Paddling the Los Angeles River

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Photo by George Boe

Two years ago, I joined a group of Los Angeles activists in paddling the Los Angeles River, what, in the July issue, I called “the ugliest river in America.”

In early July, the river got one step closer to a makeover. In a ceremony in the dry bed of Compton Creek, a tributary to the LA River in the city of Compton, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson declared “the entire L.A. River as traditional navigable waters,” essentially answering the request our expedition had put forth.

Our piece of civil disobedience (it is technically illegal to paddle the LA River)  aimed to prove the folly of a 2008 Army Corps of Engineers ruling that all but the lowest four miles of the LA River was not “traditionally navigable.” In order for a waterway to be eligible for protections under the Clean Water Act, the Supreme Court ruled that a river must be classified as a Traditionally Navigable Waterway. Thus, the Army Corps decision left the intermittent, often-only-ankle-deep LA River exposed–not good for a river that runs through one of the most populous counties in the United States and which serves as an important oasis, believe it or not, for migratory bird populations.

Jackson’s announcement effectively offers the river protection no matter the Clean Water Act’s legal interpretation. Not only does it mean a healthier ecosystem, it gives a boost to the City of Los Angeles efforts to revitalize the river through its $2 Billion Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, created in 2008.

At the ceremony, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa again championed the river-as-greenway agenda: “This sea change will allow us to reclaim LA's natural beauty, and create verdant, open spaces throughout our urban landscape,” he said. “Working with community partners and the federal government, we can make the LA river a place where Angelenos hike, picnic, swim, and fish together.”

The EPA’s action is good for the LA River, but still leaves thousands of miles of similarly intermittent streams across the West exposed. Just because a river can’t float a barge doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical oasis, and can’t freight pollution downstream in annual floods. What is the solution? Revising the Clean Water Act. In April, Congressman Jim Oberstar (D, MN) introduced legislation to that would rework the Clean Water Act to protect all waterways, not just ones that are traditionally navigable.

Frederick Reimers


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