October 29, 2005 - From the October, 2005 issue

L.A.-San Gabriel River Watershed Council Works To Enhance Urban Ecosystems Through Collaboration

The Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, are two of the most urbanized waterways in the world. The concrete channels pass through dozens of cities and jurisdictions, most of which do not enjoy the rivers' full recreational, ecological, or economic benefits. The Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council is dedicated to helping cities and agencies realize the rivers' potential. MIR recently spoke with LASGRWC Executive Director Nancy Steele and Board President Kathleen Bullard about the council's mission and strategy.

Nancy Steele

To commence, please give our MIR readers a brief overview of the Watershed Council. What is its purpose, its mission, and top priorities?

Kathleen Bullard: The Watershed Council was formed in response to the realization by a number of people that there was more money being spent on litigation than on negotiation and on securing improvements to the our River watersheds. One example of the litigation which motivated the Council's creation was over the Army Corps of Engineers study of LACDA (Los Angeles County Drainage Area) that recommended raising the levee walls in the lower river down to Long Beach, So, the concept for the Watershed Council was started by people, like Dorothy Green. to get all the stakeholders - agencies, individuals and nonprofits - around the table to build consensus on solutions for dealing with issues impacting our watershed, because that approach hadn't really been used.

The Council's stated mission is "to facilitate a comprehensive, multi-purpose, stakeholder-driven consensus process to preserve, restore, and enhance the many beneficial uses, economic, social, environmental and biological, of the Los Angeles River and San Gabriel River watersheds ecosystem through education, research, planning, and mediation." The Council's purpose is to realize this vision statement and to build a consensus to preserve, restore and enhance the many beneficial uses of the watershed.

Rivers obviously need not follow political boundaries, and the two rivers the Council relates to flow through a disparate mix of local governments. How many public entities and agencies are involved, and how do you entice all the stakeholders to work together for this common goal?

Nancy Steele: We have on our board itself representatives from Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County, Rosemead, Long Beach, Compton, regional agencies like SCAG, and regional "water providers" like MWD. We have wastewater treatment and sanitation districts, and we also have, the conservancies, which are property owners, namely the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Lower Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers and Mountains Conservancy. The board also has businesses such as Southern California Edison and CH2M HILL. In addition to the people that we have on our board, I consider that we represent all of the cities and unincorporated areas in the watershed, and one of the tasks that I've set myself as the new executive director is getting all over the county and particularly the L.A. and San Gabriel River cities and other organizations and agencies that we represent and meeting those folks. So, I've been spending a lot of my time driving around, having meetings with people, getting them engaged.

KB: To add to that list is the County Department of Public Works and Los Angeles County Sanitation, who are also on the board. TreePeople is also on the board, and Dorothy Green has represented Heal the Bay for years. So, it's a pretty wide scope of board members, and we also have official liaisons from stakeholder groups who do not actually sit on the board, but advise and participate in board meetings. One of the things that we talked about early on was that this isn't as much an institution as a process. We created the table where people could sit and discuss issues in a safe environment.

Share some of the ideas that have surfaced at these table discussions. Which do you think deserve the most attention? Which would the Council like to see prioritized for action?

KB: I think one of the important things we are doing is the groundwater augmentation study. We want to rehabilitate this watershed and reverse the process that we have right now of just shooting all our rainfall out into the ocean. One of the key questions is: As we start to infiltrate stormwater runoff in our watershed to return our watershed to a more natural hydrologic regime, is that water clean enough to actually infiltrate, or will it contaminate the groundwater that is part of our water supply? Suzanne Dallman, who is our technical director, has been leading a multiyear study looking at just those issues.

NS: We are in the fourth year of the water augmentation study, heading into the fifth year, and we're seeing positive results. By positive I mean good results, in that we don't see any negative impact from the infiltration of surface water into ground water and so we are continuing with the monitoring and are now moving into demonstration phase to do some larger scale projects of designing and constructing systems that intentionally focus the infiltration down to ground water and then move to monitoring those demonstration projects.

Another area that risen to the top for the Watershed Council and its stakeholders is what we call the landscape ethic, which is encouraging the use of native and drought-tolerant California plants in the landscape to reduce our overall water use, and we have quite a substantial education and outreach program which we're going to continue. We're also going to be working on expanding our efforts to educate the next set of officials. I mentioned that I'm doing a lot of driving around and meeting people. We'd like to institutionalize that effort more and perhaps expand our staff and have somebody full-time, working on creating educational materials, conducting outreach with local officials both elective and staff.

From an engineering and ecological standpoint, how much money would it cost to restore the river to a state acceptable to the Council? And from where might such investment come from?

KB: We really need to evolve the L.A. River, which is a forward process, versus restore, which is a somewhat backward process. The Los Angeles River ran all across the L.A. plain when it was completely natural and if you look at historic maps you can see that at one point it would flow out to Ballona Creek; other times its discharge would change between San Pedro and Long Beach, so to say we're going to restore the river is very unlikely.

