New Legislation Focuses On Long Beach Portion of Los Angeles River

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A newly passed assembly bill may bring a bit of wilderness back to the lower Los Angeles River. The bill, AB 530, creates a local working group that will focus on revitalizing the lower portion of the river, from the Gateway Cities through Long Beach, where the river flows into the Pacific.

“What’s striking to me is that after many years of nobody paying attention to the river, we’re getting serious attention from politicians,” Lewis MacAdams, co-founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), said.

This is a welcome development, MacAdams said. FoLAR has been advocating for a cleaner, more natural river for more than 25 years.

“There’s a sense now that things are possible,” he said.

The Los Angeles River is 51 miles long, flowing through 14 cities. Before the arrival of the Spanish in the area, it was an important source of water and food for the Tongva Native Americans who lived along its banks. Rainbow trout and Chinook salmon lived in the river, and the blackberries that grew on the river’s banks provided food for the grizzly bears that lived nearby.

The river’s course wasn’t always so certain, which was part of the problem once Americans began to settle the area. As an alluvial river that ran across the Los Angeles basin, its course, size and strength changed drastically depending on weather conditions.

After the devastating Los Angeles Flood of 1938, which killed more than 100 people, the Army Corps of Engineers channelized the river.

But in recent years, conservationists have urged lawmakers to reconsider concrete channelization and restore the river to a more natural habitat.

That’s what Rita Kampalath, science and policy director for Heal the Bay, said their organization would like to see.

“In general we want to see a more natural looking river,” she said. “And obviously that has to be balanced with practical considerations like flood control.”

“In order to remove the concrete, you have to widen the river, so that you can control it more easily during flooding times,” MacAdams said. “It has to be done carefully and it’s going to take a long time, but it’s doable.”

Parts of the river have been restored in recent years, but most efforts have been concentrated in north portion of the river, in the San Fernando Valley.

“The downstream cities had gotten the short end of the stick,” MacAdams said.

While rewilding the river could take years, MacAdams said there are actions lawmakers could take now that would affect the river’s health and Long Beach residents’ quality of life.

“The simple version of the story is to clean up the L.A. River sufficiently that Long Beach beaches aren’t covered with trash every spring,” he said.

Kampalath said she’d like to see more storm water capture and treatment options considered.

“It’s been heavily impacted by development,” she said of the river. “It’s been used for flood control rather than as a river, and the biodiversity has been compromised.”

“The LA River project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity not just for the city of Long Beach but for our entire region,” Mayor Robert Garcia said. “By collaborating with master architect Frank Gehry, the City of Los Angeles, and LA River Restoration Corporation, we are going to create a unique space for recreation and natural enjoyment.”

FoLAR has been leading river cleanups since 1989, and the efforts put forth by their volunteers, along with other groups, already have helped make a difference to wildlife, MacAdams said.

“We’re starting to see seals return to the mouth of the river,” he said.

Kampalath said she will be watching the developments from AB 530 closely.

“People in the community want better access to green space,” she said. “There’s much more interest in these issues than there ever has been.”

“I look forward to working with Mayor Garcia,” MacAdams said.

“Whether it’s beautiful or ugly, the river’s going to be there. It’s up to us to decide what kind of river we want.”

Jennifer Rice Epstein can be reached at jriceepstein@gazettes.com.

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