After a five-year study, the LA County Board of Supervisors on June 14, will consider a master plan that outlines how to upgrade the Los Angeles River on June 14.

The Supervisors will consider approval of “The Reimagined River,” a 538-page Master Plan, and a Program Environmental Impact Report (PEIR). 

 The LA River Master Plan, originally drafted in 2016, described as a “menu of possibilities,” seeks to transform the 51-mile long river, but the question remains if the plan can transform the river enough to meet the needs of flood control, the environment and consider the needs of local communities.

 In the 1930s, the LA River was covered over and encased in concrete to handle torrential rains which caused dangerous flooding. The river was altered to become a flood control channel — which solved the problem but impacted ecosystems.

 At a recent press briefing hosted by LA County Public Works (LACPW) and Ethnic Media Services, Keith Lilley, LACPW deputy director, said if the new master plan is adopted it would offer much more than the bike trails and signage agreements that came in 1996, the last time the county considered upgrading the river. 

This time around this plan, according to those who drafted it, considers a long list of needs that equitably include continued flood control protection, ecosystems and water quality as well as reconnecting communities and providing open spaces, jobs and other kinds of opportunities. 

It’s been suggested that the changes implemented from the Master Plan could potentially transform the river into a tourist destination and “world-class attraction” like San Antonio’s “River Walk.”

 A primary question is whether the river will be transformed enough to meet all of these needs.

Tensho Takemori of Gehry Partners, Project Architect and Planning  described the plan as an extensive effort with data analysis that shows what the different needs are at different parts of the river.

“The plan is based on community data that has been collected. The framework is there to guide the conversations with the county,” he said.

 “We have 834 square miles, when it rains, all that runoff from all these concrete, urban areas rushes into the river,” says Keith Lilley said. “As climate change evolves, we expect to get more extreme and frequent storm events, and we’re more likely to get those design conditions that would have this river running full. It’s critical we maintain the capacity to provide the flood protection for our communities.

Meanwhile, American Rivers, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for the restoration of damaged rivers, named the LA River as one of America’s most endangered rivers of 2022.

The criteria required for this unfortunate distinction is given to rivers with the threat of poor river health that can result from pollution and climate change that poses a threat to river health and impacts clean water and communities.

This is the first time since the 1990s that the LA River has been placed on one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers list. It’s also been cited for poor river management.

“The list of ‘America’s Most Endangered Rivers’ is an urgent call to action,” said Gary Belan, with the national organization.

“We are now at a crossroads for the LA River and a decision to not double down on mistakes of the past,” Belen said. “The LA River has been defined by concrete and cut from communities for too long. It’s time to breathe life into a healthy, flowing LA River, for the benefit of all.”

Those representing the national American River organization said elected officials currently have before them two vastly different visions for its future — “one vision prioritizes nature and connecting communities; the other seeks to control nature and divert water from the river, possibly rendering it dry and leading to increased climate risks.” They point to other major cities that are “freeing rivers from concrete channels.”

“There are a few natural sections of the river and a decent segment of it is soft bottom and vegetated, and those parts tend to be in areas where the water table is high,” said Bruce Reznik of the locally based organization Los Angeles Waterkeeper.

Reznik, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, said the majority of the lower part of the river is channelized and is hard bottom concrete.

“It’s not natural and not conducive for ecological health and [the use of concrete] is designed for flood control. It’s very hot and it doesn’t have vegetation,” he said.

Many communities adjacent to the river are facing the impact of drought and severe heat due to climate change. 

“Concrete is a big question,” said Takemori at the briefing, but the reality is the majority of the LA River serves its function of flood mitigation, and conveys the water safely during storms.  The levees were built to protect the communities that have been built right up to embankments.  

“The goal is to move water. The only way to remove concrete is to make the river wider and when you do that the water moves slower, and that could displace a lot of people and that’s not the plan that we took,” Takemori said. “Where it’s possible [to remove concrete], it should be investigated as an option, but where we can’t we can look into other ways to provide ecosystems for our neighborhoods.”

He said the plan understands and considers the effects of climate change and urban heat effects. 

“If we were to go back 100 years ago, maybe we would have made a different decision and it wouldn’t have been concrete,” said Jessica Hensen, a landscape and urban designer. “Now we have to be more creative as designers about what we have to do about urban pollution, and it’s about as forward thinking as you can imagine as a tool kit and planning strategy. We can do things in, around and above the LA River.” 

River Runs Through L.A.’s Diverse Communities

As the LA River runs from Canoga Park to Long Beach, it passes through numerous diverse Los Angeles neighborhoods and communities including major sections of the San Fernando Valley, that include its headwaters near Canoga Park High School. The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural marks its pathway near LA Valley College flowing through the Sepulveda basin and the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Each community has its own specified needs and concerns. 

At the recent news briefing held outside next to the river, a short distance from the densely populated Latino community of Lynwood, speakers addressed the concern of communities alongside the river who are troubled about the threat of gentrification and displacement.

For years, developers have taken a strong interest in building alongside the river. 

“Our [Southeast Los Angeles] community is 94% Latino, low-income, hard-working community, that has historically been disadvantaged because of the area that we live. Often times, the quality of our life is impacted by the zip code that we live in.“

Said Dr. Wilma Franco, director of the Southeast Los Angeles Collaborative, “We want to make sure that as we implement this Master Plan that it’s first and foremost to the benefit of our community, and that it becomes successful to our community.”

Franco noted that residents should benefit from the new jobs.

Sissy Trihn, executive director of the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA) points out that unknown to most, “Chinatown is actually one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Many of the residents we work with are one rent increase away from becoming homeless, and we are a river-adjacent community,” Trihn said.

Though [the river] is blocked by Union Station and the correctional facilities, it’s directly across from Chinatown and those who live there are directly impacted.  

“A lot of developers, real estate agents and brokers were basically touting the River Master Plan as a buying and selling opportunity, that real estate values were going to skyrocket. And that people should take advantage of the new green infrastructure improvements that were coming in,” Trihn said.

“We started talking with other river-adjacent communities and what we were seeing was a lot of communities and residents fighting against parks and greening, not because they didn’t want it but because they were more afraid of losing their housing and homes.”  

“Every community has different needs, priorities, and strategies,” she said. “[The La River Master Plan] gives a bucket of different tools that each community can work with the county or public works to identify and implement a solution for their specific neighborhood.”

 While understanding the concerns, Trinh gave credit for the Master Plan for being the first infrastructure plan that addresses both housing and homelessness.

Carolina Hernandez, assistant deputy Director at Public Works, said, “I see this as a huge step forward. This is a beginning, it is launched and out there for the public and we can move toward implementation thereafter.

“It’s unique because we have some difficult tasks and this plan has nine major goals. We went to community first, but it takes listening and we coupled that with data. Here is your cookbook,” she said.

“There are 10 million people in LA County and we hope this is the beginning of outreach,” Takemori said. “The idea is that people who live in the communities enjoy the improvements at the river.

“The plan doesn’t propose a final plan for the LA River but it’s really a framework and it’s going to include further community engagement.”