June 30, 2014 - From the July, 2014 issue

Lewis MacAdams on Army Corps’ LA River Revitalization Alternative 20

On May 28, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would recommend the $1.08-billion Alternative 20 as its preferred proposal for revitalizing the Los Angeles River. The decision, which marked a significant change from the Corps’ original plan to recommend the half-as-ambitious Alternative 13, came after nearly three decades of work by Lewis MacAdams to change Angelenos’ relationship to their waterway through his non-profit, Friends of the Los Angeles River. In an exclusive conversation with TPR, MacAdams discusses the details of Alternative 20, the long process that brought about the Army Corps’ announcement, and the potential for the river as recreational greenspace in years to come.

Lewis MacAdams

“The thrilling part of it for me, personally, is that Alternative 20 begins to fulfill some of my own goals from when I started Friends of the Los Angeles River. We will start to see habitat restored.” -Lewis MacAdams

Lewis, the Army Corps of Engineers recently approved a $1.08 billion plan for an 11-mile stretch of the LA River. Beyond the headlines, what does their plan—Alternative 20—include, and what doesn’t it include?

Lewis MacAdams: It includes a lot. Alternative 20, when it’s fulfilled, will have taken out probably six miles of concrete with an equivalent amount of habitat restored. When all is said and done, the Piggyback Yard—a 125-acre Union Pacific yard across the river from Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles—will be about 80 acres of wetlands restoration, parkland creation, and flood detention. Verdugo Wash will ultimately be connected to the mountains and concrete will be removed from it. Concrete will also be removed from the Arroyo Seco confluence. Perhaps a mile of concrete will come out at Piggyback Yard, which will bring that entire area into the river. 

One of the things that people are concerned about, and rightfully so, is the question of flooding. There were a bunch of reasons the river was channelized, but one of them was very legitimately about flood detention. The Corps’ recommendation takes flood detention into full account. Flood danger is real, and people need to understand that no one is taking that aspect lightly.

The thrilling part of it for me, personally, is that Alternative 20 begins to fulfill some of my own goals from when I started Friends of the Los Angeles River. We will start to see habitat restored. When people ask me, “How will you know when your work is done?” I always say, “When the steelhead trout run returns to the Los Angeles River.” This won’t directly make that happen, but it’s a big step toward it.

Differentiate the competing LA River plans: Alternatives 20 and 13. Why did locals fight so vigorously and persistently with the Army Corps for Alternative 20?

Ultimately, the issue was money. Alternative 13 cost half as much as Alternative 20, and did about half as much to restore the river. 

I should say, the LA District’s own support of Alternative 20 was informal, because formally they are part of the Army. When the national headquarters went with Alternative 13 originally, the LA District had to fall into line. There was no doubt among anybody that was working on this issue, and continues to work on this issue, that the LA District was entirely supportive of Alternative 20—because it got the most bang for the buck. It would take out the most concrete, restore the most habitat, and make the most connections. 

The whole question of how much money the city will put up and how much the federal government will put up is still slightly fluid. Essentially, it’s 50/50. But it’s not quite 50/50, and those proportions are still to be negotiated.

In June of 2008 the LA Times reported the following: “Army Corps of Engineers officials announced Wednesday that they will stand by their decision to label the Los Angeles River as not navigable.” What has changed over six years to alter how the Corps views the river?

Starting in no particular order, the ARBOR Study was very important—for one, because it laid out what ultimately became Alternative 20 as the preferred alternative. 

Also, the Corps ran out of money to finance the study before they were finished. Maybe this sounds self-serving, but Friends of the Los Angeles River went to one of our donors, who came up with a million dollars. First they went through FOLAR, to the city, to the Bureau of Engineering, and then to the Corps of Engineers, so that the study could be finished. I think there was a certain kind of collegiality that was fostered by that gift from our organization.

Another aspect has been, reaching back into the Obama Administration, Jo-Ellen Darcy. She is the assistant secretary of the Army, which is essentially a political appointment. We’ve been really fortunate in LA because Mark Toy, who was the colonel in charge of the Los Angeles District, came on board the day, I believe, that the Environmental Protection Agency announced the Los Angeles River was navigable. He’s now the chief of staff for the general who runs the Corps, and his entire term here was around the LA River. I think that Kim Colloton, who replaced Mark and is the first woman to ever head the LA District, is carrying on what he started. Beyond that, you can go all the way back into the Clinton Administration and see changes at the national level of the Corps. These shifts have all come to fruition with the Corps’ choice of Alternative 20.

But I should say one other thing on this subject: We inadvertently exposed some differences between the LA District and the national Corps of Engineers headquartered in Washington. Just by pointing out issues—such as the price of land, which is a lot cheaper in the middle of the Everglades than in the middle of Los Angeles—people started to see that LA faces challenges that are not the same as face other parts of the country. There was something unique about the Los Angeles River—the extent of it that was in an urban setting and the possibility to really change things as a community for the better. I think that when the Corps saw the kind of support behind Alternative 20, they unavoidably had to re-think their decision. 

