The Los Angeles River is a resource and unique asset for its 51 miles from the Western San Fernando Valley headwaters in Canoga Park to its end in Long Beach. Numerous proposals for improving its recreational opportunities have been made over the years, including the City’s L.A. River Master Plan with its ambitious designs for new parks and amenities. The investment of tens of millions of taxpayer dollar in river improvements is wonderful; however, to provide the best value to the public, these investments must be well-planned and include practical solutions to environmental and other hazards and nuisances.
Currently, pollution, trash, perception of unsafe conditions, crime, and obstructions to biking and walking paths prevent the public from taking full advantage of exciting river amenities and sour the public’s interest in river investments. Further, the varying agencies responsible for the maintenance and safety of the bike path creates an additional challenge and is a source of frustration for many communities. However, we have a plan to cut through the red tape and government bureaucracies, so the L.A. River will be safer, cleaner and will better serve our communities.
Every day, we see serious problem areas along the L.A. River from Canoga Park to Reseda where drug use, camping, obstructions of the bike path and, in the absence of restroom facilities, unsanitary conditions have become commonplace. Recently, drug and gang activity appear to have increased in the river area, resulting in at least one homicide. This has a direct impact on the quality of life of local residents, as well as businesses assailed by related crime.
Additionally, the use of the river paths and adjacent areas for habitation and illegal dumping has harmful environmental consequences including dangerous water quality. For example, the concentration of E. coli in several areas of the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley Recreation Zones suddenly increased fivefold over two days (from July 23 -25) leading to health warnings for river users.
If design and oversight/enforcement are not improved now, the river will continue to decline, and the community will oppose future investments. Already, groups of neighbors whose properties are adjacent to or near the existing L.A. River bike path are making their voices heard. They are mobilizing cleanups, and raising concerns about its maintenance and safety, and the potential decline in property values as a result of the problems they’re seeing along the bike path.
So, how do we do fix this? Other Southern California governments have recently reached settlements or passed ordinances to better patrol their river areas, including an Orange County legal settlement which allows law enforcement to remove people living along the Santa Ana River after providing a reasonable time to remove their belongings and offering supportive services. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently passed a motion to reduce hazards caused by people dwelling in secluded areas such as riverbeds and high fire zones by increasing outreach and cleanup in these high-risk areas.
One serious and complicating factor for enforcement, outreach, and cleanup along the Canoga Park and Reseda areas of the L.A. River is the multijurisdictional responsibility for different sections. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles County Flood Control District, and various Los Angeles City departments all have responsibility for some aspect of river area maintenance and enforcement, but there is no one coordinating entity. A few years ago, when meeting with community members, we shared a picture where in one 20-foot stretch of the River there were five different jurisdictions surrounding an encampment. The lack of a unified command with responsibility for the River contributes to the community’s frustration that problems along the river are not addressed.
It is time to bring the L.A. River under one, competent, and proven agency. This is why we are proposing a pilot program in the West Valley to give full enforcement and outreach powers along the River to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. The MRCA is a local government public entity forged under the Joint Powers Act as a partnership between the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and several other governmental bodies. MRCA has offered to take the helm and enforce relevant ordinances, protect public safety, reduce environmental hazards, provide outreach to unsheltered individuals in the area and ensure the river is an amenity for the local community. Furthermore, it is a unique JPA in that it has a park/environmental mission but its rangers have full law enforcement authority and peace officer status, unlike the city’s park rangers.
Although this offer has been extended and discussed for several years, other strategies have been prioritized for the River to address the various issues by City departments and others. Since the problems reported by our community have increased despite these other strategies, a pilot project with MRCA taking responsibility for the first section will demonstrate that a unified command provides better value and service to address the needs for environmental and public safety and programming in the area.
We want to improve the River with natural areas, paths and recreational opportunities, but our goal can best be accomplished with strong, environmental advocacy and with consistent enforcement to ensure taxpayers’ dollars are well spent and the area is a community amenity rather than a blight.
City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield represents the 3rd Council District, which includes Canoga Park, Reseda, Tarzana, Winnetka and Woodland Hills. Evelyn Aleman is an activist, writer and public affairs professional who is co-founder of the L.A. River Walkers and Watchers, a group of Reseda neighbors committed to preserving the L.A. River bike path.