23 Jan Report from the National River Rally!
This year, The River Network held its 10th Annual National River Rally in Baltimore, MD, and focused on urban river issues. The three day Rally consisted of over 70 seminars, presentations, and brainstorming sessions, hosted by river advocates, experts, and enthusiasts from across the country. The focus on urban rivers is timely, as the EPA recently received a mandate from their new leadership, asking for an urban rivers initiative. Staff from the national office of the EPA in Washington, DC were there to hear what urban river advocates had to say.
The Rally was Friday through Sunday, May 29-31. On Tuesday, June 2nd, American Rivers (national advocacy group focused on river & water resource policy) held River Action Day. Attendees were trained on Monday June 1st, and taken to Capital Hill on Tuesday for a full day of lobbying. They organized all the appointments, so that each attendee met with senators and representatives, or their staff, from their state and district.
If any city knows about urban river issues it’s Los Angeles. Ramona Marks of Friends of the LA River attended the River Rally (thanks to a generous scholarship from River Network sponsors) and here is her report.
What an inspiring weekend! If I had cloned myself three times, I still couldn’t have attended all the seminars that would be helpful for the LA River & FoLAR. Each day, I spent every hour learning from experienced river advocates, and during every 15 minute break I met someone new who had insights or questions about urban rivers. Many people approached me to tell me that they respect the work of Friends of the LA River, and that they find our fight for the LA River to be critical and inspiring.
Some folks, like David Groenfeldt, the Executive Director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, are trying to do what we are – remove concrete, create a greenway with parks and river walks, turn the river into a commercial corridor where neighborhoods come together, jobs are created, and locals can stretch their legs. Others are trying to avoid the situation we are in – lobbying hard to ensure that development doesn’t encroach into the flood plain of their river, so concrete isn’t introduced as the remedy for flooding!
On Friday, we had a four hour session focused on strategies for urban river revitalization, lead by Lynn Broaddus of the Johnson Foundation and Helen Sarakinos of Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Lynn presented on the Menomonee River, a major tributary of the Milwaukee River. When Milwaukee was an industrial city, the center of industry was along the Menomonee, and the River was contained in concrete. As factories emptied and industry moved out of town, the center of the city became a rusting brownfield, toxic and neglected. Now, commercial development has been re-introduced, following a massive clean up and the re-planning of entire stretches of the River, to ensure access, habitat, and park space.
Looking at the photographs, I saw something very familiar – concrete channels. I also saw the renderings for revitalization, images that remind me of the LA River Revitalization Master Plan. The final images in Lynns presentation were of a natural looking waterway, with park space and pedestrian bridges and pathways. They did it – and we can too!
Professional river advocates were abundant, as were consultants, coaches, and funders. I spent an evening talking to Marc Alston, who worked for the EPA for almost 30 years, culminating with an assignment to the revitalization of the South Platte River through Denver, CO. The Denver revitalization project was championed by Mayor Webb, whose legacy is the creation of a greenway through Denver – changing the city from one that turned its back on the South Platte River, to a city that celebrates the community created by open park space and a greened waterway. They did it – and we can too!
Can you see a theme emerging? The LA River isn’t the only River that has been neglected, channelized, fenced off, and separated from the communities around it. In our brainstorming, we figured out that one element that pushed revitalization movements into action was a political champion. Everyone successful had an active environmental org, architects and designers with green sensibilities, and a vibrant and vocal community asking for improvements. But the factor that tipped the balance in each case was political will.
The LA River has architects, designers, fans, and non-profits dedicated to the improvement of its watershed. What we need here is a political champion. And at a time when stimulus funding might be available for the creation of jobs, our City Councils & Mayors should be focusing on our infrastructural needs. The New Deal funded the concrete channel in the 1930s-1960s, employing over 17,000 people over more than 25 years. Creating park space, opening the River back up to the communities along it, and even taking out concrete in areas would be great ways to create jobs, create commercial and green corridors, and increase property values.
In Los Angeles, as part of the Master Plan, we are close to deciding on a demonstration project, a collaboration between the Bureau of Engineering and the Army Corps. We will be asking for your input about locations and plans very soon. Encourage Councilmembers Ed Reyes, Tom LaBonge, Eric Garcetti, Jose Huizar, and Jan Perry; they are the members of the Ad Hoc LA River Committee, and they are the River heros pushing for change. Support them in their efforts and thank them for the work they are doing! The more support and encouragement they get, the more they will know they are doing the right work.
We’re seeing implementation of storm drain grate programs in Pasadena, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and other cities along the south LA River – a critical step in keeping trash from getting to the River in the first place. Mayor Bob Foster in Long Beach has attended FoLAR’s Great LA River CleanUp for two years in a row!
Although steps may not be obvious quite yet, and we’ve suffered some setbacks, improvements to the LA River are slowly moving forward. The more you show your local politicians that they could be that River hero, that their legacy could be revitalization of one of the most paved urban rivers in the country, the better they understand what their constituents want. If you need information about how to contact your local city council member or mayor, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
River Rally inspired me to be focused on the goals of FoLAR and the communities that support our efforts. I hope that you are also inspired by the possibilities, by the other positive stories of urban rivers, and that you continue to support FoLAR by telling your friends about the River and our efforts to bring about a lasting positive change for the entire region. Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome, and you give us the strength to go to our policy makers and advocate for a better LA River! Let us know what you’d like to see in your neighborhood, maybe together we can bring out the champions in our local politicians all along the LA River.