The County of Los Angeles is seeking public comment on the Program Environmental Impact Report of the County LA River Master Plan (PEIR). Submissions close on Thursday May 13, 2021.

This is a different process to comments on the Master Plan itself. Those comments are due on the same day, but they’re a separate thing. For that, you can DIY your letter or use this handy template developed by Friends of the LA River and a coalition of other advocacy groups.

Your comments on the PEIR need to be sent to:
County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works
LARiverCEQA@pw.lacounty.gov
Subject line: “2020 LA River Master Plan PEIR Comments”.

Useful links:
A PEIR explainer from LA River X, in English and Spanish
The PEIR and other information from the County

As ever, you’re welcome to adapt or reuse anything from my letter. The important thing is that you send a letter, by Thursday May 13. If you have feedback on this letter, please do reach out by email. I’m at tilly@goodisbetter.net.

County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works
LARiverCEQA@pw.lacounty.gov

11 May 2021

Dear Sir/Madam,

2020 LA River Master Plan PEIR Comments

I am writing to comment on the draft Program Environmental Impact Review (PEIR) for the County’s LA River Master Plan. I am an independent scholar and the founder/curator of Los Angeles River X.[1] I have over a decade of international research and community engagement expertise in river landscapes and their complex interrelationships with surrounding communities, particularly the Los Angeles River. On that basis, I make the following comments on the Draft PEIR.

The PEIR should consider the entire watershed, or at least tributaries
The overarching weakness of this PEIR is that it takes an infrastructural not an environmental view, in that the focal area has been arbitrarily defined as the river channel and a one-mile strip along each bank. By largely ignoring the nine major tributaries – which are by definition integrally part of the Los Angeles River – the PEIR cannot possibly provide an accurate environmental assessment. I ask that the final PEIR accurately conceptualize the river as including its tributaries. I know that the PEIR claims in the executive summary that it ‘uses a data-based methodology informed by an extensive collection of data that describes the physical, social, and cultural attributes of the LA River; its surroundings; and its watershed including ecosystem, demographic, and hydrologic studies that were conducted for the entire 834-square-mile watershed and Los Angeles County’, this is not sufficient. The County is the only agency with jurisdiction to take a genuinely whole-river, whole-watershed approach and missing this opportunity is unacceptable.

The “typical” projects are atypical
The two projects that are put forth as typical are far from typical when they are contrasted with other project possibilities that are framed in the Master Plan. The two “typical” projects are a Multi-use Trail and a river adjacent gathering place composed of various Common Elements from the Master Plan.

These are relatively low-impact projects and are very similar to existing features of the LA River, so it is unhelpful to have built the PEIR around them. Instead, the PEIR should analyze significant projects such as:

  • channel transformation (the Plan includes terracing, deepening, widening, converting walls from trapezoidal to vertical, diverting water in tunnels, and further restricting public access),
  • capping the river with large concrete platform parks or cantilevers (a concept the County has championed in presentations and media outreach but neglected in the PEIR),
  • building infrastructure composed from the common elements every 0.4 – 0.6 miles along both banks of the river (while the PEIR analyzes one such project, it is an entirely different matter to consider the environmental impacts of some 204 of these Shade, Rest, and Gathering Pavilions” along the River’s banks).

The two typical projects are not genuinely representative of the Master Plan’s scope and intent, and on that basis the PEIR is flawed. At a minimum, please revise the PEIR to assess the cumulative impacts of multiple instances of Common Elements “typical projects”. The Master Plan’s intention is that there would be a few hundred of these Shade, Rest and Gathering Pavilions. It is manifestly insufficient to evaluate the impacts of only one. To represent the intentions of the Plan more adequately, a channel transformation project and a river capping project should also be included in the PEIR, or these should be tempered in the Master Plan document.

