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Water Supply and Habitat Resiliency for a Future Los Angeles River: Site-Specific Natural Enhancement Opportunities Informed by River Flow and Watershed-Wide Action

Lan Weber, Lara Weatherly, Jill Sourial, Krista Sloniowski, Melissa Riedel-Lehrke, John Randall, Gregory B. Pauly, Sophie Parker, Miguel Ordeñana, Travis Longcore, Stevie Kennedy-Gold, Bennett Hardy, Margot Griswold, Lisa Gonzalez, Kimball L. Garrett, Shona Ganguly, James P. Dines, Brian Cohen, Brian V. Brown, Travis Brooks | December 15th, 2016

The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. As the Conservancy engages with the Los Angeles region, they are investigating what it means to carry out this mission in the highly urbanized Los Angeles River ecosystem. As a starting point, it is known that the basic ecological principles of science apply to all environmental systems, regardless of their location. Therefore, the Conservancy is testing these principles by applying them in the Elysian Valley of the Los Angeles River and identifying habitat enhancement requirements, opportunities, and constraints.

As a basic principle of ecological systems, a watershed’s hydrology determines the flow characteristics of its river system. These flows define what the biological characteristics of that river will be, which in turn determine what kinds of habitat enhancement projects will succeed at various locations along a river. The study of the Elysian Valley included one full year of multi-taxa biological surveys, a historical ecology investigation of the Elysian Valley, and a review of historic and existing hydrological and hydraulic conditions. Major findings of this study are:

  • Multiple Flow Scenarios = Uncertainty: There are currently multiple visions for the flow characteristics of the Los Angeles River as a whole due to differing management priorities of the agencies and stakeholders that have governance over different aspects of this hydrologic system. Bringing the various hydrologic plans and possibilities for the watershed into a single integrated vision of system flow characteristics will allow certainty and clarity at the site level for the design of habitat projects anywhere in the River system, including the Conservancy’s study area.
  • Flows Drive Biology: The study area currently has higher flood and much higher dry weather flow rates than its historic condition. These high flow rates are supporting and encouraging non-native and invasive species. This leads to a lower level of biological diversity and resiliency than what would exist under lower flow rates, particularly during dry weather conditions.
  • Prioritize Complementary Habitats: Enhancing and increasing the amount of perennial riparian habitat in-stream alone will not create as much biological value as identifying complementary enhancement opportunities outside of the River channel in adjacent upper terrace floodplain and upland habitats (e.g. alluvial scrub, mulefat scrub, willow scrub, oak-sycamore woodland, sage scrub, and grassland).
  • River Adjacent Land Use: Land uses adjacent to the River and throughout the watershed are a part of the solution and part of the Los Angeles River’s biological and hydrologic system. The landscaping and hydrology of these areas should be designed to provide a value-added role to the habitat functions of the Los Angeles River ecosystem.

Next steps for advancing the discussion of habitat enhancement include working with local stakeholders and agencies to find consensus on a flow condition for the River and its Watershed as a whole. In the study area itself there are six complementary project opportunities that could be implemented in the near term to advance understanding of habitat enhancement for the Los Angeles River. These smaller, localized projects can be used as pilot projects for the complicated jurisdictional and regulatory processes that all future habitat projects will have to navigate. They will provide a manageable and controlled process that will bring the necessary agencies together to identify the most effective processes for future projects throughout the Los Angeles River ecosystem.


ecosystem management, flows

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