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Friday’s Regional Round-Up: L.A. Gets Its RIVER Back

Ballona Creek: Our NEXT Navigable Waterway? We Can Hope.

We doubt you could find an environmental group in all of Los Angeles (or beyond) that isn’t celebrating the HISTORIC regional story that broke Wednesday: the Los Angeles River is navigable!


What’s this mean?

Well, if you’ll pardon us being self-referential for a moment, it means that a key government agency (the US Environmental Protection Agency) has made an important decision to help begin to restore a priceless resource, the once-free-running Los Angeles River. This is the exact opposite of a government decision made in 1984, when the Friends of Ballona Wetlands was only six years old, and another key government agency (the California Coastal Commission) had caved to a major developer instead of agreeing to restore a priceless resource.

That story began in 1978, when Howard Hughes’ successors, the Summa Corporation, announced plans to build a megacity of huge skyscrapers on 1100 or so acres of Hughes-owned property stretching from Centinela Boulevard in West L.A. to Vista del Mar in Playa del Rey. That Hughes property was part of a larger wetlands complex that had once (before urbanization) stretched from Centinela to the Bay, and from the Playa del Rey bluff to what’s now Venice.

To condense a great deal, Summa claimed there were only 72 viable acres of wetlands, but our founder, Ruth Lansford, and some scientist friends, including Ed Tarvyd, Howard Towner and Ken Dial, carefully studied the property and said there were at least 190 viable wetland acres, and even more restorable habitat. They started attending public meetings of various government agencies, buttonholing anyone who would listen, to argue for the higher number.

In 1984, the California Coastal Commission agreed with Summa, and the Friends had to sue (our first and only lawsuit), represented by the Center for Law in the Public Interest. In 1989, Summa sold its major interest in the land to Maguire Thomas Partners, who immediately began negotiations with the Friends, resulting in the preservation of the wetland (190 acres) plus the restoration of 150 additional acres of habitat. (Then, over the years, as the political climate improved, the Friends were able, with other environmental and politician friends, to increase the number to the present 600 acres, a campaign culminating in the 2003 Trust for Public Land purchase of that remaining acreage from the then-(and current) owner, Playa Capital.)

But enough about us.

Meanwhile, in 1986, an organization called Friends of the Los Angeles River was founded by poet Lewis MacAdams and some friends of his, who helped build alliances with lots of other environmental groups and various enlightened politicians in order to, in the words of the FOLAR mission statement, “protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat through inclusive planning, education and wise stewardship.”

In short, their mission is to bring back the wildlife habitat, and to knit together the human communities along its 51-mile length. Rather than settling for a massive, concrete-lined flood control ditch built solely to convey untreated stormwater directly to the San Pedro Bay, they saw (as poets often do) the possibility of an alternative reality, cities that integrated a more natural watercourse into their communities, making the river a centerpiece, a gathering point, a (dare we say it?) sacred place, with soul.

But FOLAR’s problem (as the Coastal Commission was for the Friends), was that the federal Army Corps of Engineers, which is in the flood control business, refused to recognize that any of the Los Angeles River, save for a tiny four-mile stretch, was navigable. That meant, in short, that most of the river and its immediate surroundings could be more easily urbanized and developed, and that crucial federal Clean Water Act standards (which mandate that all of our nation’s waters be swimmable and fishable – which is to say, safe for humans and for wildlife) didn’t apply. So FOLAR fought, with its allies, to prove the river’s navigability, including sponsoring well-publicized kayaking trips down the supposedly non-navigable river.

Finally, the EPA agreed with FOLAR and friends. As David Beckman, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council put it in yet another well-written article by Louis Sahagun in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, “this is great news. It means less pollution in the river and provides a vital support for community efforts to rejuvenate and restore it.”

We could go on, but we’ll simply pop another bottle of bubbly and refer you for more information to, in order, the FOLAR website, today’s Los Angeles Times editorial, and to the more-exuberant-than-even-Champagne Joe Linton, whose L.A. Creek Freak blog has been covering this story (and helping shape it) for years.

Congratulations to all of you, to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, to Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin, and the other political leaders who were also instrumental in rescuing the L.A. River for all of us.

(And someday, perhaps we’ll get to reclaim a portion of Ballona Creek, and there’ll be some creek water meandering when the wetlands get restored.)