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New Decision Could Mean Opportunities for Lower Los Angeles River

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It wasn't a glamorous occasion heralded with trumpets or media blitzes, but a decision by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) on Thursday, February 12, heralds a new day for oft-overlooked soft-bottom, concrete-sided waterways across the county from Caballero creek in San Fernando Valley to the Los Angeles River near Long Beach.

The Regional Board acceded to a request by conservationists to revisit the decades-old practice of removing vegetation on soft-bottomed, concrete-sided reaches of many of the county's waterways -- including Reach 25 on the lower Los Angeles River between Willow Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach.

After an hour-long hearing, the Regional Board voted not to renew the county's five-year permit to remove vegetation along approximately 100 of the county's waterways, including the Los Angeles River reach. Instead, it opted for a one-year permit with the condition that workshops would be held to find an alternative, less intrusive means of maintenance that promotes habitat while not compromising the city's flood capacity.

"I'm absolutely thrilled by the decision," said Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), one of the groups who petitioned the Regional Board. "For so long the lower Los Angeles River has been a redheaded stepchild of the Los Angeles River. It's gotten very little money, respect, and power. This opens doors for a broader definition of the river and gives downstream communities a chance at the opportunities that the upstream cities are beginning to enjoy."

MacAdams hopes this would only be a catalyst for more revitalization further down the Los Angeles River. He says that upper river neighborhoods have had the opportunity to enjoy a more natural river in part because of former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who helped curb any bulldozing on soft bottom rivers in his district. Unfortunately, Supervisor Don Knabe doesn't share Yaroslavsky's interest and thus vegetative clearing has gone unchallenged in this district. This decision would change that.

James Alamillo, Urban Programs Manager for Heal the Bay, was equally heartened by the Regional Board's decision, having given testimony three other instances over the past fifteen years that the permit has been up for renewal. "This one-year permit gives this ad hoc committee a chance to come together and figure out what's going to happen in these waterways."

Though it would be idealistic, Alamillo says he doesn't wish for every activity on the riverbed to cease all at once. Heal the Bay is simply looking for a set of metrics that outline what the county's goals are for these soft-bottom, concrete-sided reaches of the river. These could help future decision-making on these important reaches of the county's waterways.

"The County is committed to working with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and all interested stakeholders to develop a habitat management plan that continues to provide the required the level of flood protection to the public," said the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (Public Works) in a statement. The agency manages the day-to-day operations of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District (LACFCD).

It also reiterates that though the county has been dedicated to flood protection for the last century and that it would continue to do so because of predicted increased intensity of future storms predicted by UCLA, it also values habitat. The statement cites that the county has begun to enhance its flood protection facilities by using native and drought tolerant plants.

The Regional Board's decision now opens the doors to dialog between conservationists and the county on how best to handle these strange waterways, that are neither all natural, nor completely engineered. In the coming months, workshops and meetings will be scheduled between conservationists and agencies concerned with the river tackling any changes in maintenance.

The onus would fall on the Regional Board's staff to arrange these meetings within a short span of one year. "Our staff is looking at this as a great opportunity," says Samuel Unger, Executive Officer at the Regional Board. "The Board's decision was a clear message that they want habitat to be considered alongside flood protection. We're looking at this as an opportunity to meet with all the stakeholders simultaneously and to fashion an alternative plan the Board that can consider."

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