EPA’s Lisa Jackson to visit Compton Creek

July 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

Tomorrow! The press announcement says it all:

*************MEDIA ADVISORY****************

WEDNESDAY: U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to Make Significant Announcement Affecting L.A. River « Read the rest of this entry »

Of Nexus and Navigability: Part 4 – Action Alert: Tell the EPA to Protect the LA River and Tributaries

December 3, 2008 § 1 Comment


Creek Freak readers have finally arrived at the fourth and as-of-yet-final part in our series on the navigability of the Los Angeles River, and how that affects the protection that our local waters are afforded under the federal Clean Water Act.  This is the episode where you dear reader get to participate!  If you’ve missed out on any part of the scintillating series, by all means use the links below to refresh your memory.  If you’re an action-oriented person who doesn’t want to read through another excessively verbose Creek Freak blog, just skip to the bottom and write your letter/email!

Part 1 – Of Nexus and Navigability, a lament for our waterways
Part 2 – Journalistic Journeys
Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs
Part 4 – Action Alert (You Are Here)

Boating in the Los Angeles River's Future - the Los Angeles city plan for the Chinatown Stretch

Future Boating in the Los Angeles River - Image of the Los Angeles city plan for the Chinatown/Cornfields Stretch

Of Nexus and Navigability – Part 4, Action Alert

For extended background discussion of navigability and how it impacts waterway protection, please see Part 1, where Jessica has explained it all concisely.  Creek Freak will now recap a bit and bring the story up the present day.

The 1972 federal Clean Water Act says that all the “navigable waters” of the United States need to be swimmable and fishable – which is to say safe for human health and for nature’s health.  For 30+ years the Clean Water Act has gradually worked to prevent many of the worst excesses of Los Angeles River pollution, but it has been a thorn in the side of folks who see environmental regulations as a unnecessary expense.  A recent supreme court ruling, called “Rapanos v. United States,” narrows the definition of which waterways are federally protected.  Protections are now limited to only “traditionally navigable” rivers and waters with a “significant nexus” to a navigable waterway.

This year, the Army Corps of Engineers made a determination that only two stretches of the Los Angeles River are designated as navigable: the Sepulveda Basin and the river’s mouth in Long Beach.  Army Corps staff maintained that the river itself is actually still protected – because a few miles of it are traditionally navigable, and the rest of it has that “significant nexus” with the navigable parts.  Techincally, the Army Corps actually didn’t make a navigability determination for most of the river – they didn’t declare the rest of the river non-navigable, they just didn’t decide… though, in effect, their limits of their ruling suggests that  the rest of the river is not clearly navigable.  The biggest problem with all this is not so much that the river itself isn’t protected, but that the smaller probably-not-particularly-navigable tributaries won’t be protected, hence they can be filled in, culverted, degraded, and otherwise mistreated.

Creek freaks, river advocates and other environmentalists see this determination as a serious erosion of the legal protections.  Similar protection rollbacks have been decried on the Santa Cruz River in Arizona.  If determinations like this stand, there are implications for other waterways throughout the country – especially in the Southwest, where our rivers and creeks are often drier, flashier and less clearly navigable than those on the east coast.

A navigability decision is supposed to include historical uses as well as future plans.  Creek Freak’s readers are familiar with some of the extensive history of boating (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)  All the future plans for the river approve increased recreation usage.  Sometimes this explicitly includes navigation/boating.  For example, the city of Los Angeles’ Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, in its future vision for the Chinatown/Cornfield opportunity area (chapter 6, page 30), states “On most weekends in good weather, kayakers in great numbers flock to this area for a chance to paddle in the River.”  The plan’s images clearly show boating – see above and below.

