Almost two decades since its initial planning – work has, at last, started at the Pacoima Wash and with the weather now clear, heavy equipment has moved in.

It took funding awarded by multiple agencies including the State Department of Transportation (Caltrans) through the Active Transportation Program (ATP), the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), Measure R, and Assemblymember Luz Rivas with the City of San Fernando to break ground for the first phase of the project – a multi-use bike path which will run alongside the wash.

The City of San Fernando describes the project as a 12-foot wide, 1.4-mile long bike and pedestrian path that will run from Eighth Street to Fourth Street/Bradley Avenue designed to help residents and students better connect to school, work, and improve connectivity. The Pacoima Wash runs through much of the Northeast San Fernando Valley before it links with the LA River.

Eli’s family participated in the groundbreaking ceremony at the wash along with (third in from left to right) City of San Fernando councilmembers Mary Solorio, Mary Mendoza, Mayor Celeste Rodriguez and Assemblymember Luz Rivas.

The path will include six access points, as well as a pedestrian bridge across the wash, connecting to the Pacoima Wash Natural Park. Additional features along the bike and pedestrian path will include lighting, fencing, and bioswales to allow rainwater capture and treatment.

Safety is Greatest Concern for Local Family

The area has been an eyesore for years in need of improvement – but safety is what is most important to the family members of Elias “Eli” Rodriguez. They stood next to public officials holding golden shovels at a ceremonial groundbreaking.

The urgency for a safe bridge and secure fencing became very public when six years ago the 14-year-old student from the nearby Cesar Chavez Learning Academy got swept up and drowned in the storm-swollen water moving rapidly in the Pacoima Wash. Rain had been pounding the area for several days.

The death of “Eli” in February 2017 shook the community with thousands who held a candlelight vigil – taking the same route he likely took — from his school to the wash. There was no argument as his distressed family after they found his body one week after he went missing — miles away in the LA River washed up in Los Feliz, called for safety measures.

Whether he fell into the wash or attempted to get out of the hard pouring rain at the end of the school day by crossing the wash to get to his grandmother’s house is not known.  His grandmother lived on the other side of the wash and his route on some days was crossing the Pacoima Wash.

Multiple holes and the bent-over fencing that surrounded the wash were fixed and new warning signs were put up soon after his death. But those were temporary band-aids, as the city still didn’t yet have the means to begin the work for permanent improvements at that time.

Eli’s family learned the wheels of government can move slowly and each year as major storms rolled in, teachers and administrators at Chavez Learning Academy warned their students about the danger of attempting to cross the wash and remember the loss of one of their students. Many students, like Eli, had used the wash as a recreational area and a shortcut back and forth from home.

The effort to make improvements at the wash which began nearly 20 years ago, many years prior to the tragedy caused some to wonder if the teen’s death could have been avoided if the work had been started and completed earlier.

Even with Warnings- Rescues Continue

Since Eli’s death, others have nearly died in the wash.

As recently as last March, a 23-year-old homeless man was rescued after being swept away by the fast-moving storm runoff. He was carried 2.5 miles after falling into the wash at Foothill and rescued near Laurel Canyon Blvd. Rescues there are extremely difficult. Nearly 100 firefighters were deployed in that rescue effort.

Also in March, three additional people were also rescued after being trapped in the rushing water in the wash under the Laurel Canyon bridge.

The Pacoima Wash like the entire LA River, which was once full of natural flora and fauna was reconstructed to become a concrete-lined flood control channel with a concrete floor and concrete walls which makes it slippery and nearly impossible to stand or hold onto its walls when fast-moving water runs through. Its danger can be deceiving and appear to be manageable but the current is rapid and people can get swept away in only a few feet of water.

Project Required Multiple Approvals

“It’s a multi-jurisdictional area with its LA County flood control, Army Corps of Engineers,” said Nick Kimbal San Fernando City Manager.  “So, every time we had any conceptual and made changes to any plans, they had to get approved by multiple agencies so that all took a long time,” said Kimball.

There are now many enhancements that weren’t initially in the original plans for the wash. Credit was given to Assemblywoman Luz Rivas for state funding that brought an additional 7.5 million dollars to the project.

“The money from Luz Rivas is really going to help us supercharge the project that would have been a decent project but now we can enhance its safety features, enhance usability and connect it all the way to Foothill Boulevard and hopefully increase usage of our Eighth Street Park with easier connections there. Getting the state funding was a really big boost to make it a top-notch project in the end,” said Kimball.

“The original project grant awards were made somewhere around 2004-2005 – that’s when we first started working with MRCA Mountains Recreation, Conservancy Agency.

“The original project was put together through a Pacoima Wash Vision Plan. It was supported by Cal Poly Pomona students, and then further developed by me, with associates and a consultant,” said Carlos Hernandez, assistant to the city manager.

“We went through a robust community engagement process to sort of dissect the segment of the wash in the city of San Fernando to different zones with recommendations on how to program, how to increase access to the Pacoima Wash and what type of amenities to be included,” said Hernandez.

 “Right now to be able to get from Cesar Chavez Learning Academy to Eighth Street Park, you have to walk all the way down to Glenoaks all the way across Glenoaks bridge and all the way down Griswold, then all the way down Brand – it’s not a direct route, and could encourage people to cut across [the wash]”, Kimball explained. “While the pedestrian bridge was already part of the plan, it made it an even more critical component of that plan because it just needed an easier and much safer connection from one side of the wash to the other – to the school and to the park.”

Funding will also be provided to revitalize the Pacoima Wash Natural Park which some residents have complained is a spot used by the unhoused and is considered unsafe.

“Unhoused individuals tend to gravitate to places that are sort of off the beaten path. So I think by just having a bike path and more people going through that area and using that area, I would anticipate that some folks would want to seek out another place,”  Kimball believes. “Sometimes as you populate an area and have more eyes out there, that just naturally enhances the safety of an area.”

There are also plans to place a memorial plaque for Eli at the completed bridge.

“We don’t ever want what happened to Elias to happen to anyone ever again,” said Rivas, when she announced the state funding.  

“Placing a plaque for Elias serves as a reminder,” said Kimball. “The kids at Cesar Chavez Learning Academy probably have been hesitant [to try to cross the wash] because it’s recent enough in memory that a lot of the teachers knew Elias and I know probably some of the kids too, so, it makes it personal for a lot of them but that will wane a little bit with time. So, that plaque will serve as a reminder of the sort of tragedy that can happen.”

The Pacoima Wash Project is scheduled to be completed in September 2024. 

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