What Does the Army Have to Do With It? A Brief History of The Army Corps of Engineers and the L.A. River

Edward Koehn.jpg

Edward Koehn, Chief of flood control design for the Los Angeles district, explains the model to colleagues, 1948. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

When it comes to all things Los Angeles River, there is one agency that looms largest --greater than city or county agencies-- it is the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps). While non-profit organizations and city agencies, investors and real estate developers dream up a myriad of projects ranging from natural habitat restoration to place-making to commercial enterprise, the Army Corps has the final say on which projects actually materialize. This federal agency also builds and maintains America's infrastructure and military facilities; oversee the nation's civil works, which include flood risk management and operation of its hydropower facilities; provides disaster relief; and restores and preserves the nation's wetlands. In brief, the agency is the nation's environmental engineer and has played a major role in taming the L.A. River and enabling the city to grow into the metropolis it has become.

A Civil Nature
The Army Corps is a Congress-established continental army that was founded more than 200 years ago in June 16, 1775. This first body was just a small team composed of a chief engineer and two assistants. As the projects became more and more ambitious, so did the need for more staff and subordinates.

This Corps of Engineers officially became a separate, permanent branch of the army on March 16, 1802. As a branch of the army, these engineers were responsible for founding and operating the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Today, the Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates more than 670 flood damage reduction and navigation structures; 12,000 miles of commercial inland navigation channels; maintains 920 coastal, Great Lakes and inland harbors; and owns and operates 24 percent of the country's hydro power capacity, not to mention managing military construction and researching new technologies to protect soldiers from rockets and mortars on the battlefield.

But why is this militaristic agency involved in the river?

Since their founding, politicians had envisioned a bigger role for this corps than just builders of the military. They had wanted this agency to contribute to military construction as well as works of a "civil nature."

In 1824, Congress cemented the Army Corps role in civil works by passing the General Survey Act, which authorized the use of the army to survey roads and canals. Two months later, this corps --the only formally trained engineers in the new republic-- were also called on to remove sandbars, snags and other obstacles on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, as well as the Missouri.


Mississippi River Improvement in 1890. Image by the U.S. Army.

Mississippi River Improvement in 1890. Image by the U.S. Army.

Over the years, this army built coastal fortifications, jetties, lighthouses, and piers for harbors. The Army Corps also mapped much of the American West. They were the builders of the then-young United States of America.

Before the age of the automobiles, the Corps of Engineers supported transportation infrastructure by working on canals, rivers and roads that enabled commerce including the construction of the Panama Canal. The agency's role in maintaining commercial navigation in its waterways is as prominent as ever. In more than 200 years, the agency has dredged more than 15,000 miles of rivers for navigation purposes. For better or worse, it sweeps away more than 200 million cubic yards of material annually. The operation serves to ease transportation but some say also disturbs a waterway's natural ecology.

When this fledgling nation suffered two devastating floods, one in 1912 and another 1916, in the lower Mississippi Valley, which left 250 and 500 people dead, over 16 million acres flooded and over 500,000 people forced from their homes, Congress saw in the Army Corps an agency that could do something about it. Thus, they approved the 1928 Flood Control Act and gave the Corps of Engineers authority over flood control.

In 1938 another two floods devastated Los Angeles with record-breaking rainfall that killed 115 people, damaged over 6,000 homes across 108,000 acres (a third of Los Angeles was flooded) and required the evacuation of thousands. It was then that the Army Corps that was called on to channelize the Los Angeles River.


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers District Map. Image by U.S. Army

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers District Map. Image by U.S. Army

It was this channelization that gave the Army Corps its authority over the river. As Tanner Blackman, the former city planner and Planning Director at Councilmember Jose Huizar's office, notes, "What's important for everyone to remember is the role of the federal government in controlling the space through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As far as I understand, the creation of the river channel in the '30s was a federal project. Ever since then, the Army Corps is the agency that has control over what happens, so now all the plans the city and different municipalities have are just plans. They have to ask permission from the federal government to do anything,"

That is why in every Los Angeles River project, before any action can be implemented, it needs a "go" signal from the Army Corps. For the LA River to finally open itself in the last few years to kayaking and other recreational activities, it first had to seek the Corps' approval.


