Restoring a Critical Watershed Ecosystem

Los Angeles, California

The Sepulveda Basin encompasses some 2,000 acres of federally owned land and nearly eight miles of the Los Angeles River and tributaries. Current use has degraded the area and its natural ecosystems, making the area more prone to flooding, threatening biodiversity and complicating water reclamation. When officials solicited comments for a new master plan for the river, the San Fernando Valley chapter of The Climate Reality Project saw not just a problem but an opportunity. 

Advocating for nature-based solutions during the planning process, the activists built a strong community-based coalition to demand that decisions be made through a lens of climate change and biodiversity. While the solution sounds advantageous to all, organizers quickly realized that nature-based solutions existed outside the traditional developers’ toolkit of construction materials. Building awareness along the way was a key component of the work. 

Organizer Diana Weynand points out the importance of shifting the thinking that goes into solutions that some don’t even realize is a climate issue: “Climate change experts are not involved in the decisions to “beautify” the LA River and Sepulveda Basin. The City and County are following the advice of engineers who understand only building with man-made materials to control nature rather than partnering with nature to unlock the myriad of climate-adaptive values of nature-based solutions. We have to change their 'concrete' way of thinking.”

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In Their Own Words

What was the problem you saw?

In 2021, the San Fernando Valley chapter of The Climate Reality Project gave public comment on the Los Angeles River Draft Master Plan. Specifically, we advocated for nature-based solutions to be used when redeveloping the river. Our suggestions, along with many others in the environmental and climate area, were roundly dismissed. “It can’t be done,” officials said. We disagreed.

We want the Los Angeles River, especially the portion in the Sepulveda Basin that runs through the San Fernando Valley, to once again flow naturally without concrete barriers. Taking the concrete out would help with water reclamation, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration – all of which LA desperately needs. What’s more, during large surge storm events there are flood concerns with the river, but studies have shown that the flooding could be managed naturally. 

What was your idea/insight to solve it and the end result/vision you wanted to achieve?

In the fall of 2021, we were inspired by a presentation by Melanie Winter, Founder and Director of The River Project in Los Angeles. Her feasibility study focused on a reach of the river, within the Sepulveda Basin — a 2,000-acre area of land that is federally owned. 

Melanie and her team had developed a fluvial geomorphic modeling analysis to inform a vision of what the Sepulveda Basin could become. But the 2,000-acre area is federally owned and Los Angeles leases parts of it for recreational purposes. To make the vision a reality, we had to reach out on all levels—federal, state, county and city—to achieve our goal of giving the area its best chance of being naturally transformed.

Her study showed how this place could become a Central Park-like oasis in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, simply by returning ecological function to the river and tributaries and applying nature-based solutions to its development. We wanted that vision to become the reality for the Sepulveda Basin. 

Why is this solution important to your country and community?

Using a nature-based approach to adapting the Sepulveda Basin for the 21st century will have huge benefits to our community. It will help mitigate climate change, recharge groundwater supplies, expand flood detention capacity… and create an “emerald gem” in the heart of LA that will provide a respite in nature for the San Fernando Valley and the many disadvantaged communities that surround the area. A very important aspect in gathering support for our climate change issues is to get people to reconnect with nature and once again cherish its value. This project will do that as well.

What were the biggest challenges you faced/ran into?

This is a federally owned flood management facility, but the city leases portions for recreation. Often, people in the most powerful positions and with the most funding (federal and state) defer to the City.

Climate change experts are not involved in the decisions to “beautify” the LA River and Sepulveda Basin. The City and County are following the advice of engineers who understand only building with man-made materials to control nature, rather than partnering with nature to unlock the myriad climate-adaptive values of nature based solutions. We have to change their “concrete” way of thinking. Not an easy task.

How did you mobilize people to take actions?

First, we educated our chapter by having The River Project share their feasibility presentation with us – several times. Then we started to reach out to others who were already involved in the area and asked them to join us. We reached out further to others who might be interested, including state legislators and city council members.

We have been working with The River Project to share with non-profits and community-based organizations what Los Angeles would gain should nature-based solutions be implemented to bring the LA River back to life. We have received very positive feedback from climate activist groups to government officials.

Who were key stakeholders/partners that worked with you?

The River Project, members of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area Steering Committee, and representatives of surrounding neighborhood councils.

What insight, ideas, or suggestions would you offer someone looking to take action in a similar way?

For big projects such as this, that cross federal, state, county and city interests, it helps to build a coalition up and down the legislative food chain. You have to encourage leaders to break up their “concrete” way of thinking. We drafted a resolution to clarify the vision we were holding for this space so it could be clearly communicated and shared. In essence, we built a playing field and started inviting other teams to join our league.

How did this project you created promote equity or justice in your community?

This project will equitably distribute the 112 acres set aside for urban agriculture to facilitate access to surrounding communities, enhance connections to public transit, create an additional 830 miles of multi-modal  trails, more than double the number of soccer fields, establish a formal site for traditional Indigenous practice, and create new community gathering areas. 

We are reaching out to local grassroots groups who advocate for equitable access to outdoor space. With the 2028 Olympics planning to host events at the site, collectively advocating for a community-informed vision for the Basin can help ensure a more just and sustainable event. As our involvement progresses, the voices of surrounding communities will be central to the planning.