River Press Event FinalWhen Mayor Garcetti had a press conference to announce that the Corps had changed their minds to Alternative 20, I got to speak for a couple of minutes. I was at the podium and looked out at this group of people—there were probably 150 at Marsh Park. I realized that I knew almost every one of them, and that almost everybody there had a role of some kind in the ongoing study and political work that has been done, and remains to be done. 

I think what changed, ultimately, was the presence of Mayor Garcetti at the White House. Going to see the president three times to ask for the same thing is probably a bit unusual. Many, many people have been involved in this over the years, but I think that when the mayor stepped in to take on the leadership role, that was the big change. All of the factors I mentioned are important, but I think that’s the most important one.  

How much funding from the Corps and from the federal government was included in Alternative 13?

Under Alternative 13, the city would have paid a larger percentage. For Alternative 20, originally, 40 percent was going to be provided by the federal government and 60 percent by the city. It then moved to 50/50 but now appears to be back to 40/60. 

In the announcement of Alternative 20, the LA Times reports, “Federal officials gave a major boost Wednesday to the city’s plans to turn the Los Angeles River into an urban oasis for recreation and an inviting locale for new commercial and residential development.” Could you comment on that last part, regarding development?

As the mayor said, there’s good development and there’s bad development. Everybody wants good development and nobody wants bad development. What those terms mean is still to be determined. 

Gentrification has become a real issue in a short time, particularly in the Elysian Valley/Frogtown area, and it affects far more than the Los Angeles River. It seems to me that gentrification affects neighborhoods all around Los Angeles, New York, and probably every major city in the world. I think that what constitutes gentrification is pretty flexible depending on who’s saying it. 

If the City of Los Angeles gets to the round of eight in bidding for the Olympics, I have seen drawings that turn the Piggyback Yard into the Olympic Village. That version of gentrification doesn’t seem to do anything for the Los Angeles River. 

The question is often couched in terms of access to the river. Nobody that I know wants to have the kind of access issues present in Malibu. I think the mayor and other major political players are very aware of this. How that works itself out remains to be seen. 

Lewis, water conservation and water flow in the LA River is a pressing subject that gets too little attention. Could you comment on how much water the river gets, and how much it requires to meet the expectations and needs of ardent supporters of revitalization?

It would be fair to say that conversations about water conservation are preliminary. There have been very, very few formal gatherings of people to really discuss it. It has been 15 years now since I called for an LA River conference to talk about how much water the river should get. It was obvious even then that there would be pressures to use most of this water in the river, which is reclaimed tertiary treated sewage mostly from the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Basin. 

These issues almost start to become philosophical. We know that about 90 percent of the water LA drinks is imported. Very, very little water is recycled. Almost all the water that goes into the LA River—including basically all the water from the Tillman plant, which is coming out at 30 to 60 million gallons a day—goes into the ocean at Long Beach. That seems unsustainable to most people watching this closely. 

But then questions start to arise as fundamental as, “What is the watershed of the Los Angeles River?” Does it include the Rocky Mountains via Hoover Dam? Does it include the Sierras via the Owens Valley? This implies that we don’t even know how to describe the river in those larger terms. 


I think it’s inevitable that more water is going to be recycled. Another question then arises: “What kind of river do you want?” Before human intervention, the river was essentially a set of wetlands. It wasn’t river bank, river bottom, river bank. The wetlands stretched all the way from the Westside of Los Angeles at what’s now Marina del Rey, to what’s now Long Beach. It was a seasonal river, and now the river is year-round—which begs the questions: “Is that sustainable? Is that the optimum situation? If not, what is?” 

These questions are fundamental for the future of the water in the Los Angeles River. As far as I can tell, and I’m trying to pay very close attention, no decisions have been made. The issues have not even been accurately articulated so far and are just beginning to be thought through.

Metro Investment Report ran an interview with Jeff Kightlinger from MWD last month. He spoke about priorities shifting from storage to groundwater and recycled water infrastructure investments. Is that in keeping with your interests, and the interests of the LA River?

Clearly, there is going to be an emphasis on increasing use of recycled water for many different purposes. How much water the LA River will get is still in an early stage of determination.

What is your view of the potential water bond for the state of California?

I’m very supportive. There are several different proposals, so I can’t speak for all of them. Certainly in terms of Kevin de León’s proposal, I think it’s important and extremely useful.

You are uniquely un-siloed in your view of the river and water, so your initiatives and quest to broaden the discussion are refreshing. In that light, the mayor is also quoted this week supporting the idea of One Water, which will put pressure on what is flowing in the river and how river water is used. Do you suggest bringing back the idea of a river conference or a water conference?

Absolutely. I think it’s really important. I don’t know the details of what the mayor is talking about. But I think the One Water idea is very accurate, although it’s One Water in the entire state. These are vast questions, but it’s hard to imagine decision-making on the LA River not having an effect one way or another on the Bay Delta.

