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The Fate of the Los Angeles River Epitomizes the Choices Facing Californians

From its pristine headwaters in the San Gabriel Mountains all the way to its sordid finale as a gigantic culvert emptying into Long Beach Harbor, the Los Angeles River – what’s happened to it and what the future brings – is an apt metaphor for California’s story and California’s ultimate fate.

Until a few years ago, the Los Angeles River was an unrelieved victim of human progress. In less than 150 years, its lower watershed has been transformed from an Arcadian floodplain to an urban metropolis with over ten million inhabitants. After a series of floods in the 1930s devastated the growing city, the Army Corps of Engineers was brought in to tame the river. By the time they were done, what had been a verdant ribbon of life had become a concrete wasteland, dry enough and wide enough for car chase scenes in countless movies, occasionally deluged with safely channeled floodwaters whenever California’s infrequent storms hit the mountains and the water raced down to the sea.

Starting around 1980 the citizens of Los Angeles began to view their river as more than an intriguing eyesore. Under pressure from artists, journalists and environmental activists, the city and county of Los Angeles, with help from the Army Corps, issued a series of studies that imagined a restored river. Most recently, in June 2022, the County of Los Angeles published the “LA River Master Plan.” All of these lengthy reports offer blueprints for turning the Los Angeles River back into a river.

The obstacles that must be overcome in order to restore the Los Angeles River exemplify the gridlock that grips California in every imaginable context involving infrastructure: energy, water, land development, environmental protection. Even relatively simple projects must navigate a labyrinth of federal, state, regional and local agencies, all of which can veto a project. Permit costs and fees are excessive. Approvals take years if not decades. Regulations change and often conflict with each other, and every time any of them are revised, new sets of designs have to be prepared. Tribes in rural areas and disadvantaged communities in urban areas have to approve of whatever gets built. Organized labor has to be accommodated. Powerful environmentalist organizations oppose almost everything. For every scratch in the ground, for every quarrelsome constituency, trial lawyers can litigate projects to a standstill. And for all of these same reasons, construction materials are scarce and expensive.

The opportunity is bigger than these challenges, however. Regardless of how seriously one may view the “climate emergency,” or how aware one might be of the corruption and potential for tyranny that comes with the environmental movement now that it’s jacked up on climate emergency steroids, in the case of the Los Angeles River, there remains the simple and unassailable goal of bringing something beautiful back to life. In the process, there also remains the undeniable practical benefit of mitigating toxic runoff and remediating and recharging urban aquifers.

To cope with the complexity of a river that runs through 51 miles of urbanized landscape, traversing 17 cities, passing railyards, paralleling freeways, coursing through downtown, the City of Los Angeles developed a community planning framework, widely shared, to facilitate decentralized development efforts involving government, entrepreneurial, and philanthropic sources of funding and implementation.

Along the entire 51 mile stretch of urban river from Canoga Park upstream all the way down to the estuary in Long Beach, shared goals include restoring water quality and ecosystem health, providing for runoff capture and flood storage, and wherever possible, constructing an unbroken river greenway complete with public access points, bike and walking paths, parks and wetlands.

Nothing about this is going to be easy. Ironically, water quality and flow in the river began to improve when three wastewater treatment plants began discharging over 30,000 acre feet per year of clean, treated water into the Los Angeles River. This flow, which has created a perennial stream in the downtown section of the river, is now jeopardized as the cities operating these treatment plants make plans to upgrade the treatment to direct potable reuse. If those plans come to fruition, all that wastewater will no longer go into the river, but instead will go right back into the water mains to be reused.

This possibility highlights a reality facing any attempt to revitalize an urban ecosystem, which is that whatever vitality is created will not be the same as what was once there, and to the extent a perennial flow can be preserved in the river, it will require more money and face questions of sustainability. Should water be imported hundreds of miles into the Los Angeles Basin merely to maintain year-round flows in the Los Angeles River? To minimize minimize waste, can treated water continue to be discharged into the river, but then be recaptured in downstream aquifers for reuse?

Another difficult paradox that revitalizing the river corridor brings is when there is beautification, gentrification follows. By creating desirable green space along what had previously been a bleak concrete culvert, property values soar. As posh restaurants suddenly line the banks of an urban canyon where kayakers frolic below in whitewater rapids, riparian land values soar, and multigenerational families get priced out of their homes and apartments. How to redevelop a place without driving away the people who could only afford to live there before it became prime real estate is a classic riddle. The river in Los Angeles is no exception.

Working in favor of a slow but ultimately successful restoration of the Los Angeles River is the powerful consensus to get it done. But there is no statewide consensus to create the abundance that is required for this restoration to succeed in a spectacular fashion. The Los Angeles River, like most parts of California, will never be the same as it was before. It has to be completely reinvented. This can be a good thing. There’s no reason why the Los Angeles River has to dry up in the summer, even if that’s what it did historically. With abundant imported, recycled, and desalinated water, the river can flow year round at the same time as the residents of the Los Angeles Basin, all ten million of them, can have ample water for their households and their landscaping.

This is the bigger challenge facing Californians. Shall we live with abundance, or accept scarcity and rationing? Previous generations of Californians built a nuclear power plants, a self-sufficient oil and gas infrastructure, wide and ample freeways and expressways, and the biggest system of interbasin water storage and transfer assets in the world. All of that is now crumbling beneath the gridlock of special interest exploitation and an out-of-balance environmentalism.

The result is we face tough trade-offs that should not be necessary. Water and energy in California can be abundant and inexpensive. Scarcity is a political choice. If Californians were to develop a new generation of clean and safe nuclear power and natural gas power plants, there would be no shortage of energy. Similarly, if Californians were to repair and upgrade their aqueducts and reservoirs, adding new ways to capture storm runoff, recycle wastewater, and desalinate seawater, there would be no shortage of water.

Most of California’s ecosystems will never return to what they were centuries ago. But they can still thrive. California’s overgrown tinderbox forests are burning up because at the same time as we became extremely adept at suppressing natural fires, policies were enacted that reduced the timber industry to less than one-quarter the annual amount harvested as recently as the 1990s, and prohibitive regulations all but eliminated grazing, controlled burns, and mechanical thinning. Restoring all of these practices would guarantee healthy forests with bountiful wildlife.

If California’s forests have to be managed in order to recover from the impact of civilization, and end up healthy and beautiful again, but different, that is even more the case with the Los Angeles River. The multitude of people and institutions working to revitalize the river should not be limited by scarce water and scarce energy. Californians do not have to accept a future of rationing and high prices. A consensus to enact policies that enable abundance will create jobs and prosperity at the same time as it will render more exciting options to not just manage, but enhance ecosystems.

The Los Angeles River can be revitalized, and more to the point, reinvented to be even greater than it was, becoming the verdant heart of an incredible, entirely fabricated oasis, nurturing one of the greatest cities in the world.

This article originally appeared in the Epoch Times.

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