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
  • 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...
  • The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • available in Gothic, CO for 2019 summer season - Manager, Lead Cooks, Prep-Cooks, Dishwasher - at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). The Dining Hall...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.
  • More information: jobs.wisc.edu. Search 96076
  • Friends of the Verde River is looking for someone to join our team who has a keen investigative mind and is an excellent communicator and...
  • - Thriving Indie bookstore in Durango, CO. 1800 sf of busy retail space in a 3100 sf historic building. Long term lease or option to...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is seeking a technical partner to develop a land management plan for the 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears Landscape in southeastern...
  • Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • on 3 acres near Moxon. 3 bd/1.5 bath, apt. Views/access to hiking, fishing, wildlife.1-207-593-6312. $165,900.
  • Senior position responsible for the development of all marketing and fundraising strategies to grow the base of philanthropic support and awareness of GSEP.
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] www.arrowreal.com (Country Homes).
  • Colorado Farm to Table is looking for a full-time energetic, creative Executive Director to lead our team in Salida.
  • Join HCN and Black Sheep Adventures on an expedition through the national parks and monuments of Utah and Southwest Colorado, September 7 - 15, 2019....