Lewis MacAdams, poet and founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, and Charles Eddy, retired attorney, environmentalist, and current FoLAR board member, discuss their work to create a management authority for the Los Angeles River. Having advocated for opening the river up to public use for decades, they have turned to Sacramento for help. SB 1201, should it become law, would place control of the river into the hands of a multi-agency and jurisdictional council.
“We’re trying to create a new idea about the river in which humans work with the river instead of controlling the river.” -Lewis MacAdams
Lewis, you’ve long been (in addition to a published poet) the civic and articulate voice of Los Angeles River users. Could you share their current priorities and explain the purpose of proposed legislation in Sacramento that you hope will respond to their needs?
Lewis MacAdams: People want to go down to the river for recreation; people want to go down to the river for education; people want to fish and kayak—things people want to do on any kind of a river. Henry David Thoreau would have understood this bill perfectly.
We want the river to be the center of our metropolis, as it is geographically. Los Angeles County is the watershed of the Los Angeles River. Since the flood control act of 1915 the river has been saddled with the definition as a flood control channel exclusively. One of the things this bill does is slightly redefines the role of the County Department of Public Works to include education and recreation, along with flood control and storm water recharge. That’s the fundamental issue.
Mr. Eddy, is current law not compatible with the agenda advocated by Lewis? If not, why not?
Charles Eddy: The current language of the flood control act does not provide for education and recreation. It provides for flood control and water conservation, the running of recharge basins. That’s the primary mission of the act going back almost 100 years.
Are not people now using the Los Angeles River? Are they illegally using the river?
Charles Eddy: Yes and yes, technically. The county code has a provision that prohibits river use without a permit. Anybody who is technically in any property, flood control channel, drainage ditches, catch basins in the county’s flood control district can’t be there without express permission.
Lewis, please elaborate on the bill that you introduced two weeks ago in the State Senate.
Lewis MacAdams: This legislation, SB 1201, was shaped with the assistance of the Environmental Law Clinic at UCLA. We wanted to acknowledge the implications of the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent redefinition of the Los Angeles River as a navigable waterway. That ruling essentially changed the fundamental meaning of the river, but so far nothing has actually changed. Thus, we wrote this bill.
This bill is an attempt to bring the LA River authorities onto the same page with the Environmental Protection Agency. Really it has two purposes. Purpose one is to broaden access to the river—there’s a piece of this that proposes some tort reform to allow for greater access and fewer lawsuits. The other part is to create a state agency, which would be chaired by the Secretary for Natural Resources, which would oversee the river.
Right now we have a situation where we have the County, the City, and the Army Corps of Engineers all locked in this frustrating turf battle, which has been going on as long as I have been doing this, which is 24 or 25 years. We’re seeing arguments over and over again. The argument is, basically, “You can’t change it because god knows what will happen next.”
How does the County view your proposed legislation – SB 1201?
Lewis MacAdams: Well, William Carlos Williams said once, “A new world is a new mind.” When you see the documents from the County opposing this bill, they never refer to the LA River—they refer to the flood control channel. It’s always control; it’s not detention, which is what it really is about. We’re trying to create a new idea about the river in which humans work with the river instead of controlling the river.
Mr. Eddy, elaborate on the legal issues addressed by FoLAR’s proposed legislation. What is important for our readers to better understand regarding the proposed changes in governance?
Charles Eddy: The bill does two things. It basically adds about a sentence, twelve words to be precise, to the LA County Flood Control Act so that, in addition to flood control, the county also has to consider recreation, public access, and education.
The second major piece of the bill sets up a multi-agency council chaired by the Secretary for Natural Resources with specific mandates to coordinate the various issues related to access and use. These include public safety, to make sure the river is only used at times when it is safe. Right now there is no system for doing that; there’s no warning systems, no flag system, nothing like that.
Second, it would deal with the whole issue of permitting. Right now if you want to use the river for an educational tour, kayaking, boating, or whatever, the permitting is extremely difficult. It’s done separately by the Corps of Engineers, by the County Flood Control District, and by the City. In the last year the State Department of Fish and Game became the first state agency to acknowledge their authority over the LA River. As an example, FoLAR’s cleanup last year was almost delayed because the Department of Fish and Game came in at the last minute and demanded a special study of nesting sites along the river. There’s no coordination among these agencies that amounts to anything.
Lewis MacAdams: Just to do our LA River cleanup we had to get 15 different permits, and all we were trying to do was clean up the river. That’s the real outcome of the as is. We’re considered a kind of nuisance, really. The County feels that they are carrying out their historical mandate, and we’re trying to say, “Let’s change this historical mandate.” A hundred years ago the river was a conduit for railroads. Before that it, was the LA water supply. What should a 21st century post-industrial river look like? That’s the question we’re trying to begin to answer.
The County of Los Angeles asserts that your legislative proposal is a duplication of current and successful local efforts, which include both the County LA River master plan and the City master plan, as well as current mechanisms for coordination and managing the river that involve all the stakeholders. Ergo, why, it must be asked, do we need this new law and new authority?
Charles Eddy: The County master plan was produced in 1996, and it doesn’t really provide much assistance to anybody. There’s no coordinating mechanism under this plan. The LA City master plan is much more complete, strategic, and well thought out. It proposed four coordinating agencies, of which only three have seen the light of day: the LA City Council ad hoc river committee, the River Restoration Corporation, and the Los Angeles River Cooperation Committee.
