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L.A. River Habitat Restoration: Where Will the Money Come From?

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Confluence restoration at the Arroyo Seco watershed will be part of the first phase of construction

Nearly a decade in the making, the City of Los Angeles' efforts to revitalize the Los Angeles River hit a major turning point this week by getting the final plan for the city's river restoration approved by the Civil Works Review Board of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, along with long-standing river stakeholders from L.A., presented the recommended plan of Alternative 20, or RIVER Alternative (Riparian Integration via Varied Ecological Introduction), laid out in the $9.71-million Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study initiated in 2006. The $1.3-billion plan will restore an 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River from Griffith Park to Downtown Los Angeles and will remove about six miles of concrete that will provide 80 acres of wetlands restoration, parkland creation while maintaining existing levels of flood risk management.

"We have reached a massive milestone in this ten year process, although we still have a lot of ways to go before people can actually see any changes," said Vicki Curry, a spokesperson for Mayor Garcetti.

Although the project has made great strides, a year-long process to secure funding from Congress awaits. The recommended plan will now go through a process of state and agency review before reaching the Army Corps' Chief of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, for his recommendation, and to Assistant Secretary of the Army, Jo-Ellen Darcy, for administrative review before being submitted to Congress in early 2016. Once authorized by Congress, the funding will be appropriated through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

When the city will break ground is still too soon to tell, but the first phase -- known as Reach 6 in the study -- will include the restoration of riparian habitat and widening of the river at Taylor Yard, and confluence restoration at the Arroyo Seco watershed. "The first phase of construction has the greatest potential for removal of concrete in the river," said Curry in an email.

"There's a lot of worry about the cost but it's not going to be a $1.3-billion check written at once," said Jay Field, spokesman for the Los Angeles office of the Corps of Engineers. The funding will come incrementally as the city works towards getting funding from a number of sources as the plan rolls out, including local and state avenues, Curry said.

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Although WRDA funds will take at least a year to secure, once the CWRB has approved the plan, Congress can immediately allocate funds for the pre-construction engineering and design stage of the plan, which is estimated to cost approximately $85 million. "We want to have the plans in place and ready to go so we can get started immediately on construction," Curry said. "The mayor has spoken to members of Congress and Senators and federal agencies all along the way, so things will be lined up and ready to go."

One issue of debate has been the cost-share of the plan. This has moved Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR) to launch a campaign to gain public support. "The campaign is to promote support among members of the community for the 50-50 split and to communicate that support to the Army Corps of Engineers during the state and agency review period," said Lewis MacAdams, president and founder of FoLAR.

The recommended plan offers two options -- it would have the city cost-sharing the project at 88% or 73%, possibly leaving the city to shoulder more than $1.18-billion of the cost. The 50-50 split was recommended by Darcy with the condition that the city would have to forgo reimbursement for any acquired real-estate relating to the project. It has also been suggested by Darcy that the federal funding could be brought to a more equitable cost share, details for which will continue to be refined during the review process.

As real-estate prices continue to climb in river-adjacent communities, the price for the parcels of land outlined in the project rise as well, making it the main factor for the increased cost of the plan. The Los Angeles Trailer and Container Intermodal Facility (LATC), also known as the Piggyback Yard -- a 125-acre Union Pacific yard and is the largest open space in the restoration plan -- has come at a big cost because it includes the relocation costs of Union Pacific's facilities in addition to the real estate costs. Taylor Yard is much easier because there's no relocating of facilities, said Field.

Curry and Field both said its too hard to tell how long it will take to complete the project -- it could perhaps take decades, Curry said.

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