On a recent trip to the nation's capital, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made sure to call on Jo-Ellen Darcy. As assistant Army secretary for civil works, Darcy is critical to the city's efforts to win federal approval for a costly and ambitious plan to restore Los Angeles River habitat and provide recreational opportunities along an 11-mile stretch of the waterway north of downtown.
City officials have asked the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the river as a flood control channel, to approve a $1-billion renovation plan. But the corps staff has recommended a less ambitious, $453-million alternative, which is why Garcetti and his most powerful congressional ally — California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer — are stepping up their efforts in Washington.
They want to persuade Darcy, the Army Corps brass and the White House to back the costlier plan.
Garcetti discussed the project last fall with President Obama and has taken administration officials on tours of the river. "At the end of the day, I think we have a president who can help," Garcetti said in an interview.
Boxer, head of the Senate committee overseeing corps projects, said she is so strongly committed to the more ambitious alternative that she has no fallback position. "My Plan B is to make sure Plan A happens," she said.
Boxer said the corps staff recommendation is "exactly the opposite of what the administration has committed to do in places like Los Angeles." She said the administration has designated the Los Angeles River a priority in initiatives to promote conservation and recreation,
According to Boxer, the corps' Los Angeles district office initially recommended the costlier version but was overruled by corps' headquarters in Washington. A corps' spokesman denied any disagreement between offices. "We're one corps, one voice,'' spokesman Jay Field said.
But Field said the corps is considering Garcetti's recent offer to split the costs with the government if the agency approves the more expansive project.
Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, the corps' commanding general, is expected to submit a recommendation to Congress late this year or early next year. Bostick's recommendation will go to Darcy, whose responsibilities include overseeing the corps, before it goes to Congress. It also will go to the White House budget office.
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
A spokesman for Darcy said the assistant Army secretary "understands the passion that the people living there have to restore the L.A. River, and is working diligently with local government to find the best path forward.''
But advocates for the costlier project have their work cut out for them. Those familiar with the corps say that it is rare for the chief to reject a staff recommendation.
Garcetti's offer to split the costs if the corps approves the more expansive project does have a precedent. The federal government is paying for half of the Florida Everglades restoration. Typically, the federal government picks up 65% of the cost of such projects.
The city's 50-50 offer comes as the corps faces demands for flood protection and harbor dredging projects elsewhere, including a $60-billion-plus backlog of work awaiting funding.
"This is the challenge we always have in L.A.," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who has been working to persuade the corps to back the more ambitious project. "It's bigger and more expensive to do things in L.A."
With the corps facing a backlog of projects, "I think they are very circumspect about adding big new items to the list," Schiff added.
Garcetti said that he has sought to allay the "sticker shock" of the project by pointing out that the cost will be shared by the city and others and spread out over a decade or so.
"I don't think that kids who are growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods along the L.A. River should be punished for the price of real estate in Los Angeles simply because it's cheaper to do water projects in Wichita,'' Garcetti said. "It's an issue of environmental justice."'
But Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said local officials who want to undertake more ambitious projects than the corps recommends usually must pick up the difference in cost, not expect the corps to split the cost.
'If they do this for L.A., why wouldn't they do it for everybody?' Ellis said.
Schiff suspects that the corps may have already made up its mind, suggesting that the project has been run up the chain of command, given its high profile.
As a result, proponents of the more ambitious project are beginning to look for other pots of federal money to help Los Angeles undertake the $1-billion restoration. They hope money will be available, for example, from the Interior Department's America's Great Outdoors initiative and the Environmental Protection Agency's Urban Waters Federal Partnership.