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Rotten To The Corps

September 4, 2010

Last week saw the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the coinciding one day release of the Big Uneasy, a film about said hurricane and its aftermath in New Orleans. It is a loving tribute to the city by “part time New Orleans resident” (and part time voice of Seymour Skinner) Harry Shearer. It is also a potent critique of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, with some valuable lessons for us full time residents of Los Angeles.

The Corps’s improper construction of levees in New Orleans, in addition to flood waters from its Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, precipitated the tragic flooding of the city and surrounding parishes (to be fair, any state that refers to its counties as “parishes” inevitably increases the likelihood that its citizens will perish). It is this same Corps that built the concrete banks of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, which handle much of this region’s flood waters.

From a functional standpoint, the Corps has done a much better job here than New Orleans, though there is still room for improvement. The disastrous 1938 flood has yet to have been repeated, though there have been deadly floods as recently as 1994. The concrete river banks, while not particularly attractive, have helped the river keep from destructive changes and direction and have worked reasonably well to prevent flash flooding.

The detrimental effects of the river remain palpable, especially in Long Beach, the outlet of both of the region’s major rivers and thus a focal point for anything and everything that washes down. The efficient fluid removal of the concrete river banks effectively allow a region of 10 million to dump its radiator fluid, dog feces, and other unpleasantries in the gutter and not think about where it goes. The result is a riverbed filled with plastic bags and used car parts, emitting an odor similar to the interior of an outhouse. After the completion of the concrete river beds, Long Beach’s shores went from being a tourist attraction to a health hazard.

While the risk of a Katrina-sized flood from the LA River remains low, New Orleans’s hurricane flooding and our own disastrous pollution can both be seen as products of the Army Corps’s hasty and overly utilitarian approach to civic works, as well as its rigid unwillingness to allow meaningful community input. This is particularly apparent in the Corps’s handling of the post-hurricane reconstruction. As Shearer’s film points out, the corps gave little consideration to the better but more expensive “Option 2” rebuild, and zero consideration to the hypothetical “Option 3” which would rely on adding natural marshland to the city to absorb water and pick the slack from overloaded pumps. Similarly, the Corps has been a thorn in the side to LA River revitalization efforts, often concluding that replacing concrete walls with vegetation impedes the flow of the river (which at this point it still considered a drainage ditch).

The way forward appears difficult, however the solution may lie in other federal agencies gaining the upper hand. Recently, the EPA declared the entire length of the LA River as “navigable waters,” overriding an initial determination from the corps. Hopefully this will open up a new assortment of river redevelopment possibilities. Let’s hope our New Orleanian brothers and sisters have the same good fortune.

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