A river again?

Obama's EPA extends protection to L.A.'s urban watershed

  • EPA administrator Lisa Jackson examines a sample of Compton Creek water with local students. Environmentalists hope Jackson's announcement that Los Angeles River tributaries like Compton will receive federal protection signals a change in water policy around the nation.

    US EPA
 

Behind the parking lot of a dilapidated casino in the city of Compton, Calif., runs a few miles of earthen-bottom creek, a tributary to the Los Angeles River, where blue herons alight on graffitied lamp posts and red-winged blackbirds feed among the cattails. Environmentalists have long fought to save this rare patch of urban nature from development, dredging and dumping, not just for the sake of open space in this park-poor neighborhood, but for water quality: Those cattails, for example, consume nitrogen from fertilizer runoff bound for the ocean.

But the creek's defenders have had scant legal basis for their fight: In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided that only four miles of the Los Angeles qualified as "navigable" under the Clean Water Act, meaning the eight major tributaries of the concrete trapezoidal channel L.A. stubbornly insists on calling a river remained stranded outside the protection of the federal law.

That changed on July 8, when EPA administrator Lisa Jackson stood on Compton's banks and declared all 51 miles of the Los Angeles River a "traditional navigable river." That means Compton and the other tributaries now pass "the Rapanos test" -- named for the Michigan scofflaw in U.S. v. Rapanos who paved a wetland to put up a shopping mall and, thanks to a landmark 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision, got away with it. Rapanos limited Clean Water Act protection to waterways that have "a significant nexus" to navigable U.S. waters. That the Los Angeles River's tributaries now count among them won't stop every attempt to alter a creek, but it imposes an extra layer of pollution limits, subjecting development plans in the creek beds and floodplains to more lengthy and costly review processes.

"The EPA's decision could set a different paradigm for conservation here," says Meredith McCarthy, the director of programs at the nonprofit Heal the Bay and a key defender of Compton Creek. "We could be moving in the direction of valuing nature in urban centers."

That seemed to be the point Jackson was trying to make, too, in concert with other federal officials accompanying her on a national tour for President Obama's "America's Great Outdoors" initiative. She frankly assailed Rapanos and its companion, U.S. v. Carabell, another Michigan wetland case in which the court ruled in favor of a developer. "Those decisions made it such that we couldn't tell whether a creek like the one we stand before in an urban area was water," she told her listeners. "(But) ladies and gentlemen, this is a watershed."

After her talk, Jackson ventured down to the water. "She put on yellow waders and followed us in," says Miguel Luna of the nonprofit Urban Semillas, who teaches middle- and high-school students to test water in city streams. "The kids got a chance to explain to her what kind of data they were collecting and why."

None of this necessarily means that Obama's pledge to put science over politics will bring long-term progress on the nation's water quality. Nor does the decision secure the future of Compton Creek: The state has bought four acres of the creekbed for preservation, but county engineers can still clear any vegetation that might slow rising storm waters and raise ever-higher levee walls against damaging floods. "We still have to collectively decide if we want to dedicate land for riparian functions like floodplains," says Jessica Hall, a landscape architect with the Santa Monica-based Restoration Design Group and a longtime advocate for Los Angeles' forgotten creeks.  Nothing about the EPA's decision forces anyone to address water quality by restoring creeks like Compton to more natural conditions.

What the decision does do, however, is suggest that EPA scientists are thinking about water and watersheds less narrowly than they have in the recent past. The agency "now considers that there are, within the species of  'river,' rivers like the Delaware and Mississippi but also rivers that look and feel differently," says David Beckman, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program.  And that could bode well for other fickle Western waters -- rivers that run bone-dry part of the year and rage with floodwaters the next. Advocates for Arizona's Santa Cruz River, another river tangled up in arcane legal quandaries about navigability and nexuses, are hoping the Los Angeles River decision means the EPA will stand firm against the National Homebuilders Association, which has sued the agency over its determination that certain segments of the river deserve protection.

Case-by-case determinations, however, are not the best way to forge national environmental policy. "Sooner or later the Obama administration has got to come in and ask, 'What the hell are we going to do with the Clean Water Act?' " says Pat Parenteau, a legal expert in watersheds and wetlands at the Vermont Law School. "Because right now, water law is a total mess."

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • in Southwest Colorado. $60K plus costs.
  • with six+ years of experience, broad knowledge of home and facilities maintenance. 207-805-4157, https://spark.adobe.com/page/8R7Ag/
  • Seeking full-time experienced farmer on 52-acre organic farm Union, OR. [email protected]
  • Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Government Affairs Manager that is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to support...
  • Metal roofing & siding, thru-fastened & seam profiles. Stronger, more attractive and longer lasting than any other panel on the market. 970-275-4070.
  • The Central Colorado Conservancy, a nationally accredited and state certified land trust, is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to guide the Conservancy into...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time, Lake Tahoe West Senior Project Lead. Position is responsible for working with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to...
  • Forever Our Rivers Foundation seeks a driven and creative individual to lead this national movement for river health. Deadline 6/14/19.
  • We are looking for an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry, specifically focused on fighting fossil fuel expansion...
  • 7/12-7/14/19 in Taos, NM. With over 21 workshops and keynote speaker, poet Arthur Sze.
  • Badlands Conservation Alliance is seeking an Executive Director. For job description visit https://www.badlandsconservationalliance.org/hiring.
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • Clean off, cool off & drink. Multiple spray patterns. Better than you imagine. Try it.
  • Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...