The way I like to think about it is that our urban environment will evolve, and the river can evolve with our urban environment. So putting back ecological function and how we do that, I think, has yet to be decided in terms of the engineering. Bio-engineering techniques are in early development at this stage.

I think the funding will come from a variety of sources. One source is federal funding from the Army Corps of Engineers' ongoing maintenance operations of the flood control channels. The L.A. County Department of Public Works has stated that in 20 years the flood control structure will be obsolete. And part of that obsolescence is that it is just wearing away. If you look at how much the L.A. River infrastructure cost it was about a billion dollars. In today's terms, that would be about $4.5 billion and if you look out twenty years you're probably looking at $20 billion. The Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with protecting L.A. from flooding and I think they are certainly up to the task of protecting L.A. from flooding and at the same time put habitat back, and provide for recreation.

The other part of that funding I think is going to come from what is happening right now with the L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan. As part of that plan, they're really looking at economic revitalization and economic redevelopment, and that will become self-funding. If you're looking at tools such as tax-incentive financing where the incremental tax increase from doing the redevelopment will actually pay for improvements, that will certainly fund the restoration of the river.


In terms of flood control, we've all seen from Katrina and the tsunami the destruction that is possible from environmental events. How does our heightened awareness of disaster preparedness play into your strategy for enhancing the rivers?

KB: We would never compromise flood management for an environmental enhancement when it might involve flooding that would endanger people and private property. Where you could do that safely-where you can restore a floodplain and can actually re-flood an area but not take out homes-I think that's possible. As far as the heightened awareness, all along we have been saying that you have to maintain the integrity of the flood protection that we have right now. So, I don't see that changing. I think the thing that works in that strategy is that you really have to look at where the opportunities lie for re-doing some of the infrastructure in a more environmentally sensitive and community-sensitive way.

NS: Another note on that, I think the heightened awareness is playing more into an awareness of the risks to the levee system and protecting that levee system. We of course in Southern California rely heavily on drinking water that comes from the Bay Delta. And so, the Watershed Council is involved in the monitoring of that process and we are also involved in the watershed program of the CALFED program.

One of the recurring lessons gleaned from examples of engagement with big public projects, such as revitalizing the rivers, is that they require political will in addition to large sums of money. Is there the political will to enact and fund infrastructure projects that might help restore the rivers to the conditions aspired to by the Council?

KB: I think the political will is there. I think we've hit a tipping point on the river. When you look at Lewis McAdams founding Friends of the Los Angeles River in 1985, all of that was seen as sort of a fringe group with a crazy idea. And now, it's not crazy. Now, many people are supportive of revitalizing the river and I think the will is there. The average person may still need to be convinced a little bit more to be able to see that vision, but I think that the political actors probably do see that vision.

NS: Another note to add - as this is a tipping point, as Kathleen pointed, out we do have to be very aware of the need to keep folks on this issue because it would be easy for people in Southern California to fall back into complacency. So they're here, we've got them, they're educated, and we need to keep moving forward on the vision.

KB: And I think again that the key evidence is that the city has this River Revitalization Plan that they are committed to which really shows their will to do this.

What arguments do you give to the skeptics or the people in smaller cities who think that this is too big a project for them to really get their arms around?

KB: If you look at other cities, this has certainly been done elsewhere and it is not that rare. I wouldn't say it's common, but it's certainly not that rare. The other cities in the watershed can look at other cities that have done these kinds of projects, such as Tempe, Arizona, and what the impact has been on their cities. So, it's not just a matter of imagining this, but you can look to other examples and judge the tremendous impact, positive impact, it has had on development and sense of pride that comes with creating a sense of place.

NS: Economic revitalization is an important part of the argument. When you revitalize the rivers, when you make them attractive places for people to live and play, then you get the economic revitalization that goes along with it. Even our less financially successful cities, I think, are recognizing the importance of this issue. You've got a lot of the cities on the San Gabriel River, such as El Monte, that are making this one of their priorities and they recognize that as they increase the number of parks along the river it is going to be a plus for their city residents.

In the August issue of MIR, Rachel Dinno and Larry Kaplan of the Trust for Public Land discussed a proposed state parks bond that might be on the ballot in 2006. What would the Watershed Council hope to secure from that bond?

KB: Money, and not just money for us. Money for the region. One of the things we've talked about on the Watershed Council is, and it's really what I've been most interested in as president and having Nancy come on board, is that we as a region are united in the projects that we want implemented and making sure that L.A. gets its fair share of the state funding. I would like to see, and we've talked about this at the Watershed Council, is a line item in that bond specifically for Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watersheds projects. We will have a measure of success when this region finally has that level of clout at the state level, as it should.


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