Looks like navigation to me - boats in the middle left of LA City's Master Plan for the Chinatown/Cornfields

Looks like navigation to me - Boats in the middle left of image from the approved LA City River Master Plan for the Chinatown/Cornfields Stretch

Dismayed Creek Freaks and allies took to our kayaks and our pens (well, probably mostly computers these days) to push against the narrow navigability designation.  Santa Monica Baykeeper, Heal the Bay, Natural Resources Defense Council and others encouraged the Army Corps to not be so limited in what they were designating navigable.  When the Corps wouldn’t budge, the same organizations encouraged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to override the Army Corps.  Good news!  The EPA recently decided to make the Los Angeles River a “special case,” so the EPA gets to make the determination.

At a recent meeting of the city of Los Angeles’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Los Angeles River, the EPA’s regional wetlands chief David Smith presented on how his agency will make their determination.  His presentation is posted on-line (two versions, basically the same content: a powerpoint presentation or a 2-page document.)  The EPA is looking for the river to meet four criteria to be designated as navigable – and, if you’ve been reading Creek Freak’s series, you know that the river meets all these criteria:

1. Is there sufficient river flow and depth to support boating?
2. Is there a history of boating on the River and for what purposes? What recreational or commercial uses are made of the River?
3. Is there public access to the River?
4. Are there plans to improve or restore the River to increase navigation potential?

The regional EPA folks plan to make their reccommendation by beginning of 2009.  This recommendation will then go to EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. for review, with a new determination expected probably in the first half of 2009.  The EPA is seeking input on their decision.  While they’re expected to come down on the side of more river designated navigable, they will need to be able to show public support for that determination.  If you want to support and protect the Los Angeles and other rivers, please write a letter or an email to the EPA’s David Smith.  If you’ve boated the river, please let him know.  If you support planned boating in the river’s future, please let him know.  Creek Freak has composed the following fairly-generic comment letter – please personalize it by putting it in your own language.  Submit letters to the EPA by mid-December.

**12/3/2008 – Correction: this is an important meeting that’s still happening – but it’s not about navigability.  Navigability meeting is a different one planned for December 16th – more info about that soon!   Also, plan to attend the city of Los Angeles’ public meeting this Thursday night from 5:30pm to 8:30pm at the Metropolitan Water District in downtown Los Angeles.  The meeting will include an EPA presentation on navigability and an opportunity for public comment on the issue.

sample letter:

David Smith
EPA Region 9
75 Hawthorne Street (WTR-8)
San Francisco, CA 94105
Re: Los Angeles River Navigability

Dear David Smith –

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (US EPA) review process evaluating the navigability status of the Los Angeles River.  I encourage US EPA to ensure that your results protect the Los Angeles River and it tributaries to greatest extent possible under federal law.

The Los Angeles River is clearly navigable.  The current and past flows of the Los Angeles River are and have consistently been sufficient to support small boats, including kayaks and canoes.  The history of the river, from the 1800s to the present day, includes many accounts of boating.  Plans for the river’s future call for greatly increased recreational use, including boating.

The Los Angeles River is today an important resource for people and for nature.  A great deal of public and community investment is successfully bringing the river back to life.  Please respect these efforts by making a determination that protects and restores the river’s health.

[your name and your address]

Comments can also be submitted via email at smith.davidw@epa.gov.  Whether you mail or email, if you’re up for it, please copy creek freat at lacreekfreak@gmail.com.  We’ll check with you first, but we hope to use some of the letters in a future blog entry.  Send your comments in today.

Of Nexus and Navigability, Part 3: The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs

December 1, 2008 § 2 Comments


Creek Freak continues our exhausting alliterative four part series on the navigability rippling through the waters of the mighty Los Angeles:

Part 1 – Of Nexus and Navigability, a lament for our waterways
Part 2 – Journalistic Journeys
Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs
Part 4 – Action Alert

Of Nexus and Navigability – Part 3, The Boater, the Biologist and the Blogs

By way of background, federal waterway protections are being weakened through recent governmental decisions.  For the federal Clean Water Act to protect a river, creek or stream, it must be a “traditionally navigable waterway” or have a “significant nexus” to one.  See Part 1 for more detailed background and historical accounts of boatingSee Part 2 for some 20th century accounts of boating. And this blog is where we bring boating into the present day.