Isn’t that sufficient?
Charles Eddy: No, because nobody has yet dealt with the issues identified: access, safety, permitting, signage, and enforcement. From time to time somebody will be down by the river, and a park ranger will come along and issue them a ticket.
Lewis MacAdams: I was on a tour of the river under the 6th street bridge with about 50 people, and suddenly there are police cars coming down that tunnel to the river to throw everybody out. That was a permitted tour.
Charles and I took the original version of this bill to the cooperation committee. They listened, and then that was it. There was no action; that’s why our bill exists.
Give our readers an appreciation for why a new governing authority for the LA River is needed.
Charles Eddy: There is a River Cooperation Committee, the RCC, not to be confused with the RRC. The RCC is a multi-agency coordinating body; we thought this was going to be the mechanism to address these issues. We went and testified twice, and they informed us, in no uncertain terms, that they exist only to coordinate significant projects along the river—parks, bike trails, and other access. They’re not dealing with the issues that we raised when we testified before the committee, which are the ones I just mentioned.
I think the fire needs to be lit. Lewis has been working on this for 25 years. We still don’t have a good system of public access and use for the river, with safety, signage, coordinated permitting process, and all the other things that go into a multi-agency management system.
Who does SB 1201 recommend to have authority over both river access and enforcement?
Charles Eddy: Most of the authority for the river is now under the LA County Flood Control District. They’re fundamental to any reform of the river, and I suspect that’s why they’re concerned.
What’s being proposed in SB 1201 is a multi-agency council, which is specifically charged with designating the areas of the river that are suitable for public use, considering recreation, education, and safety, identifying barriers to public use, providing coordinated permitting, and providing safety and warning systems.
Since the purpose of SB 1201 is not to solve an immediate problem but to set up a governance structure to manage use of the River over a century, who are you proposing have authority under the Bill? By whom and how will competing interests be reconciled? Are you really proposing to elevate local matters—flood control and river usage—to the state level? Do you contend that you’ll have more responsiveness at the state level?
Charles Eddy: Yes
Lewis MacAdams: I think there’s a multiplicity of voices that must be considered when managing the LA River. There’s everyone from the developers increasingly eyeing the riverfront, and there are the kinds of agencies that oversee kayaking. We need to widen the river; there’s no question about that. It needs to be set back in particular places. The river needs more room, and in order for that to happen, because it is an expensive long-term process, we’re creating a constituency of river users who identify with the river, who understand it’s value and its potential value, and who want the river to be a central place in the life of Los Angeles.
Returning to your vision for the LA River, in five to ten years as you continue to light a fire under elected officials, press the case for a new governing authority, and advocate for river users’ interests, what are you hoping will change?
Lewis MacAdams: We want to see legal access to the river for kayaking, fishing, and swimming. This won’t be the panacea that changes the river over night, but it will create a legal basis for people to come down to the river.
Fishermen have been ticketed. The City just uses a loitering ticket because they don’t have any LA River tickets. Of course it usually gets thrown out, but people have to spend the day downtown dealing with it. We want people to feel that the river is open. When I started Friends of the Los Angeles River, my first official act was cutting a big hole in the fence, declaring the river open. It’s only taken 25 years to get to this point. We’re at the point where the river is about to be opened, and we’re pushing the door gently open wider.
Regarding SB 1201, what is your hope and expectation for the bill?
Lewis MacAdams: It’s going to be formally introduced at the Natural Resources Committee on April 10 and the Judiciary Committee on April 17. After that, we’ll see. We have a clear sense of the restoration of the river. This is one of the ways of going about doing it, we think. We’re pleased that people like Kevin de León and Fran Pavely have taken on this issue, and we want to expand that so it becomes a state matter.
The problem that we’re dealing with is that we’ve got a concrete cult, which has been in place for a hundred years, and we’re trying to expand that definition to include all the things people do on a river. If this bill actually passes, we’ll begin to be able to do that. This is inside baseball to a lot of people. It’s about kayaking, but it’s not directly kayaking. It’s giving a legal basis for people do all these things along the river, which they cannot legally do at this time.
Charles Eddy: It’s filling a gap, and there’s a major gap right now. We have great plans.
Lewis MacAdams: The LA River runs through 14 cities, and 60 percent of it is through the City of Los Angeles. The rest of it isn’t. When the County says we already have this mechanism with the LA City master plan, that’s disingenuous.
They said they have two mechanisms: the County plan and the City plan.
Lewis MacAdams: The County plan basically looks at the kinds of plants along the river. The City’s plan is a much more serious document—much more went into it. The City’s master plan doesn’t deal with this issue of governance particularly directly. It deals with a lot of issues for planning and zoning, and it’s an important document. But it’s incomplete for what we’re trying to accomplish.
Charles Eddy: There’s no governance for the river. Other areas, including some rivers, are governed by conservancies. They’re governed by single agencies that have total jurisdiction. The LA River is unique in this respect. It does not have any governing body, and this is an effort to establish one.
Lastly, Is your governing model like the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, only for the river?
Charles Eddy: No, this doesn’t have the authorities that the conservancies have. The concept is regional. We want the cities of Long Beach involved; we want all cities along the river that want to participate. They can be part of the council. Something like this needs someone who will come in and hopefully knock heads to make things happen.