EPA navigates new policy designating Los Angeles River a 'traditionally navigable waterway'

High schoolers in the water education program called Aqua University and ambassadors for the Conservation Corps at the L.A. River demonstrate water quality testing. EPA's announcement means the L.A. River must meet strict Clean Water Act standards.
High schoolers in the water education program called Aqua University and ambassadors for the Conservation Corps at the L.A. River demonstrate water quality testing. EPA's announcement means the L.A. River must meet strict Clean Water Act standards. Molly Peterson/KPCC

The blue ribbon of water that winds among L.A.'s highways and highrises got good news on Wednesday. Federal authorities decreed the Los Angeles River worthy of environmental protection while visiting one of its feeder creeks in the city of Compton. The policy shift settles a longstanding dispute.

Over and over, public officials – mayors, a county supervisor and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency – repeated the same phrase at the announcement in Compton. "Traditional navigable waterway." EPA chief Lisa Jackson drew knowing laughter and applause when she spoke that shibboleth, a legal phrase freighted with meaning. "What does that mean?" she laughed, too. "That means that we recognize that this is water. Not only is this water, it needs to be thought of as part of our ecological system that services us."

The magic phrase invokes the primary law regulating water pollution in the United States. Jackson says restoration plans, use of the river by watercraft and other factors make clear that the L.A. River must meet the Clean Water Act's strict standards for surface water quality. "It means that the entire 51-mile watershed is protected and it means that areas like Compton Creek will have the full protection of our nation's clean water laws."

That protection was in doubt after the U.S. Supreme Court moved to narrow the Clean Water Act four years ago. The court's decision in a case called Rapanos v. United States confused federal agencies and Western states where snow-fed spring rivers dry up in summer heat. When a rancher sought to fill in some mountain streams that feed the L.A. river, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed that the river, most of it, wasn't a body of water at all – just concrete used for flood protection.

Then two years ago activist kayaker George Wolfe led a flotilla down river, documented in videos. With kayaks and canoes, Wolfe said he was navigating the river to defend the right of the people of Los Angeles to use it. The Army Corps was not amused. A helicopter clocked yellow and orange boats from above. Get out of the river.

Boaters reasoned if they could float downstream, so could dirty runoff. EPA agreed – calling this river a special case, it took control. In the dry Southwest, dozens of other rivers flow seasonally or in concrete or both.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's David Beckman says the EPA's move at this river spotlights the chaos the Supreme Court's decision created in Western water policy. "So what we need is a change to the Clean Water Act to restore the traditional definitions," Beckman says, "and to make it clear that waterways like the L.A. River and similar ones around the West – arid waterways – are fully protected just like on the east coast."

The NRDC and Beckman are among those pushing such a law. In the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains, builders may feel the EPA's decision first. They'll need permits to build roads and homes near seasonal streams.

Heal the Bay's Mark Gold says that will slow growth. "That development pressure should be greatly reduced within those small tributaries that really make such a difference and make those mountains special, that also drain into the L.A. River watershed," Gold says.

At Compton Creek, graffiti tags and cinderblocks are in a dead heat with a stubborn stripe of green plants in the water. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said her decision tips the scales for urban environmental justice. "We have to think about a river with a concrete bottom that flows through one of our nation's largest cities and through this lovely city as well," Jackson said. "We need to think about urban areas and we need to make it clear to the residents who live here – our neighbors – how important these issues are."

South L.A. high school students enrolled in Agua University showed how they're learning to test water quality at Compton Creek – one of the L.A. River's major downstream tributaries. In a second announcement Wednesday, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas announced the purchase of four acres of soft-bottom river here. "It will facilitate and afford interesting opportunities with economic development," Ridley-Thomas said. "And it should be said with this opportunity comes a significant challenge."

The challenge remains the same – funding for restoration and pollution enforcement is scarce. The EPA's announcement sounds a hopeful note for state and county agencies in the Los Angeles River's watershed. Local activists say that hope will be fulfilled when money flows even bigger than the river does.

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