In yet another LA River Folly, City Council is forgoing sustainability and putting lives at risk to enrich Nury Martinez's friends and placate Olympic organizers.
The trickling Los Angeles River, which is largely considered a joke and often mistaken for a racetrack, roars to life every few winters in violent displays that could threaten the lives of more Angelenos than most earthquakes. As Angelenos scrambled to prepare for this month’s record rainfalls and local news ran headlines warning of a sinkhole in Chatsworth, flooding in downtown, and mudslides threatening mansions on Mulholland Drive, an important response to the deluge happened quietly in the San Fernando Valley as the Sepulveda Basin was closed by city officials.
While longtime Valley residents know the crucial role the Basin plays in mitigating flood risk, newcomers to the city who know only drought are learning a story fundamental to LA history: The biggest risk the city faces comes not from earthquake or from fire, but from an abundance of water, and due to the city’s history of real estate speculation, all that sits between us and disaster is a thin line of aging concrete.
The future of this critical infrastructure is being steered from the political grave of former City Council President Nury Martinez, who resigned in shame after audio of racist remarks and gerrymandering was leaked last year. In the leaked audio, Martinez gleefully discusses her plans to maximize her personal power and profit through backroom deals with the LA Rams and the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Organizing Committee for use of the Sepulveda Basin. While she may have failed to hand over the park to Stan Kroenke and the LA Rams, it appears the elite private school Harvard Westlake is looking to privatize event sites following the Games.
Martinez’s Planning and Transportation Director Max Podemski is still steering the development of the “Sepulveda Basin Vision Plan.” The Board of Public Works recently approved a $2.3 million contract for Geosyntec Consultants, a subsidiary of infamous private equity firm Blackstone, to lead development of the plan, which includes a cushy outreach contract for nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful — where Podemski used to work and which Martinez helped found.
Geosyntec also recently led the County’s controversial LA River Master Plan Update, which the Center for Biological Diversity is suing over. Environmental justice groups and others involved in the planning demanded their names be removed from that plan altogether, asserting that the Geosyntec team failed to incorporate community feedback in any meaningful way, claimed that nature-based solutions were infeasible, and proposed a plan that lacks a coherent vision and would add concrete to the floodplain. While groups distanced themselves from the plan, Representative Brad Sherman, who represents the Basin, was working to pass the “LA28 Olympic and Paralympic Games Commemorative Coin Act.”
The Army Corps of Engineers, who own the Basin, update the Master Plan for Sepulveda Basin every 10 years, but the process for this update was markedly opaque. Unlike previous master plans, key stakeholders like The Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Areas Steering Committee and Neighborhood Councils have been kept in the dark for the last three years. Why the planning lacked transparency is not clear, but the Army Corps of Engineers is known to respond to federal directives from elected officials like Rep. Sherman.
The Sepulveda Dam Basin, located at the northwest corner of the 101 and 405 freeways, sits on 2,000 acres of federally owned land. It is a key asset in protecting the city from flooding by temporarily detaining stormwater from the west valley so that downstream communities aren’t inundated. It includes 8 miles of waterways and a large protected wildlife area. The city leases land there for the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant and for various recreational uses (mostly golf courses).
Today, what usually flows through the river is a combination of treated sewage water and groundwater, but the city was founded on the banks of the Los Angeles River because it was so plentiful, even in the dry season. Before we built the river’s concrete sarcophagus, vineyards covered half of downtown and many Angelenos considered the periodic flooding to be a benefit.
When the railroads were built, the population soared, land prices ballooned overnight, and flood-prone lands were bought, subdivided, and sold to unaware settlers. It was the start of a land speculation bubble that has yet to burst. Once we’d managed to steal water from Owens Valley, city leaders decided unimpeded development was the future and Los Angeles moved to dominate the river it once relied upon.
Alternative proposals to the concrete eyesore we have today included a vast network of living green space and parkways along the river and its tributaries that would serve as a regional park system while allowing those areas to flood periodically without damaging homes or infrastructure. City leaders feared powerful landowners and desperate homeowners, however, and a more aggressive solution won out.
After the 1938 flood, leaders decided to leverage New Deal job funds to channelize the 51 miles of river and, by 1960, every stream and tributary. The decision was to the detriment of the ecosystem, our local water supply, and the health of our aquifers. Moreover, the system that was built never anticipated the level of development that Los Angeles would undertake.
According to a recent UC Irvine study, today more than one million Angelenos, who are disproportionately Black and brown, are at risk in the kind of storms we’re likely to see with frequency in the 21st century, and the concrete channels are now at the end of their “useful life.” During intense winter storms like those this month, the aging concrete river system is tasked with carrying more than 10 billion gallons from some 7,000 foot mountain peaks to sea level with stunning speed and force.
Around the globe, water managers are turning to nature-based approaches to healthy flood risk management. Even the Army Corps of Engineers have an “Engineering with Nature” program, and last year released international guidelines for “Natural and Nature-Based Features for Flood Risk Mangement,” guidelines which the plan does not meet.
The only thing certain about the Sepulveda Basin Vision Plan is that any changes that affect the 2028 Olympics must be relayed to the private LA28 organizing committee immediately, as the Basin is slated to host equestrian, shooting, aquatic, and possibly canoe slalom events. Plans to build an artificial river for canoe slalom in the Basin are in limbo as LA28 is considering moving the event to Oklahoma.
Voters recently rejected Measure SP, which would have created a $6.7 billion slush fund for parks spending at places like the Basin. Meanwhile, this project is set to waste tens of millions of city dollars preparing the Basin for the upcoming Olympics, with very few requirements on how that money is spent, while doing almost nothing to adapt to our changing climate, increase public safety, or ensure community stability. What’s clear is that the city wants more power over land use decisions and that the 2028 Olympics and the private LA28 organizing committee are the key clients — not Angelenos.
More than 70 local groups including the Sierra Club, Friends of the LA River, Heal the Bay, and UCLA Sustainability are demanding an inclusive and transparent approach that would prioritize community and ecological resilience. They want nature-based solutions to decrease flood risk for downstream communities, increase groundwater recharge, expand biodiversity, and build on an alternative feasibility study and plan presented publicly by The River Project. But this once in a lifetime opportunity to prioritize climate resiliency, community and ecosystem health — and reorient our relationship to the river — is quickly streaming past.
While then-City Councilmember Paul Koretz put forward a motion in November 2022 to investigate the origins of the plan, hoping to daylight backroom deals involved in the project, he let it fail without a fight. LA City Council can push the Bureau of Engineering to cancel the contract and start anew, and they would likely succeed. Right now, City Council is allowing a zombie plan forged by a disgraced leader to move forward, as Angelenos watch possibility flow just out of our reach. The question is: will the new City Council accept Nury’s poison pill, or will they take responsibility and listen to the river?