It was supposed to be an outing tailor-made for photos – the mayor and the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency kayaking on the Los Angeles River. But rain that fell overnight and early Thursday morning turned a normally placid stretch of water into rushing flow and made conditions too unsafe to enter.
Unused kayaks sat in a parking lot outside the Marsh Street Nature Park. The mayor had gotten special dispensation to go. All kayaking on the river officially stopped on Labor Day.
“We do rely on experts who said we couldn’t get in the water, so am I a sad mayor? I was, but after the walk, I’m not so sad. We saw an egret, we saw a heron, we actually saw a beautiful White-tailed Hawk as well," Garcetti said.
Instead, he and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy walked along the river, on a path above its concrete banks. McCarthy, who took over as head of the EPA in July, visited Los Angeles on Thursday, meeting with officials and touring the Port of Long Beach and a Wilmington Recycling Facility.
The first stop of the day was Marsh Park on the banks of the river in the Atwater neighborhood. The purpose was to highlight plans for removing some of the concrete that lines the waterway. The city is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on plans to install natural marsh habitat and parks along an 11-mile stretch of the river. McCarthy promised that the EPA would be a partner in the effort and pushed the importance of green space.
“No city wants to have all big concrete pipes running through it that disconnect people from the places that they want to be and that they love," McCarthy said.
But the rushing waters, fed by rain runoff, highlighted the reason that so much of the river is concrete. After devastating floods in the 1930s, the Army Corps and the county worked together to encase the banks of the river in concrete to better direct storm runoff.
Thursday's storm raised questions about whether restoring stretches of the river conflicts with its role in flood management.
Garcetti said that it's now possible to maintain safety while restoring the river's natural habitat.
“The technology now exists: the landscaping, the ways of moving forward, to actually tear up concrete down the line, as part of our master plan, while still keeping the city as safe as it was.”
In September, the Army Corps released a feasibility study with four options on how to proceed with restoration. City officials are pushing for a plan which is more comprehensive than one recommended by the Army Corps and which is estimated to cost twice the amount.
The study states that "any ecosystem project evaluated [...] must not negatively impact the flood risk management function [of the river]."
On Thursday, the Army Corps business director Traci Clever echoed the sentiment.
“Any solution that we have for access to the river is a result of the great efforts that we’re doing with the city of Los Angeles that’s going to take public safety into consideration first and foremost," she said.
The Army Corps expects to have a final plan next year. Clever said her agency would work with the city to craft the plan, which will eventually be submitted to Congress.
"We're in partnership with the City of Los Angeles. I want to reinforce that, because that's what got us to this point," Clever said. "It's important to remember that as we get into the next phase of this."