main tributaries, the Arroyo Seco. If fact, the founding of the city in 1781 took place at the confluence of these two bodies of water. As part of the restoration plan, Confluence Plaza was inaugurated in the shadow of the I-5 freeway earlier this year.

“Historically,” Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, an environmental group, said in his offices at the River Center, “the Arroyo Seco had a really rich trout culture, including steelhead. And there are lots of historical references to steelhead on the Arroyo Seco and, really, in the L.A. river system. Brick is a “money where your mouth is” kind of guy, who recently with the help of CDM corporation and a $2 million grant from the state’s Water Resources Control Board, spearheaded the return of 300 minnowlike native Arroyo Chub to a newly restored native habitat. “We view the re-establishment of the Arroyo Chub as the first step toward the re-establishment of steelhead in the L.A. River.”

Wendy Katagi, CDM’s environmental planner, who worked with Brick on the restoration project, naturally agreed. “We should focus on doing steelhead recovery in the upper watershed. They miraculously hang on, these populations. The best thing we can do is create and mimic natural stream morphology elements through whatever is needed. Then the likelihood of species recovery goes way up.”

Moreover, Gordon Becker, a senior scientist with the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, based in Oakland, Calif., spent months – if not years – analyzing Department of Fish and Game stocking records, field notes and surveys from the 1920s into this century for all of Los Angeles County. His study, published in 2008, speaks to the small number of fish currently present.

A steelhead rendered on the Guardians of the River gate. Once these oceangoing trout ran up the river. Time for them to return.

Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to provide an estimate for the number of steelhead in streams of L.A. County, according to Becker. The surveys he reviewed were not population estimates, which is what one would need to say anything at all about abundance.

“Essentially,” he continued in an e-mail, “steelhead in the county are opportunistic at this point. In some years, successful spawning may occur in Malibu Creek, or Arroyo Sequit, or Zume Canyon Creek, or Topanga Creek, but we can’t describe the situation as a steelhead ‘run’ of any particular size. It is my opinion that supplementation will need to be pursued if we are to have a real run in a SoCal stream in the future.”

Today, the city’s point person for the massive river project is Carol Armstrong. After serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand and witnessing firsthand the toll Asian development took on the environment, she enrolled in the University of Southern California’s Sustainable Cities program and received her PhD.

She coined “riverly,” which you’ll hear at most meetings about the subject. She explained another of her creations, Steelhead Fred, while standing next to the bike lane overlooking the river at three-acre Marsh Park, which is a “detention park,” meaning it’s designed to partially fill with water during heavy rain. As she looked across the river toward the San Gabriel Mountains, sporadic afternoon two-wheel traffic filled this newly opened stretch of the bike path, another sign of the river’s rebirth and its increasing connection to the community.

“Environmentalists say ‘we will not have accomplished L.A. river revitalization until the steelhead trout returns,’ so we came up with Steelhead Fred, the steelhead trout, and we ask developers and project proponents, all of them, is it riverly?”

Currently, consensus is that the most riverly project to finish is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study that began in 2006 with the city as the local partner. It looks at the 10-mile stretch of soft bottom that stretches from Glendale Narrows, plus Headworks Reservoir in Burbank, through downtown to First Street. This area, part of which is across from Griffith Park, is the most popular with fly fishers looking to hook carp. Besides having a soft bottom – as opposed to concrete – it contains what the Corps calls “ecological value” and has the most water in it year around.

The Corps controls the concrete. So without the study, which would then possibly lead to an actual project, okayed by Congress, no concrete will be exchanged for terracing or plantings, or improving fish passage. It will remain what it was constructed to be – a flood conveyance channel with the aim of getting high-flow water from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Currently, completing the feasibility study will cost $2.6 million, according to Armstrong, and it’s nowhere to be found in President Obama’s 2012 budget, even though it’s a No. 1 priority of the Urban Waters Partnership Program. Recently, Councilperson Ed Reyes, the river’s chief and most dogged proponent, was in Washington asking President Obama to fund the study.

Josephine Axt, the Army Corps planning division chief, is a civilian, a PhD. biologist and rides her bike to work, changing into appropriately conservative work attire, picked from a closet inside her office. “There’s a lot of functionality that we can restore that then might create conditions that would be conducive to fish,” but she stresses that the goals and objectives for the long-awaited study were established some years ago and they’re not to bring back fish.

“To me, if steelhead come back or not, it’s not the measure that I hope the restoration study is measured by. To me, it’s much more about habitat in general.”

Paradoxically, of the 240 potential river projects, not one deals specifically with steelhead restoration.

“We know steelhead won’t be back tomorrow,” continued Armstrong, “but each and every thing we do should build to a place where it’s possible. And by looking at it now, it’s not absurd, but there’s a reason that we do what we do. It’s respecting life, bringing life back … .”

And nature’s clock continues to tick – albeit slowly. About a quarter-mile up from the Figueroa Street Bridge, lie slabs of concrete that the river has started to reclaim. The water’s going underneath the channel there and taking out the concrete. Eventually the river will have to be rechannelized, one way or the other.

“Maybe next time they rechannelize it, they do it to the specifications of the steelhead,” mused Lewis MacAdams. “Have a panel of steelhead, fins up, fins down. Let the steelhead decide the shape of the channel. I’ve always felt that what we were doing was calling things home. You know, ‘it’s OK to come back’. There is something to that.”

See you on the river, Jim Burns