A couple years ago, while I was working at Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), I got an email from George Wolfe who runs the Lala Times – a website mostly humor/parody site that bills itself as “California satire, wierd and bizarre news.”  I have to confess that, at first, I mistakenly thought that I had been contacted by the LA Times and was always quick to respond to media requests.  I soon spoke with George, a boater (who kayaks and canoes) with a idea to do a big expedition down the Los Angeles River.

George and I kept in touch.  At one of our lunches discussing possible expedition parameters, he pulled out the most raggedly well-used copy of my book that I’d ever seen.  He’d done a lot of advance scouting and even some negotiations with the County Flood Control District and the Army Corps. of Enginneer to  permit the trip.  The date was set for July 25th-27th 2008.

I met up with George for a trial run a week ahead of the expedition.  We put in just below the Los Feliz Boulevard Bridge and kayaked down to the best rapid on the whole river, just below Marsh Park in Frogtown.  Under the tutelage of FoLAR’s Denis Schure, I had been in a kayak a couple of times briefly in a calm nearly-currentless stretch of the Los Angeles, adjacent to Balboa Boulevard in the Sepulveda Basin.  After kayaking that sweet well-flowing natural stretch with George, I was excited and hooked at how fun it was!  I was disappointed in myself that I had been around the river all these years and hadn’t boated there often.

The three-day expedition was a blast.  You can read my blog account of it here: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.  There is a fair amount of documentation now online, including this recent trailer for a planned documentary feature about the trip:

Army Corps of Engineers biologist Heather Wylie accompanied the second day of the trip.  She was later threatened with a 90-day unpaid suspension from work for participating.  It turns out that her superiors didn’t know of her participation until they saw this photo of her posted on the LAist blog. Some links to her story are available here and an excellent editorial she wrote is linked here.  Check out this short video where she tells you some of her stories: 

The kayak expedition, in addition to being lots of fun and a great workout, proved to me personally that the vast majority of the Los Angeles is indeed very navigable.  There are a few spots that required some portaging, mostly in the San Fernando Valley, but certainly all the way from the 134 Freeway downstream to Long Beach are easily kayaked any day of the year.  Contrast this with the Army Corps of Engineers’ designation of only two short stretches (in the Sepulveda Basin and in Long Beach) as navigable.  We’ve still got a long way to go in convincing our public agencies to respect the Los Angeles River.

Next: Part 4 – Action Alert – wherein you, the reader, take action on assuring federal protections for western waters. **12/3/2008 – Correction: this is an important meeting that’s still happening – but it’s not about navigability.  Navigability meeting is a different one planned for December 16th – more info about that soon!   Also, plan to attend the city of Los Angeles’ public meeting this Thursday night from 5:30pm to 8:30pm at the Metropolitan Water District in downtown Los Angeles.  The meeting will include a presentation on and an opportunity to comment on the navigability issues.

Of Nexus and Navigability, Part 2: Journalistic Journeys

December 1, 2008 § Leave a comment


Los Angeles River navigation is a critical issue right now! It’s not just about defiant kayakers, but about ensuring federal waterway protections prevent all our waterways from further degredation. Jessica has already done one post on this, but now Creek Freak is expanding our coverage into a four part series.  If you’re not already familiar with this issue, you might want to go back and read Part 1 before reading this entry.

Part 1 – Of Nexus and Navigability, a lament for our waterways
Part 2 – Journalistic Journeys
Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs
Part 4 – Action Alert

Of Nexus and Navigability – Part 2, Journalistic Journeys

The reason that navigation is important today is due to legal wrangling over interpretations of the federal Clean Water Act and which waterways are deemed important enough to receive federal protection. For an explanation of the navigability issue, see Part 1, in which Jessica’s fills in the background and boating’s early history. Her account covers the historical records from the 1800’s.

