By Solomon O. Smith and Diana Martinez
SFV Sun Contributing writer
Kids taking shortcuts to and from school evokes memories of childhood summers for some but for the family of Elias “Eli” Rodriguez, it is a horrific reminder of their tragic loss.
While no one will ever know for sure what caused the 14-year-old to wind up in the storm swollen water in the Pacoima Wash – whether he tried to cut across the flooded wash or he may have fallen in – his drowning sparked the pressing need for better conditions and safety measures.
However, the wheels of government move slowly.
Nearly five and half years later, Assemblywoman Luz Rivas’ announcement that her office had secured $7.5 million for the City of San Fernando to construct a pedestrian bridge located at the Pacoima Wash was met with strong applause. The money will also be used to connect existing pathways to the bike trail and will revitalize the Pacoima Wash Natural Park.
“This is in honor of Elias Rodriguez …this humble investment will help heal the community and provide a critical investment to the community,” said Rivas.
“It’s an honor to deliver on this vital state funding which will support and implement long-overdue safety measures for the Pacoima Wash,” said Rivas.
“We don’t ever want that to happen to anyone ever again,” said Rivas, who said she has been “fighting for the project.” A slew of city of San Fernando administrators, council members, representatives from Pacoima Beautiful and others flanked the podium at the project’s announcement as Rodriguez’ family waited quietly off to one side.
“Today I want to thank this family for being here,” said Rivas referring, to the family of Rodriguez.
Destiny Medina, Rodriguez’ sister, spoke briefly at the event and said she was notified only days before the announcement, “We were only told about this a few days before.”
“What happened to my brother five-and-half years ago was such a tragedy and I hope that this will ensure that something like that will never happen again,” she said “This project means a lot to my family and me.”
The family’s struggle with the loss of 14-year-old Rodriguez, and what appears to be thin safety measures at the wash, have been echoed by the community. When he went missing, the downpour delayed the search and it was the teen’s family members who found his body in Los Feliz carried by the L.A. River miles from the Pacoima Wash. Almost 2,000 people attended the candlelight vigil walking a path speculated to have been traveled by Rodriguez.
At first family members tried to stay in close contact with city officials but after time, they soon learned the bureaucracy of government would not move quickly enough to fix the small bridge area over the wash.
The Project to Improve The Pacoima Wash Area Proceeded Rodriguez’ Death
The loss of Rodriguez brought more visibility and urgency for improvements although there has been a long history and effort by more than one group.
In April, Tony Cárdenas, Congressional representative for California’s 29th congressional district, obtained $5.8 million in federal funds for a bridge near Telfair Street which will connect to green space for the community, according to a press release on his website.
In addition, the local organization, Pacoima Beautiful, also received $800,000 to rehabilitate and make it safer for the surrounding community. These announcements and financial pledges have yet to lead to bridges or pathways, and members of the community are still asking for safety measures.
Rivas’ announcement about the new footbridge was the culmination of a process that started much earlier. San Fernando Director of public works, Matt Baumgardner, explained that the project had been started, and designed, sometime in 2003 by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, or MRCA, a public organization that protects and preserves open space. Eventually, the city took over the project and folded it into a larger project to rehabilitate the area.
“The city has been working on getting funding over the last several years to build the Pacoima Park Wash bikeway and the pedestrian bridge,” said Baumgardner. “So we have done that over several years and then Assemblywoman Rivas’ office was able to procure more funds to help both this project, as well as the new project which would include all the work that’s being done.”
The project is still in its infancy and the city needs to receive the state funds which Baumgardner says “take a few months” to get to cities after being awarded. The construction of the bikeway between 4th and 8th Street is currently in the bidding process.
“Right now it’s sort of a concept,” said Baumgardner. “There’s no plans or anything. It’s just a concept that her funds will help be able to do the design and all the construction work, as well as add funds to enhance the Pacoima Wash bikeway project.”
The project will not be starting anytime soon with an 18-month timeline, according to Baumgardner, who estimates the bridge to be started at the beginning of 2023, and completion of around June 2024.
The Danger Remains
With the completion of the pedestrian bridge so far off the most immediate issue for the community surrounding the Pacoima Wash is the danger of a repeat of the accident that took the life of Rodriguez. In the years since his death, the family has asked city officials for proper security measures to prevent more accidents. They have been told several times that something would be done to protect others from the same tragedy but major change has yet to be realized.
Immediately after his death, holes in the chain link fence and the neglect were addressed, Warning signs to stay out of the wash were put up.
Wrought iron and newer chain link fencing were installed as well as adopting current measures to keep people out of the wash. However, bicyclists can be seen riding in the wash and there are tents set up by the unhoused in and around the wash. Several points along the installed fencing are low enough for someone including those students from nearby schools to be tempted to jump over the fence and cross the wash in the same way, it’s been speculated that Rodriguez may have done. While it seems harmless now in the summer when the wash is dry, it will be extremely hazardous and turn into a dangerous fast-moving river during rainfall in the winter months.
The Pacoima wash and the area surrounding it is a “mix of responsibility,” Baumgardner explains. The Los Angeles County Flood Control District is responsible for the wash itself and access roads alongside it, but it’s the responsibility of the city of San Fernando Police Department to patrol the adjacent park and open area. Baumgardner explained that the police hold the keys and can open and lock entry points into the wash.
The Pacoima Wash and the connecting Los Angeles River are concrete channels utilized to facilitate water flow. Many years ago, the natural foliage and the river’s bottom soil were removed and replaced with concrete making the floor slippery and impossible for anyone who falls in to get their footing.
Mary Mendoza, Mayor of the City of San Fernando said the wash has a history of problems.
“The Pacoima Wash has been a scar in the community for many years,” said Mendoza. “It serves as a flood control channel, but it also divides the community of San Fernando and Pacoima and makes crossing challenges for our residents and our students.”
“Those of us who grew up here know a lot about the wash,” said Rivas. “We drive by it, we see it, but we’ve never thought about how this could be a recreation area too,” she said.
The Pacoima Wash Pledge
The tragedy of losing Rodriguez prompted some schools and institutions to create measures to prevent any other losses of life. The Los Angeles Department of Public Works created the Pacoima Wash Pledge website. The site points out the dangers of traveling in the wash which can have running water moving as fast as 70 miles per hour and warns students that they can be swept away in as little as 6 inches of water. It targets students at schools near the wash including the Cesar Chavez Learning Academy where Rodriguez attended, San Fernando High School and Arleta High School.
The Cesar Chavez Learning Academy also has some safety protocols in place. They discuss safe routes home with students and parents.
Freddy Ortiz, the school principal knows how diligent the school must be as new students come every year and aren’t aware of the dangers or what happened to Rodriguez.
He does know the announcement to build a new bridge would ease the minds of many of his staff.
“Our staff will be thrilled to hear about it,” said Ortiz. “Especially our veteran teachers will feel a wave of relief.”
That relief may have to wait a few more years as the project has not broken ground yet and there are still several stages of planning to work through.