It is too navigable...
In 2010, the EPA designated the river “traditional navigable waters”— which entitles it to all protections and requirements of the Clean Water Act— in response to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruling to the contrary in 2008. “The entire 51-mile watershed,” EPA chief Lisa Jackson declared, “... will have the full protection of our nation’s clean water law.”
Why Did L.A. Decide to Import Water?
The standard answer? “L.A. is a desert.” How many times have you heard that? However, L.A. boasts a semi-arid Mediterranean climate. We often have rainy winters — really, rain! — but we do live in a place where we have to use water carefully. By 1900, L.A. was pumping up three times more water per capita than many cities on the well-watered East Coast. And like a lot of cities, it used its major water source as a sewer and as a trash dump.
The alternate answer? Yes, we did outgrow our water supply — but only after we destroyed it. (And anyone who has seen Chinatown knows that more than a few civic leaders amassed vast fortunes off Owens Valley water.)
So We Messed Up the River by 1900 — but When Did the Concrete Happen?
The L.A. River poses one of the worst flood dangers of any river that flows through an American city. That might sound odd (Mark Twain once wrote that he’d fallen into a Southern California river and “come out all dusty”), but our river drops farther in altitude in 51 miles than his Mississippi does in 2000 miles from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a lot of water roaring very fast out of a lot of mountains.
In the late 1930s, after yet another series of floods sent people canoeing all over Los Angeles, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers charged in to solve L.A.’s problem once and for all. The Corps embarked on a heroic, gargantuan, and unprecedented project to encase the river in a three-sided concrete channel 20-30 feet deep. It took the Corps 25 years to pave the river as well as its tributaries. And then, the County Flood Control District proceeded to connect the street-sewer network to the channels to rush floodwaters as fast as possible into the channels and out to the sea.
The project obliterated L.A.’s lush, green riparian landscape—every leaf and every blade of grass.
Um... Mission Accomplished?
Well, sort of. The concrete channels have since contained our floodwaters successfully. That’s the kind-of good news. Unfortunately, directing as much rainwater as possible into the river (at least 50% of the stormwater in the watershed) turns out not to be the most sustainable way to control flooding. The unqualified bad news is that this gargantuan project has generated three huge problems.
Streets, freeways, and train tracks cross the concrete walls of the LA River.
One, water pollution: The storm sewers rush abundant toxins efficiently off our roads and lawns, into the channelized rivers and streams, and into the ocean. Bacteria, pesticides, fertilizers, car wax, copper brake bits — and trash, more trash, and a whole lot more trash. The concrete infrastructure has turned our waters into a toxic stew awash with plastic bags.
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