Two years ago, FOLAR was focused on SB 1201. It was signed by the governor, “fundamentally establish[ing] that in the eyes of the State of California, the Los Angeles River is a river, not just a flood control channel.” Describe the evolution in the last couple of years around the way the river is being used or could be used.

That’s a very good and wide-ranging question. SB 1201 was a project of Friends of the Los Angeles River and was originally led by Charles Eddy, who is a retired lawyer and a central figure in FOLAR. We ultimately worked on it with Sean Hecht, who runs the Environmental Law Clinic at UCLA, and his students. The mission of the County Department of Public Works and Flood Control District hadn’t changed in 100 years—it was essentially about stormwater runoff and issues around that. This bill altered the mission of the County Department of Public Works for the first time since then. Until the moment that the governor signed that bill, the County Department of Public Works fought against it really bitterly. They didn’t want to have to take on issues of education and recreation. But, they have to now. 

The issues that arise from the bill are still making their way into the public consciousness of what the river is. As far as I can see, this will result in vastly increased use of the Los Angeles River—including the Friends of the Los Angeles River’s River Rover, our new 38-foot recreational vehicle that has just come into service in the last couple of days after a couple years of planning and building. It now has the ability to visit schools up and down the river. 

On September 6, we’re going to do the first LA River fly fishing extravaganza, called Off the Hook, which is going to be a catch and release. That couldn’t have happened a year ago. The vast increases in kayaking along the river, both in the Sepulveda Basin and in the area around Griffith Park and Glendale Narrows, wouldn’t have happened without SB 1201. 

We’re starting to see the recreation and education effects. As far as I can see, they are completely positive. The Corps of Engineers and the LA County Department of Public Works are increasingly confident that nothing bad is going to happen by having people kayaking in the LA River. 

When we do the LA River Cleanup every year, we have to get about 15 different permits. Even ones from the Corps of Engineers usually don’t show up until the night before the event. That’s changed. The Corps and the county aren’t going away, and they shouldn’t—they’re central to the future of the river. But they seem much more at ease with activity and recreational use of the river, certainly compared to two years ago. 

Moving forward from SB 1201 two years ago, CA Senate Bill 1086—the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Rivers, and Coastal Protection bond measure—is currently under discussion. What is involved in that conversation and in that bill?

I don’t feel that I understand every aspect of this bill, but I understand that it’s coming out of Kevin de León’s shop—the man who carried SB 1201 through the legislature against serious opposition by the county. 

There’s a huge inequity in terms of state park creation—between Northern California and Southern California; between wealthy neighborhoods or cities and poor neighborhoods or cities. This bill goes to the heart of that, to try to create equity between different parts of the watershed. 

I talked to Anthony Rendon recently, who’s an assemblyperson from southeast LA County. He said there was one district in the Pacific Northwest of California that has 53 state parks, while his district has no state parks. This bill attempts to redress those issues. 

There’s also another issue that I think is important to note. The city has to come up with a huge amount of money—how much exactly is still to be determined, but millions and millions of dollars that will be its portion of the cost share for Alternative 20. People are already discussing how this would play out. One way is that a significant amount of money would come from a state parks bond issue to help pay for the city’s share, although no numbers have even been mentioned. 

This is very positive. In the last 27 years, the role of the state in the evolution of this Los Angeles River process has been negligible. However, if the state does pass a parks bond issue, then the state will inevitably have a larger role in how the money is spent.

It’s fair to say that the state will not just hand over the money and go away. The state will join the city, county, and Corps of Engineers in future governance of the river. This is another issue in its preliminary stages of discussion, but it has not worked so far. The attempt to do a joint powers authority with the Corps of Engineers has failed. Generally, there’s been a thrust, but not much success, in bringing the different levels of government together. I think that the state’s parks bond will have a positive effect in bringing together the different levels of government so that the governance can become much more efficient than it is today.

Could we conclude with you providing readers a “road map” of all the stakeholders now working on the river, in addition to your organization?

I’ll try to tell you at least some of them. There were two agencies created out of the LA River Master Plan. One is the LA River Revitalization Corporation, which essentially deals with public-private partnerships and also works in some of the same areas as we do. The Council for Watershed Health is doing work along the Los Angeles River. I think the role of the Corps of Engineers is still going to be huge, along with MWD and the City of Los Angeles—certainly as long as Eric Garcetti is mayor.

What’s going to be very interesting is the role of the federal government, not just the Corps of Engineers. Friends of mine have said, “FOLAR got an incredible billion-dollar grant!” But it’s not like that at all. The truth is, we still have the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the Congress of the United States, to go through. I’m sure there are many additional forces that I don’t even know yet. 

It’s an incredibly creative time. There is lots and lots of activity around the river—and it’s not just paddling kayaks. It’s creating a political structure and a governance structure that will last for a hundred years. 


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