The Works

The L.A. River Means One Thing to People and Another to a Steelhead Trout

(Photo: Downtowngal)

Despite its name, the Los Angeles River is more like a gutter the size of an interstate. The indented waterway, built to handle storm water runoff and make property-destroying floods a thing of the past, is today an icon of over-development. And deep and worsening problems with the region’s water supply have a variety of agencies re-thinking the river.

On May 28th, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the same agency that built the Los Angeles River in its current form — recommended a $1 billion proposal to restore 11 miles of river. The much-touted plan, which is being called Alternative 20, involves removing pavement, creating wetlands, restoring native habitat and building bike paths and access points north of downtown. Benefits listed by the federal agency include beautification, job creation and recreational opportunities like fishing, but curiously, not the water itself. However, a city document titled the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan states: “Captured and conserved, that water would have tremendous value for augmenting the region’s water supply.”

As every Northern Californian and Coloradan is taught at an early age, Los Angeles imports roughly 85 percent of its water from the Sierras and Colorado River. (Up north, the verb “imports” is usually swapped for a less pleasant one rhyming with “seals.”) Meanwhile, during the wet months the Los Angeles River pours as much as 146,000 cubic feet of water into the Pacific Ocean every second according to the Los Angeles Times, an amount that could fill 20,000 bathtubs.

The master plan suggests that storm water can be retained and treated before it enters the main arterial and speeds to the ocean. Brian Sheridan, the marketing manager with L.A.’s Council for Watershed Health, provides details.

“Only 16 percent of precipitation current[ly] percolates to groundwater, while 50 percent becomes runoff that flows directly through our system to the ocean,” he writes in an email. “Yet we have the capacity to add 384,000 acre-feet of water to our basins per year. Our basins could be providing enough water for 1.5 million people.”

“We’re working very hard on the management of storm water,” says Adel Hagekhalil with L.A. Bureau of Sanitation. Spurred by 2004’s voter-passed Proposition O and a citywide goal of reducing water importation by 50 percent, he says, some projects have already begun. A “greenway” in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood connects to the river, featuring an underground biofiltration system that treats water for storage. Another underground system, funded partially by the EPA, treats runoff from a storm drain in northeast L.A. And a “green street” in the San Fernando Valley captures rainwater in bioswales, ditches lined in bark and gravel that allow water to seep gradually into the ground and recharge the water table. Meanwhile a $2 million study funded partly by the U.S. Department of the Interior is currently examining other ways to utilize storm water.

But while decentralized capture systems have immense potential for L.A.’s population, harvesting water before it reaches the river could impact the species that already live there. Although the channel razed countless habitats, paving over white willows and cattails and wiping out steelhead, it’s created new ecosystems in the near-century since it was constructed. A document release by the Friends of the Los Angeles River shows a photo of the concrete riverbed caked in slimy neon algae resembling radioactive waste. But that algae, the paper points out, draws invertebrates, which then draw sandpipers, pelicans and osprey.

“Our research has shown that water agencies want to take advantage of the natural water sources we have,” Sheridan says. “The question is how much they want to use and how much they want to save and dedicate for ecological benefits.”

Lewis MacAdams with Friends of the Los Angeles River agrees.

“The conversations have begun. It’s clear that the future cannot rest simply in the Rocky Mountains and Sierras,” he says. “But what happens next — the discussion is just beginning. And it brings up philosophical questions. When you’re talking about the L.A. River, what sort of river are you talking about? What it means to a community of people is different than what it means to a steelhead trout.”

Ultimately, he says, people have shaped the L.A. River into its current form, and that can’t be entirely undone. “It’s a post-modern collaboration between man and nature,” he says.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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