This blog shares some 20th century journalistic forays into Los Angeles River boating. Though these accounts do offer evidence that the river is navigable, the overall tone of the articles are rather mocking – as in how big a surprise it is that anyone would be boating on such a river. See Part 3, and bringing the situation up to the present date with some wrap-up coverage of the recent kayak trips and recent developments regarding official determinations regarding whether the river is navigable or not.

Los Angeles Times boaters xxxx

April 1st 1925 Los Angeles Times Los Angeles River boating article with "Pictorial Evidence Presented to Skeptical Public.

On April 1st 1925, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled Scribe on Wonderful Trip: Cruises the Los Angeles from Griffith Park to Seventh Street Bridge; Skipper Admires Nature by Otis M. Wiles. In a very joking tone, the article tells the story of the intrepid correspondent and Skipper Ed’s journey in the good ship Mud Hen. Some excerpts:

“The Times exploration party set forth in a makeshift craft at eventide yesterday to explore the mystic splendors of our much-maligned river and prove to the world that it’s navigable.”

The journey through the Glendale Narrows sounds fairly nice. The article describes “tall green bullrushes” and “a staircase rapid resembling Angel’s Flight.” The river through downtown wasn’t quite as nice. The boaters encounter “several hobo camps” along the “wooded river bank.” Near the present day 101 Freeway, they pass “a city dump reeking with garbage smells … The dump was afire, clear to the water’s edge.”

“Your intrepid correspondent dumped the water out of his boots and came ashore, thoroughly satisfied that the Los Angeles River has been grossly wronged and maligned. It has water in it, contrary to all reports otherwise – wet water, cold water and muddy water. And it can be navigated. from Griffith Park to the Seventh-street bridge at least, in a seaworthy duck-boat if fortune favors the navigator in ducking rocks, bridges, sharp curves and railroad ties and sewer drains.”

Herald Examiner Boaters in 1938

Herald Express Reporters Boating the Los Angeles River in 1938

In March 1938, Los Angeles was hit with the worst floods on record. These were likely not the highest volume floods, but serious floods paired with increased development of the flood plains, resulted in widespread destruction. According to Blake Gumprecht, the 1938 floods caused eighty-seven deaths, and more than $78 million in damage, including washing out many buildings and bridges. As the floodwaters were beginning to recede, the Los Angeles Herald Express’ “Foghorn” Eldridge and “Wharf Rat” Watson (actually reporter Fred Eldridge and photographer Coy Watson, Jr) attempted a boating expedition from just below the Glendale Hyperion Viaduct (in Atwater Village) to the river’s mouth in Long Beach. Similar to the 1925 Times article above, their accounts mockingly echo adventure writing of their day. They didn’t quite get to Long Beach, but made it only about a half-dozen miles to take out in downtown Los Angeles. Photo above courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner Collection. Additional expedition photos are available there and in Arcadia Publishing Images of America series book Los Angeles River by Ted Elrick and the Friends of the Los Angeles River.

LA Times blah blah blah

March 2nd 1958 Los Angeles Times Los Angeles River Boating Expedition Coverage

A later descent is chronicled in a March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times article Timesmen Explore Los Angeles River by Charles Hillinger. This tells the story of the reporter and cameraman who, in a 5-man inflatable boat, paddle bravely exploring the Army Corps of Engineers’ newly-completed concrete structures.

The Timesmen have difficulty putting in at the start of the river proper, behind Canoga Park High School. “Too shallow.”

They make their way downstream before putting in at a vague location: “Finally, in the heart of the city, we launched our boat.” From a later description that they took out around Firestone Boulevard after traveling “10 miles in five hours,” their put-in spot was likely near the Arroyo Seco confluence.