Construction of a bridge across the Arroyo Seco at Avenue 43, 1938. Courtesy of the USC Digital Library.

Construction of a bridge across the Arroyo Seco at Avenue 43, 1938. Courtesy of the USC Digital Library.


River Restoration
The agency's role on the river isn't just as gatekeepers, the Corps' engineering expertise on the nation's rivers is also why the Army Corps is in charge of the $1.3-billion river habitat restoration project. Since 2006, the Army Corps has been studying the possibility of restoring a 10-mile stretch of the river from Griffith Park to downtown Los Angeles. It is the Army Corps' recommendation, which will be brought before Congress for approval. Readers will recall the city's vigorous lobbying for a more ambitious $1.3-billion plan as opposed to the Army Corps' original, more conservative $453-million plan.

Working with the Army Corps has not always been easy. Because the Corps is a federal agency, it also has its own bureaucracy, which adds to the already complex jurisdictions along the Los Angeles River. Take the touted river habitat restoration project.

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Though it is one agency that is undertaking the study, in reality, the Los Angeles domestic district headed by a Colonel, who in turn reports to a Brigadier General, then a Major General, then a 3-star General, then to a Chief of Engineers, who then reports to the Secretary of the Army (http://www.americanrivers.org/assets/pdfs/reports-and-publications/citizens-guide-to-the-corp.pdf). So, even though a Civil Works Review Board has approved the $1.3 billion dollar plan, it still has to be approved by the Chief of Engineers and then finally sent to Congress for another green light and, more importantly, funding source.


Recreational activities, artist projects, real estate developments and any other enterprises must receive approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Recreational activities, artist projects, real estate developments and any other enterprises must receive approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As civilians, we little idea of how the process actually works. Aside from sign-offs from multiple agencies with jurisdictions that affect the Los Angeles River, one also needs to get final approval from the Army Corps. "There's no form for that final approval. There's really no proposal format. It's not like pulling a revocable permit from the city," says Blackman.

This process has caused consternation among conservationists, especially when the Army Corps exercises its authority, but fails to consider other parties apart from their mandate.

Two years ago, the Army Corps caused an uproar because of its clearing of the Sepulveda Basin. The clearing was part of a five-year vegetative management project the agency had planned, yet some claim, didn't adequately communicate to the community.

Despite following its public-reviewed vegetative management plan, the agency was accused of razing the green, wild area. Conservationists claimed that too much was removed, even native plants that ought to have remained. "We knew that the corps had a new vision for this area, but we never thought it would ever come to this," Kris Ohlenkamp, a vocal conservationist that's been keeping tabs on the Sepulveda Management Vegetative Plan tells the Los Angeles Times then. Protesters also said they weren't properly kept informed of the activities that led to the clearing.

The controversy though detrimental for the cleared area did cause the Army Corps and conservationists to come to open conversation. There is now an ongoing conversation on revising the vegetative plans that the Army Corps had based its clearing on. As of April of 2015, an Environmental Assessment of the Sepulveda Basin's new plans were still being drafted, according to SoCal Wild. Despite this positive development Ohlenkamp says of the Army Corps' attitude, ""They have kept us involved and listened to us, their attitude has changed, but we get the feeling we are not a priority for them." Nevertheless, it is a beginning.

The Army Corps has opened venues to work with them, or at least hear their thoughts on Los Angeles River projects. One of the most regular meetings is for something called the River Cooperation Committee, where quarterly representatives from the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, the City of Los Angeles, and the Army Corps sit at the table to hear project presentations and updates. At these meetings, early red flag signals can be raised, helping hopeful river advocates tweak, adjust, or at least get a feel for their project's viability in one forum. Though the committee only acts as an advisory committee it is a helpful venue for communication to happen.

There may never be full harmony between conservationists, river advocates, the city, multiple agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers, but as time goes on --and as more and more people are beginning to actively champion the Los Angeles River's future as a recreational, natural amenity for the city of Los Angeles-- this federal agency may have to work more and more with the many players with a stake on the river.


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