Chain Link River Rats – And Other Tales of Los Angeles’ Overflowing Rivers

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By Christine Coe

The rivers are overflowing, and flooding the streets of Los Angeles.  They are breaking their containment levels and bust over boulevards on Sunset and Highland at a rate of over 9600 gallons per minute (October 27, 2014, 4:30 PM & October 28, 2014, 3:40 AM) and spring forth into 40 foot geysers on Coldwater Canyon at 2:00 in the morning (October 10, 2012). There are epic floods when 10 million gallons rush onto beloved basket ball courts at UCLA (July 29, 2014, 3:30 PM) and minor springs which do not attract news crews and go unreported… about THREE TIMES A DAY. 

I am a native Angeleno, born and raised on the banks of LA rivers.  Water overflowed the shores of suburban streams back then.   It ran abundantly from backyard pools gushing forth for the annual run off, down sloping lawns as we danced in a perpetual water show of sprinklers and twirling, yellow rain birds that spun wildly as we attempted grand leaps, and through winding green hoses that spewed the finest drinking water anywhere onto our driveways.  As streams will, they flowed into the countless rivers that lined our suburban streets where we raced paper boats, leaves and all forms of treasured debris.  In a heavily asphalted world, we splashed through rivers all summer, as mothers called out from bay windows and porches “stay out of the gutter!”    

By Christine Coe

Gutter indeed, we never thought much of where the water came from back then, nor where it flowed.  There was a super sized gutter with chain link fencing to keep us from exploring the depths of it that seemed to appear and disappear as its wound its way throughout the city.  I once had to descend into that roach infested cement speedway to find a diamond earring I’d dropped in there, fearful of the rats that would chew me up before I managed to climb the twelve feet above me by rope, as a city worker yelled at me to get out of the “storm drain.”  Once safely out (with my diamond), I looked down at dry concrete, skeptical that much drained into it.  It has always contained a few muddy puddles at best, where weeds and grass tendrils effectively collect forlorn trash.

I was in my mid twenties before I discovered occasional signs that announced a Los Angeles River.  Surprised by the signs, I asked my father,

Why do they call that gutter, storm drain thing, the LA River?” 

Because it is” he said.

I thought of all the graceful plastic bags that I’d seen floating listlessly “down stream” in currents of air and wondered which city council had attempted the feat of building a river in Los Angeles.  LA-River-Current

The fact is, there is a river in LA.  It was once a free flowing natural waterway until the Army Corp of Engineers thought to contain it and reigned in the narrow trickle of water with wide, deep concrete channels.  For those of you who yearn for waterfront property, Mayor Eric Garcetti has big plans for it and he has won the support of that same Corp of Engineers, as well as Barack Obama.  Flying back and forth to Washington DC no less than half a dozen times, Garcetti has managed to influence the Corp with his lobbying prowess into recommending the approval of over $1 BILLION dollar plan to restore 11 miles of the Los Angeles River which would eventually open up the restoration of the entire 51 mile river spanning from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach.  Congress admittedly still has to approve the RIVER Alternative also known as Alternative 20, however a recommendation by the Corps carries much weight and it expected to sway the congressional decision. 

Indeed, it was at congress’ behest that a $9.71 million study of the river was even undertaken in 2009, resulting in the Corps recommendation of a Alternative 13, a $453 million undertaking to restore the river, but not comprehensive enough for Garcetti who spent six months arguing with the White House. “I was tenacious about this — it’s a big win for the city,” Mayor Eric Garcetti exclaimed in an interview with Los Angeles Times. “I argued in the White House over and over…”  -Garcetti claims Obama told him recently  “I think we’re on track for the L.A. River.”  He added that as early as next year we may expect “jackhammers on concrete” 

In an interview with KCET, Garcetti boasted, “I was going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing because I knew I was pushing for something that wasn’t a political favor. It wasn’t a, you know, zero sum game, give us a little bit more in L.A. It was do it right or maybe don’t even do it at all.” 

“Do it right.”  “Give us a little bit more in L.A.” Just what is doing right by Angelenos?  Those of us that grew up finding recreation in algae coated street-side rivers might readily agree with Garcetti that it is time to liberate our cement trickle. However, while many environmentalists have been ardent advocates for the river, other experts have speculated that developer’s interests will take precedent over communities and environment, in favor of waterfront play zones and property that benefit few but an elite minority.  There are deeper issues…

While the ideals of the RIVER initiative may be undeniably intriguing, the fact is, the river is largely a dry bed with or without its concrete barrier.  Muddy puddles on top of concrete will not become lagoons of oasis because jackhammers set them free.   Water is no longer the ever flowing resource of my LA suburban childhood; it is a frighteningly scarce commodity that threatens the very future of our state.  California has been in a severe drought for the last three years, but some climatologists claim it began 15 years ago, in 1999 and predict a mega drought pattern which will last for DECADES to come. 

The crises then, is a lack of WATER not ambiance. Preserving a dry river bed has no value in itself, and the ecological impact of a dry river in a natural vs concrete state is arguably overshadowed by the impact of wasting what water we do have.  The cement pond that winds its way through Los Angeles county poses no threat to the well being of our water supply, in contrast, the torrents of water which pour out of the city’s antiquated water supply infrastructure does, is of monumental importance, and demands some of Garcettis tenacity.   

His passion would be better directed at making the replacement of our century old water supply lines a priority over the developers desert oasis scheme.  Here in LA, over a million feet of piping has delivered water for residents for over 100 years.  On average, Department of Water and Power attends to three main line breaks per day in it’s 7,200 miles of pipe which move 600 million gallons of water a day through the city.  In 2009, the same year congress blew 10 million dollars studying the Los Angeles river, LA suffered from nearly THREE DOZEN water line blowouts.  Some of which flooded streets, damaged vehicles and buildings and, in once case, created a sinkhole so big that it almost swallowed a firetruck.” 

Water once ran plentiful in the havens of Los Angeles, but it was always borrowed, made possible by a system that was a marvelous feat of engineering.  That engineering is breaking down and the infrastructure is crumbling.   At the same time, the entire state is in a drought said to break records dating back to 1600.  Over 80% of the state is in extreme drought conditions and 60% of California is now suffering the greatest level of drought on a 5-level scale: “Exceptional.”   Taps are running dry in Central CA where water has simply stopped flowing and underground water reservoirs are dismally vacant, and Los Angeles may not be far behind.  If Garcetti is interested in “a big win for the city” he might want to redirect the flow of financial reservoirs where the water is flowing.  His desert oasis will be there.  Concrete sits undisturbed in the sun and can wait years for those jackhammers.   Water does not remain frozen in time however, and is spent when it explodes from 98 year old pipelines.  If Garcetti is truly interested in the health and future of Los Angeles then, he had better understand that without a healthy water supply, his parched fields will never yield an oasis.

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