Complexity of the Document/Unhelpfulness of Public Meetings
The draft PEIR is cumbersome, lengthy and inaccessible. It is vastly out of step with CEQA readability requirements. Section 15140 requires that ‘EIRs shall be written in plain language and may use appropriate graphics so that decision makers and the public can rapidly understand the documents’. Section 15141 stipulates that ‘the text of draft EIRs should normally be less than 150 pages and for proposals of unusual scope or complexity should normally be less than 300 pages’. The PEIR is 1,992 pages long, uses a hyphenated page numbering system that makes it impossible to navigate the document electronically, and it is not compatible with Read Aloud functionality in Acrobat. The PEIR is more than six times the maximum length specified in CEQA. Because of the pandemic, access to physical copies, or any large-scale maps, has not been possible. Furthermore, the PEIR due date is the same day as comments on the Master Plan itself, which is a hefty 1,170 pages long. These are unacceptable burdens to place on a constituency of community members who are likely to be alienated by the complexity of the documentation and the confusion of simultaneous public comment processes.

The information and town hall sessions that were held by the County and its consultants via zoom were inadequate. Some meetings prohibited questions, only allowing comments. At others, not all questions were addressed and were only visible to the organizers not to other attendees, quashing opportunities for learning from fellow community members’ perspectives.

Document complexity, coupled with poorly designed online meetings, places tremendous burdens on readers and locks people out of the public comment process. In practical terms, I ask the County to revise the Final PEIR using plain language for clarity and accessibility, provide a more functionally navigable PDF, and include in-person viewing opportunities for documents and large-printed maps. The document should be substantially shortened. If this is genuinely impossible then additional public comment time and proactive in-community support for informed comment writing should be provided by the County so as to empower community members to understand the documentation and submit comments under CEQA. 

Tiering
In the PEIR and in County online public meetings sessions, tiering has been discussed as a means to simplify and expedite environmental approval for future projects. The implications of this are opaque, and concerning given that CEQA is a self-executing statute, making the County akin to the judge, jury and executioner of the river’s future.

I am concerned by statements such as:

“If an agency determines that a later activity is covered in the scope of the PEIR and new or substantially more severe significant impacts would not occur, no further environmental documentation would be required.” (p. 199)

“Impacts would be less than significant for later activities when carried out by the County. Impacts would be significant and unavoidable for later activities when not carried out by the County.” (p. 331)

“This conclusion of significant and unavoidable impacts also applies to the overall 2020 LA River Master Plan.” (p. 1842 and elsewhere)

because these statements seem to imply that future projects, even significantly detrimental ones, may – at the discretion of the County – bypass rigorous environmental impact review.  

The PEIR also notes that future project-specific reviews ‘would incorporate by reference the general discussions from the previously prepared PEIR and would focus solely on the issues specific to the environmental analysis subsequently prepared for the later activities’ (p. 199). This amplifies the need for the current PEIR documentation to be both robust and accessible because community members and other stakeholders will need to be working with it for the next twenty-five years.

Please revise the explanation of tiering and the statements about significant and unavoidable impacts – using plain English – so that it the implications are clearer in the PEIR.

In conclusion
In closing, I reiterate that the Draft PEIR requires major revisions if it is to be an appropriate CEQA document. The two major concerns with the PEIR are document complexity and that the “typical projects” are not representative of the intent or scope of the Master Plan. Underpinning this is the fundamental weakness of the Master Plan design: that it fails to take a watershed approach or even a whole-of-river approach. Layered over these concerns is a lack of clarity about the operationalization of how tiering would affect public comment and oversight opportunities for future projects that tier off this PEIR.

The current draft of the LA River Master Plan would cause significant adverse environmental effects, many of which are obscured by the framing and design of this PEIR. The Master Plan is also a missed opportunity for doing something truly remarkable for the environmental (and that includes human) remediation and safekeeping of our city. I request that the County develop a more representative PEIR, substantially change the proposed Master Plan, or impose as a condition of approval of this PEIR that every River or River-adjacent project be subject to full rigorous CEQA review. As it is, the draft PEIR is unacceptable.

Best regards,
Tilly Hinton, PhD


[1] http://goodisbetter.net/lariverx