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LA County wants to take control of LA River

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It’s also putting pressure on the federal government to release $600 million to repair Whittier Narrows Dam

Sections of the concrete-lined LA River are slated for habitat restoration.
By Liz Kuball

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is working to establish local control over 40 miles of flood control channels, including the stretch of LA River from Griffith Park through Downtown that’s slated for habitat restoration and new recreation facilities.

The board voted Tuesday to send a letter to the county’s congressional representatives, urging them to support a study that would look into how the county could take the reins from the federal government.

The study would “convince our federal government that there are portions of the system that are better maintained by a local agency,” said Mark Pestrella, the director of the LA County department of public works.

The study could be completed in less than two years, Pestrella said. Negotiations would follow, then Congress would have to approve the move.

The Los Angeles County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers work together now to maintain water infrastructure throughout the county. But county officials say insufficient funding has hampered the federal government’s ability to keep its segments up to county standards.

The Army Corps needs about $193 million each year to deal with deferred maintenance on the flood control infrastructure it oversees in the service region that includes LA, Supervisor Hilda Solis told the board at a meeting Tuesday.

But “it only receives about 10 to 15 percent of that in any given year,” she said.

The advantages of local control go beyond upkeep.

Solis said that putting the county in charge of these portions of waterways would help local authorities respond more quickly to issues, including notifying homeless residents along the river of impending storms.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl suggested that having the county oversee these channels would also make it easier to implement water conservation plans and habitat restoration projects, like the county’s in-progress update of the LA River Master Plan.

Pestrella agreed, telling the board that handing operations over on these 40 miles would be a step forward in a larger plan that the county has for water “resilience.”

“The corps doesn’t share that mission with us currently, and Congress does not honor that goal financially,” Pestrella said.

That could present issues as the county moves ahead toward its goals of capturing and reusing the storm runoff that the LA River and other channels now direct into the ocean.

The hand-off would mean that, moving forward, the county would be on the hook for funding the maintenance of these channels. But the Army Corps would be required to hand over the facilities “in a state of good repair,” Pestrella noted.

River advocates who spoke at the meeting said they support the move.

Having one entity in charge of these channels would mean one less jurisdiction to wrangle with when trying to put new programs in place, said Sarah Rascon, urban river program officer for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

Especially on the LA River, having one entity in control could clear up the “considerable confusion” among riverside residents about who is in charge of what.

The supervisors also voted to send a letter to the Army Corps and the county’s congressional representatives urging “immediate allocation” of the $600 million the corps has requested to quickly repair and update Whittier Narrows Dam.

For years, experts have cautioned about the effects that a super storm would have on the county’s dams. Of special concern is Whittier Narrows, which no longer meets the corps’s tolerable risk standards and could fail in the event of a monster storm, leaving adjacent communities under water, the Los Angeles Times recently reported.