Whittier Narrows Dam is ‘structurally unsafe’

LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined that the 60-year-old Whittier Narrows Dam is structurally unsafe and poses a potentially catastrophic risk to the working-class communities along the San Gabriel River floodplain.

With the retrofit not likely to begin until 2021, according to a Corps spokesman, Los Angeles County and municipal officials are working with the federal government to develop emergency plans that can be implemented if necessary before repairs to the dam are completed, the Los Angeles Times reported.

An agency report based on research conducted last year says unusually heavy rains could trigger a premature opening of the dam’s massive spillway, The Times reported.

“Under certain conditions, the spillway on the San Gabriel River can release more than 20 times what the downstream channel can safely contain within its levees,” according to the Corps report cited by The Times.

“Depending on the size of the discharge, flooding could extend from Pico Rivera, immediately downstream of the dam, to Long Beach.”

Engineers also found that the milelong earthen structure could fail if water were to flow over its crest or if seepage eroded the sandy soil underneath. The agency said Sept. 14 that it is developing measures to address problems at the dam, which the corps recently reclassified as one of its highest priority safety projects in the nation.

The San Gabriel River plunges 9,900 feet, from forks in the mountains down to Irwindale, then meanders in a channel to Whittier Narrows at the southern boundary of the San Gabriel Valley. From there, it flows in a concrete-covered channel for most of its final journey to the Pacific Ocean. The river and its aquifers serve more than 3 million people in the San Gabriel Valley and southeast Los Angeles County, according to The Times. An estimated 1 million people live and work along the floodplain.

The planned retrofit is expected to include replacing the existing spillway with a system less likely to malfunction and shoring up the dam’s foundation to reduce erosion and prevent subsidence that could result in floodwaters spilling over the top, officials said. Until then, “we cannot approve any sort of construction projects in the floodplain under our jurisdiction,” said a corps spokesman quoted by The Times.



City closes escrow on property along L.A. River

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles leaders hailed the close of escrow March 3 on nearly 42 acres of property key to the city’s plan to revitalize the Los Angeles River.

The city paid the Union Pacific Railroad $59.3 million for the land alongside the river, called the Taylor Yard G2 plot, and estimates its development will cost $252 million, including the purchase price. The state has agreed to contribute $25 million.

“We’ve always considered G2 to be the crown jewel in our vision to revitalize the L.A. River, and that’s why I have been committed to fighting for the resources to finally return this land to the people of Los Angeles and the wildlife that call it home,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

“We got it done, and now this vast site can transform how Angelenos connect with the natural world —because it will allow for habitat restoration, and open more than a mile of direct access to the river for local communities that have been cut off from it for too long,” he said.

The Taylor Yard G2 acreage is on the east bank of the L.A. River in Cypress Park. Development of the plot will connect it to Rio de Los Angeles State Park and with the Bowtie parcel, another state park.

The plot is a side project connected to a possible $1.4 billion U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to revitalize 11 miles of river running through the Elysian Valley and return it to a more natural state.

“It has been a process to secure the G2 site in Council District 1, but we have finally done it” said Councilman Gil Cedillo, whose First District includes the land. “G2 is the most integral part of the L.A. River Revitalization Master Plan for Northeast L.A., for it is the only direct access point to the river from the communities in our district. It is the beginning of the future for the L.A. River as we imagine it.”

“I’ve been focused on revitalizing the L.A. River for the better part of a decade, including fighting for the $25 million budget allocation that made it possible for us to acquire this parcel,” state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said. “We have a long way to go to realize our dream of a healthy L.A. River as a vibrant social and recreational center of our city, but today the future looks brighter than ever.”

“Today, Angelenos now own the largest available piece of property along our Los Angeles River,” City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said. “Parcel G2 is a keystone for habitat restoration identified in our Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, and I commend everyone involved for the tremendous lift to acquire this asset for all of Los Angeles to enjoy.”

The land is expected to take five to 10 years to develop before the public will get to use the space due to the significant environmental cleanup that will need to be done.

While city leaders celebrated the acquisition of the land, the future of the larger $1.4 billion revitalization plan is unclear. The council voted in 2013 to split the cost 50/50 with the Army Corps of Engineers, but the Army Corps has only agreed to pay 20 percent. There is also the looming threat by President Donald Trump to cut off federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities,” which could end up applying to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is expected to be a target because of the LAPD’s longstanding policy of not initiating contact with a person simply to determine their immigration status, and other stances city leaders are taking to oppose Trump.


Architect Gehry may help design L.A. River plans

LOS ANGELES — Architect Frank Gehry’s involvement in an effort to revitalize the entire 51-mile length of the Los Angeles River is still in its early stages, and the process for creating a plan has not yet begun, Mayor Eric Garcetti said Friday.

Gehry has only offered up a broad set of ideas, but it’s not yet a plan “that’s going to replace the plan that we have,” Garcetti said.

He added that he is “very pleased to have someone with the genius of Frank Gehry” to help identify opportunities along the river for transportation projects, affordable housing and economic development.

Garcetti said he received a call earlier this year from Gehry, who wanted to know that there was a strong interest in revitalizing the Los Angeles River before he would help with a project to create a new regional plan for the river.

“I got a call from Frank Gehry about 10 months ago saying, “Is this revitalization of the Los Angeles River for real?” Garcetti recounted during City Hall news conference on a different issue.

Gehry told Garcetti he gets “hundreds” of queries to do projects from around the world, “but Los Angeles is my home” and he was approached by a nonprofit, the Los Angles River Revitalization Corp., to work on expanding an existing plan that applies only to the 32 miles flowing through Los Angeles to outside the city limits.

Garcetti told the 86-year-old Gehry that “It’s very real — we’re very serious about the Los Angeles River.”

Gehry “volunteered his time” and services “to think about the river,” as a result, according to Garcetti.

He added “there’s always, always been the idea of let’s do some technical work, then we can have a conversation with everybody including stakeholders,” Garcetti said.

Garcetti said the new master plan would only create a blueprint — and not individual projects — for the Los Angeles River, and overlap with a proposed $1.4 billion ecological restoration of about 11 miles of the river that the city has been pushing.

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp. was formed by the City Council about six years ago, following the 2007 adoption of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan, to help fundraise and come up with projects along the river, according to City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell.

The current master plan applies only to the 32 miles of the river that flows within Los Angeles city limits, and any replacement master plan would need to come before the Arts, Parks and River Committee that he chairs, O’Farrell said.

He said a few months ago the nonprofit brought Gehry and his architects to speak to him about some ideas for re-envisioning the river, which included “initial, very broad-stroke renderings,” statistics and numbers.

But no plan was presented and if one does exist, it would be putting the “cart before the horse,” O’Farrell said.

In a story on Gehry’s involvement with creating a new master plan for the river, The Los Angeles Times highlighted concerns raised by the Friends of the Los Angeles River that the renowned architect’s plans — which have been kept under wraps and shown only to a few people — represent a “top down” approach and does not include input from the public.

The Los Angels River Revitalization Corp. released a statement saying they were looking for someone who could help them “bring a more integrated framework to the entire river.”

The corporation said their pre-requisites included the ability to “think about and assimilate an array of very complex challenges at both a city and regional level” and being a long-time Los Angeles resident, and “it was clear that Frank Gehry could be our only choice.”

Gehry has so far spent nine months “all pro bono” poring over “numerous river-related plans,” gathering data on “flood control, hydrology, water flow, land use, public health and the myriad other complex issues relating to the river.”

The river corporation also said that Gehry’s work “will complement” other projects along the river, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Alternative 20 plan, by contextualizing them in a larger framework, showing how the entire river can work as one ecosystem.