Watershed moment for the L.A. River

It's not often that the three most powerful officials in the Federal government on water, land, and environmental issues come to our state to listen to what Californians have to say about anything. But that's exactly what happened earlier this month.

Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency chief, Ken Salazar, Secretary for the Department of the Interior, and Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, among other top federal leaders, came to California for a state-wide "listening sessions tour," as part of a conservation initative called America's Great Outdoors.

I was there to meet these administration officials. And not only did they listen; they also made news.

On July 7, EPA Secretary Jackson announced that her agency had designated the Los Angeles River as "traditionally navigable waters," thereby overturning a previous decision by the Army Corps of Engineers that restricted the designation to four miles near the mouth. This means, as she said, that the entire 834-square-mile urban watershed of the Los Angeles River has been granted "the full protection of our nation's clean water laws." (For perspective, here's a picture of the river just north of Burbank, before it's imprisoned in concrete.)

Los Angeles River in Burbank by Kim Brough


This is a huge decision; when she made the announcement, all who were there literally cheered. (For more background, see Joe Linton's excellent Creek Freek blog for a full discussion of the legal issues and history of this L.A. River designation dispute.)

When I saw Lisa Jackson later, I thanked her for her momentous action, telling her, "I want let you know that what you did was so much more powerful than you may even have realized. This huge city--including all its neighborhoods that comprise the watershed--AND its economy--is endangered. We know this city's lifestyle is unsustainable. Our fate is being sealed with the concrete that's imprisoning the river. It's as if we were being carried downstream, about to go over a cliff, and with this decision you reached out and caught us at the last second."

I told her that with this action, we have the possibility of an economic and environmental revitalization of our city. The state of the river today is a result of abuse of our urban neighborhoods and mismanagement of the land. By not managing the city as a watershed, we've thrown away not only water, but other resources, opportunities, jobs, and I would argue, lives. The narrow fixes we've attempted have missed the bigger picture. Focusing solely on end-of-the-pipe water treatment siphons cash from more beneficial, preventive purposes. These funds could be used to create jobs and hope by transforming and maintaining sustainable landscapes that prevent polluted run off (and flooding) in the first place.

Water quality aside, this is also the way to create water supply resiliency in our region. The fact is, as numerous studies have documented, that the fastest, best, and cheapest way to provide new water for urban California is not desalination, nor new dams, but harvesting our local rainfall, and restoring our ecosystem's functionality and health. This is something TreePeople has been advocating for years, and it's an idea the city itself now broadly supports, with collaborations we have worked on, such as the Sun Valley Watershed Project, under construction.

This new designation for the Los Angeles river opens the door to the possibility of a watershed renaissance for our entire region.