U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visited the Los Angeles River last Thursday, vowing federal support to restore and revitalize the riverfront, which once contained the city’s only source of fresh water.
Surrounded by city officials and members of Congress, Salazar praised a federal, state and local partnership that will restore and expand North Atwater Creek Park, build a campground at the Hansen Dam Recreational area in Lakeview Terrace, construct a wetlands park for recreational opportunities in South Los Angeles and establish a 3,000 foot greenway along the Tujunga Wash by 2013.
“We are here because we believe the Los Angeles River … can become one of the great urban parks, one of the great river restoration projects for the United States of America,” he said. “I believe in that. President [Barack] Obama believes in that.”
Salazar said the L.A. River project has twice been tagged by the America’s Great Outdoors initiative and the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, as part of Obama’s 21st Century conservation agenda.
“One of the key cornerstones of the president’s conversation agenda for the 21st Century is what we do with urban parks and urban rivers,” Salazar said. “Because he recognizes, as does his team, that we need to connect the people from our urban communities up to the natural landscapes around them.”
Salazar said many U.S. cities have been founded along great rivers, though the appreciation for those bodies of water waned throughout much of the country’s existence.
“Instead of turning our backs to the rivers, we are turning our faces to the rivers, and we are embracing them, trying to make a new reality for what those rivers mean to our environment,” he added.
The revitalization project, which could eventually consist of 240 locally-identified projects, would also create jobs, Salazar said. He said outdoor recreation creates more than eight million jobs per year in the U.S., and studies have indicated that there is room for more.
“It’s going to mean a huge economic injection into the city of L.A.,” Salazar said. “This is a great way of making sure our economy is back on the right track.”
He said the L.A. River will be among seven pilot urban projects that will benefit the country’s “great” rivers. By piloting the projects, Salazar said, the federal government will put “significant resources” behind them.
He referenced a similar project with the South Platte River, which was considered a “wasteland of a place” just a few years ago. Now, after extensive work, a half-mile stretch of the river has “become the focal point of the economic renaissance for the city and the county of Denver,” Salazar said.
“That’s going to happen here in L.A.,” he said. “We will make sure, working closely with the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers, that we will put the blueprint for the future of the Los Angeles River on steroids. …When we come back a year from now, I guarantee you that there will already be a number of other projects that are on the ground, where you’ll actually be able to see the difference.”
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) said that despite the proponent’s “riverly” efforts, there is “ugly opposition” to the plan. However, she said she is thankful for the support, which could allow the “concrete canyons” of the L.A. River to give way to a revitalized area with recreational and employment opportunities while maintaining its flood control mission.
“By citing the river as a promising way to connect Americans with the natural world around us, the president’s initiative brings national attention to the positive recreational and economic impacts the L.A. River revitalization will have on Angelenos and all who visit our great city and state,” Roybal-Allard said. “I have to admit that at times it seemed like it was an impossible dream. But that dream is becoming a reality.”
Congressman Adam Schiff (D-California) praised the efforts of local officials, such as Arroyo Seco Foundation managing director Tim Brick, who worked on the river’s master plan, and Councilmembers Ed Reyes, 1st District, and Tom LaBonge, 4th District. He said LaBonge actually swam in the river as a child.
“I happen to know he used to swim 10 miles a day in the river, and it was upstream in both directions,” Schiff joked, adding that, “we have a fabulous team here.”
The renovation of the L.A. River has several funding sources, California State Parks director Ruth Coleman said. She said Prop. 40 — which approved $2.6 billion for clean water and air initiatives — has been allocated, and Prop. 84 — which freed $5.338 billion to improve water quality — is on the way to restore 11 acres adjacent to Rio de Los Angeles State Park.
“It’s shovel-ready,” she said. “It’s a place to demonstrate how ecosystem restoration and flood management can work together.”
Omar Brownson, executive director of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp., said the huge transformation would have social and economical benefits near the river.
“To me, the excitement is not just the environmental issues, but it’s bringing the social issues and the economic issues,” Brownson said. “It’s how do we achieve that triple bottom line? How do we get that social, environmental and economic benefit along this river that runs 51 miles through one of the densest urban areas in the country. That’s the leverage that happens if we protect these natural resources.”
Through a public-private partnership, the corporation plans to build a multi-modal bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists over Atwater Creek, he said. Brownson also referenced the success of the corporation’s Paddle the L.A. River Pilot Project, which suggests that residents are looking to further interact with the river.
“It sold out in 10 minutes — over 300 seats,” he said. “People paid $50 — we have beautiful beaches here — people paid $50 for two hours on the river. There were 15,000 web hits in the first two hours. If that is not consumer demand, I don’t know what is.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the local, state and federal officials are working on a feasibility study to restore the river.
“There is an absolute commitment on the part of the city to restore the L.A. River to what it could and should be,” Villaraigosa said. “It won’t happen with the speed we need it to happen without this feasibility study. This is about, really, reclaiming our natural heritage along this river.”
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