BRINGING BOATS TO A NAVIGABLE WATERWAY: EFFORTS TO EXPAND RECREATIONAL ACCESS TO THE LOS ANGELES RIVER

Douglas Carstens (Chatten-Brown & Carstens) and Paul Kibel (Associate Professor, Golden Gate University School of Law)

On July 6, 2010, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its Clean Water Act navigability determination for the Los Angeles River. (read more) This EPA determination found that “the mainstem of the Los Angeles River is a ‘Traditional Navigable Water’ from its origins at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek to San Pedro Bay at the Pacific Ocean, a distance of approximately 51 miles.’

Although the Los Angeles River is now recognized as a navigable waterway under the Clean Water Act, those seeking to in fact use the river for navigable purposes (e.g. boating, canoeing, kayaking) continue to face obstacles. These obstacles include signage along portions of the river indicating that boating activities are unlawful. For instance, Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 41.22 is titled “Loitering – River Bed” and provides that persons shall not “remain or loiter in the official bed of the Los Angeles River.” Signage including this code language can be found along the river, and in February 2011 a group of visitors from Canada were cited by the Los Angeles Police Department (LADP) for violation of Section 41.22 for canoeing. (read).

In an effort to open up the waterway for enhanced recreational boating, the City of Los Angeles held a public workshop on April 15, 2011 to discuss a future Los Angeles River signage project for the Glendale Narrows section of the River.  The announcement of the meeting included an attachment of the Friends of Los Angeles’ River’s Access and Use Recommendations for making the Los Angeles River more accessible and user friendly.  (read more).

The LAPD is not the only agency to take actions to discourage boating on the Los Angeles River. In 2009, in response to a request for a permit to access the river, the regional district of the United States Army Corps of Engineers wrote back: “It is the policy of this District that boating of any sort is not permitted in the river − no ifs, no ands, no buts − no boats/boating, kayaks/kayaking, canoes/canoeing − no floatable vessels of any sort.” (read more). Contrary to these agency actions and positions, however, California law has long ensured public access for public trust uses (such as boating) on traditionally navigable waterways.  See (State Land’s Commission Public Trust Doctrine). Relying in part on the public trust doctrine, river activists continue to push at multiple levels for greater public access to the river. (read more).

The April 2011 City of Los Angeles workshop on signage and recreational access along the Glendale Narrows stretch of the Los Angeles River provided an important opportunity to help translate EPA’s navigability determination into boats on the water.

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