Boating down the concrete river, they describe “Deep water – a foot and a half – and we floated down the stream at a fair clip.” They run into issues in Vernon where “[m]ud and rocks dammed the main middle stream.” They walk and boat further until giving up around the Rio Hondo confluence where they give up “bogged down on sandbars, hiking through knee-deep mud.”

The pair rounds out their exploration by driving along the river. They describe visits to Sepulveda Dam, the east San Fernando Valley, and the Headworks Spreading Grounds.

In 1999 the LA Weekly ran a cover story Taming the Wild Trickle: A Gray-Water Adventure on the Mighty L.A. by Steve Chapple. Chapple, who kayaks the Yellowstone and the Zambesi, teamed up with Friends of the Los Angeles River’s longtime boater Denis Schure to make 3-day descent of the Los Angeles River from Reseda to Long Beach. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“This wasn’t white water, anyway. It was more like gray water. But runnable. Let me emphasize that. There was enough flow in the Los Angeles River from recent rains to make an experimental first descent possible, yet not so much that we would have to worry about Ralphs shopping carts tumbling end over end in the rainy-season roil and whacking us upside the head. This was a historic moment.”

“We rounded a bend and there stood the Glendale Freeway, crossing the Santa Ana. It was a stunning architectural tableau, Frank Lloyd Wright meets the slime. Arching steel. Pounding concrete. Below, the river concentrated itself in a new center slot that looked fast and deep. We positioned the canoe. Soon we were rodding along at maybe 10 mph before paddling (the paddles had paddles now), but the groove was unexpectedly shallow, all of 18 inches. Though I was distressed, yet again, to have been talked out of my beautiful touring kayak, I contained my cheap-thrill-seeker’s anger: For this was the place where Los Angeles began, a place of reverence. We paddled into the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, site of the original L.A. pueblo, now an unmarked graffiti hole.”

Earlier this year, the US Army Corps. of Engineers only designated two stretches as “traditionally navigable waterways.” These two stretches were: 1) the estuary below Willow Street in Long Beach and 2) the Sepulveda Basin. While none of the articles above describes every inch of the river as navigable, they do record journalists boating in stretches that the Army Corps hasn’t designated as navigable.

Next: Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs

Of nexus and navigability

August 4, 2008 § 5 Comments

Is the Los Angeles River navigable? The recent kayaking adventure, documented here at LA Creekfreak and elsewhere, demonstrated that it is. The Army Corps’ definition of navigability, however, may relate more narrowly to navigation for interstate commerce. Perhaps if people fly in from out of state, spend some money on kayak rentals, sunscreen and snacks, we’ll fit the definition.

Until then, however, we’re stuck with technicalese to protect the River. As the Army Corps has noted, the officially non-navigable reaches of the River remain protected due to their “significant nexus(link leads to ACOE ppt download on the topic) with the Navigable Water body reaches. Several Supreme Court justices ago, all that was needed to extend Clean Water Act protections to our southwestern rivers was evidence that a waterway was a tributary to a Navigable Water. Now it’s not so clear. I have heard conflicting things about tributaries and their status. A past, present, or potential future “significant nexus” needs to be demonstrated – basically someone has to prove that the degradation of a waterway would impact the water quality of the Navigable Water, and now each tributary to the LA River will need this level of investigation before it attains federal regulatory oversight (which does not guarantee physical protection, a topic for another day).

The River, like so many southwestern rivers and streams, had a great deal of variability to it. Some reaches may have been more like washes, where flows infiltrated into the groundwater; other reaches had perennial water flow. And if you go back a few hundred years, the lowest reach of the river was more like a broad wetland and forest floodplain that soaked up runoff like a sponge, with surface waters rarely reaching the ocean. These waterways were incredibly dynamic, shifting course when log jams or sediment would build up, forcing a new direction for the water to spread. Our mistake is in defining the river exclusively as the channel where we see water. Rivers function to transport water and sediment, dissipate energy, facilitate biological and chemical processes, and support habitat. In all rivers these functions depend upon not only the river’s channel but also its floodplain, and to some degree, its relationship to groundwater. A river is also the sum of its tributaries. The role of tributaries, the floodplain and groundwater may be even more pronounced in our southwestern rivers and streams, and our evaluation of the LA River should be inclusive of these relationships, not as the significant nexus, but as part and parcel of the River itself. This would be consistent with the Clean Water Act preamble, which states a purpose to restore and maintain “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”.

