I recently had the chance to meet with Col. Thomas Magness, the head of the Los Angeles unit of the Army Corps of Engineers, which made the recent horrible decision to declare only a small portion of the Los Angeles River a so-called Traditionally Navigable Water. It’s a complicated story, but the Corps has jurisdiction over much of the river. The Corps, based on its interpretation of an anti-environmental 2005 Supreme Court decision, has decided to leave large portions of the river, including the Arroyo Seco, Tujunga Wash and Glendale Narrows, unprotected from pollution safeguards under the Clean Water Act – based largely on the fact that you can’t get a steamship through them.
The Colonel, dressed in combat fatigues and Army boots, seemed out of place on the 12th floor of the downtown L.A. office building that houses the Corps, but he clearly knows his stuff and the intricacies of the law. He’s had to defend himself from local environmentalists, many of whom are angry. There has been no scarcity of well intended activists doing their best urban kayak imitation from MTV’s “Jackass” just to demonstrate how much of the river is truly navigable. But no one has tackled the biggest issue: the inherent conflict of interest at the Corps.
The Army Corps is both regulator and developer. In an era when over half of the nation’s wetlands have been lost, over 90% of California’s coastal wetlands have suffered the same fate, and the vast majority of our nation’s rivers are degraded, armored, or lost, how come no one is bringing up the most obvious conflict of interest in the environmental regulatory arena?
The Corps builds massive flood control projects including dams, dikes, reservoirs and concrete lined channels. They frequently destroy wetlands, streams and coastal habitats through these projects, breakwaters, maintenance dredging, and other dredge and fill efforts. In addition, they make permit decisions on development projects that dredge and fill riparian and wetland habitats. They even permit themselves on development projects.
According to Col. Magness, the Corps has over 100 pending development permits along the Los Angeles River alone. We shouldn’t allow advocacy on river, creek and wetland protection to be narrowed to fights over how much of a creek you can row a boat in. There’s too much at stake to let the fox continue guarding the henhouse.