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Victory for the Creek Freaks

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Judith Lewis Mernit | Jul 08, 2010 11:55 AM

Several years ago, I followed a group of creek defenders down to a little stretch of habitat in Compton, Calif. – yes, that Compton, like Straight Outta Compton – where blue herons alighted on the lightpoles above a natural softbottom creek, a tributary of the Los Angeles River. My guides, from Southern California’s influential nonprofit Heal the Bay, were concerned about development along the creek that might bury the waterway or, at minimum, desecrate it with indiscriminate dumping.

But like all other tributaries of the trapezoidal concrete channel L.A. still stubbornly calls a river, Compton Creek had scant legal basis for Clean Water Act protection. In 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had declared that only four miles of the Los Angeles River were truly navigable waters (see Tony Davis’s February 2009 HCN story, “Non-Navigable River Blues,” here) and thus its tributaries were not necessarily worth keeping clear.

Wednesday, all of that changed.

On the banks of Compton Creek, speaking before an audience of creek freaks, students and public officials, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson overrode the Army Corps’ decision, declaring the entire Los Angeles River –“traditional navigable waters.” She was frank and withering in her criticism of past decisions that threatened creeks like Compton: “In 2006 a bad thing happened,” she said. “The U.S. Supreme Court in two decisions cast doubt about when water is water. Those decisions made it such we couldn’t tell whether a creek like the one we stand before in an urban area was water.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she continued, “this is a watershed no different than any of our pristine watersheds.”

(You can watch of video of Jackson’s speech on L.A. Creek Freak blog, here.)

With that statement, Jackson vindicated a long list of activists, including the poet Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, and Heather Wylie, the biologist who lost her job with the Army Corps after she joined a group of 50 kayakers bent on proving the river flowed all the way to the sea (listen to HCN’s interview with Wylie, by Marty Durlin, here). And as Louis Sahagun reports in the Los Angeles Times,  the decision's implications extend beyond Los Angeles.

Sahagun quotes the Natural Resources Defense Council’s David Beckman: "The EPA's decision has been closely watched as an indicator of whether similar rivers throughout the West — dry as a bone one day, a torrent the next — would lose historical protections under the Clean Water Act. So this is great news.”

In practical terms, it’s hard to predict what this means for the day-to-day management of Southern California’s watersheds. But with the region being forced to look toward local sources to replace depleted imports from the Sierra Nevada and Bay Delta, a heightened regard for local watersheds can only bode well.

Here in Venice, Calif., close to the banks of another once pristine but now channeled-up Los Angeles waterway, Ballona Creek, I await the jackhammers.

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