For many, we would feel a greater level of security knowing the River, in either its current or historic configuration, simply met the criteria of Navigability. Historical data I’ve reviewed provides interesting, if hardly voluminous, evidence of boating (& swimming, not really a regulatory criteria but fun info). Despite the widespread characterization of the LA River as “a river by courtesy at times” that, like its tributaries, “sink(s) into the sand in places…and seep(s) along beneath the surface for miles, to appear again,” (Charles Holder, 1906) the river and its mountain tributaries were popular destinations for fishermen of steelhead trout. Ludwig Louis Salvator*, in his enthusiastic travelogue, Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, even references the use of boats to capture these fish:

“…fine brook-trout and salmon-trout are also caught. The latter are usually taken with what are called gill-nets…The net does not touch bottom since the fish swim fairly near the surface, but is stretched diagonally across the stream or a section of it and floats with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile while the fishermen follow behind in a boat.”

Unfortunately, Salvator does not identify specifically where this boating occurred, speaking only of mountain streams. It seems reasonable to speculate that boats following nets “with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile” would need to be on a relatively flat reach of a stream, i.e. the Los Angeles River in one of its perennial reaches, such as at elPotrero de los Felizes Los Pescaditos,“a favorite fishing place on the east side of the river opposite Griffith Park”. Speculation, however, isn’t the basis for regulation.

But boating was also known to occur within the lower Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers’ floodplains. More quotes from James P. Reagan’s 1914 oral histories:

Mr. J. H. Orr, Compton, R. F. D. 1, 101 Home at Compton.

Mr. Orr has lived in this neighborhood for twenty-six years. In 1889 he says the whole country was flooded and to give an idea of how much water there was, he with some others rowed in a boat from Downey almost to Compton, that is to the S. P. R. R. track, tied their boat and walked across to Compton, bought their provisions and returned in the same way. The water was all over the country for six weeks and nothing could be done…

Mr. Lafayette Saunders, 2303 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach

…I have seen this valley solid across here between these mesas (Los Cerritos and Dominguez Hill) and nearly four feet deep. I rode in a row boat with two other from Long Beach to Wilmington and returned for provisions, and the water was from a foot of(sic) so to three and one-half feet deep.”

Here the boating is seasonal in character and really a response to the natural flood regime, in that lower LA River basin that had one time been like a sponge. Obviously this was not pleasure boating! Reagan also indicated that the Los Angeles River in the Glendale Narrows reach was good swimming:

Mr. Randall H. Hewitt, 529 Merchants Trust Bldg.

The year 1876 was a dry year and no water flowed below what was called the “Toma” in those days, above the Downey St. Bridge, which is now North Broadway, where the boys used to go swimming….

(the Toma was a dam that diverted water into the zanja irrigation system)

Joe Bernal, Room 53, Temple Block:

Mr. Bernal was seen at his office today at noon. He was born and raised in Los Angeles… In his boyhood days he used to go swimming in the Los Angeles river when it flowed down Alameda Street. (Reagan)

While hardly likely to convince the Corps that the LA River meets their definition of navigability, these historical anecdotes hint at humanity’s relationship to the river’s more complex structure.

Not just the river, all the streams and wetlands of the LA area, really, have already suffered death by a thousand cuts through the draining, channelization and culverting of over 90% of them. The “significant nexus” test here just adds several additional tons of paperwork and bureaucracy under which to bury our remaining waterways.


*Special thanks to Brian Braa, landscape architect, friend, and Seeking Streams cohort, whose research genius found this author & document.



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