Glendale College's Student Magazine
Tuesday October 24th 2017

LA River: metropolis’ wet dream fulfilled

Many Angelenos are unaware that a river runs through the heart of our metropolis. The Los Angeles River, a 51-mile waterway, begins at the far western edges of the San Fernando Valley, flows through dozens of neighborhoods and cities, and finally lands in Long Beach where it discharges about 207 million gallons of water into the Pacific a day.

Eighty percent of the river’s water comes from reclamation plants (treated raw sewage) and despite a steady number of dead bodies, massive amounts of trash, and lethal pollutants being pulled from its waters annually, the concrete river hosts multimillion dollar real estate investment projects, fishing tournaments, horseback riding, kayak trips, picnic areas, bike riding paths and bird-watching.

Join me in an armchair tour of the LA River. Grab onto a floating device of your choice, and we’ll take a little excursion.

It’s a sunny Saturday morning in April. Friends of the LA River (FoLAR), a local nonprofit dedicated to the revitalization of the Los Angeles River, are hosting their annual Spring cleanup at the Glendale Narrows.

The Narrows, the focus of today’s cleanup, is one of four sections of the Los Angeles River with an earthen bottom. Flora with names more suited to a hobbit movie than an urban waterway–arroyo willows, swamp sedge and toad rush–flourish amongst soggy rock outcrops and sandy banks. What might be a soothing hum of river-through-foliage is drowned by the whirr of cars above as the 134 freeway exits at Western Ave onto a straddling pylon-heavy overhang.

Hoards of good Samaritans gather, wearing blue Friends of the River T-shirts and rubber gloves. They clutch clear plastic garbage bags in various levels of capacity and galumph up and down the concreted river edges. Some are braver than others. The gallant don leaden pants and boots, soaked from thigh-deep trash collecting.

A pair of 20-something workers hired by the Army Corps of Engineers haul trash bags up and down the sloped concrete banks to a parked pickup truck. They wear dirty long sleeved shirts and mud smeared yellow safety vests. The taller of the two, whose cheeks are stained from the sun and lips coated in a white zinc solution, stops for a few moments by the edge of the water to fasten the straps of an overflowing bag. Soggy diapers, a pair of sand-laden Dickie work pants, a rusty barbecue grill, a moss covered black and red Nintendo console. He thinks for a while after being asked to consider the strangest thing he’s pulled from the LA River.

“Corpses,” he says. “I’ve found two. The first guy was a heroin overdose, been there a long time, pretty decomposed. The second,” he looks up from his trash bag towards the bridge overpass above, “a jumper.”

Prior to the 1930‘s the LA River was much like any ol’ river – winding up and around. Twisting and turning its way through Los Angeles, which at the time happened to be the agricultural capital of the US. Kid anglers cast their lines and picnicked. Summer nights spent camped out on the river’s white sandy banks. Firing up a collected pile of twigs, puffing on found cigarette butts.

But as the city grew, the river’s seasonal bursts caused havoc. Water gushed from the overflowing riverbanks causing one disaster after another–roads flooded, citizens drowned, homes washed away, crops destroyed. Early flood control efforts included channelization and damning, none of which proved successful. So in 1938, an undertaking to concrete the entire length of the river began. The project was not fully completed until 1960‘s.

Fast forward a few decades and drawing on examples such as Portland and Seattle’s river renovation projects, Los Angeles has leapt onboard. Government agencies, non-profits and private entities alike work diligently to provide infrastructure to a resurgence and regeneration of a river that since the 1960‘s, despite its fame in movies like Grease and Terminator, has not been much more than a fenced, graffiti and litter-laden waterway.

The river meanders mostly silently beside its city’s dwellers, one million of which live within a mile of the river. Despite long periods of draught in LA, the river runs at a rather steady course year-round, fed by a constant supply of water from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Basin, which unloads 23 million gallons of reclaimed water a day into the concrete channel.

The river’s flow is relentless, and at times deadly. This past May, best friends Gustavo Ramirez, 15, and Carlos Daniel Jovel, 16, plunged to their deaths while playing by the river behind their school on San Fernando Blvd Friday evening. Gustavo fell and Carlos jumped in after him. Neither one surfaced again. Fire department helicopters flew over late that afternoon after a 911 call from the boy’s friends, but nothing was spotted. The boy’s bodies were not retrieved until that Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile, property values along the edges of the river increase as investors clamor to buy up old rail yards, industrial spaces and undeveloped land with the intention to renovate and reuse into parks and playgrounds, cafes, condominiums and mixed-use retail. Elaborate renderings of an aqueous future Los Angeles float about the cyber world – a snaking terraced greenbelt, rich in opportunities for riparian riverside romping.

Adopted by the LA County of Supervisors in 1996, orchestration of a LA River Master Plan has been in motion since. Slowly at first, but recently, along side development and recreational ventures, is gaining momentum. Amongst the countless re-use proposals included in the Master Plan for the Los Angeles River is redevelopment of the historic Lincoln Heights jail. Formerly the dark and dreary digs to Angeleno’s first prisoners, purportedly haunted. The concept is to transform the 230,000 square foot river-edge reformatory into retail and live/work spaces complete with urban roof garden and fancy eateries.

Yuval Bar-Zemer, of Linear City Development, is a downtown Los Angeles-based real estate developer of mixed use, urban infill communities. (Infill development is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels within existing urban areas that are already largely developed.) Bar-Zemer’s first re-use investment in downtown’s Arts District, in 2002, was converting a toy factory into an architecturally groundbreaking condominium complex just several hundred yards from the river.

But Bar-Zemer says, “When we started developing, the river being so close was not a consideration.”

Los Angeles City Bureau of Engineering is spearheading the ARBOR (Area with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization) study. According to the Bureau’s website, “The Master Plan aims to transform 32 miles of concrete-lined river into public green space in the heart of one of America’s most populated cities.”

ARBOR’s immediate goal is to remove much of the concrete bottom and take 11 miles of river, from Spring Street Bridge Downtown to Glendale Narrows, as a means to restore natural habitat. Bar-Zemer praises the ARBOR study and coins it, “a major mile stone.” He says, “It’s probably the biggest achievement to date of anything related to the river. After $1.5 billion of investment just creating green space.”

Late in 2015 Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti broadcasted that  Architect Frank Gehry is working with city officials to draft a new master plan for the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River. The announcement raised major concern from political activist and FoLAR cofounder, Lewis MacAdams, who working towards LA River renaissance since the mid 1980’s, refers to FoLAR as a “40 year art work” to bring the Los Angeles River back to life.

Mac Adams is not happy about Gehry’s involvement. In an August 2015 LA Times article Mac Adams says, “Last time there was a single idea for the L.A. River it involved 3 million barrels of concrete. To us, it’s the epitome of wrong-ended planning. It’s not coming from the bottom up. It’s coming from the top down.”

Regardless of what the exact proposals are, or who is offering them, these days condo owners and developers alike are excited about the plans to rejuvenate the industrial river wasteland that borders LA’s gentrifying downtown cityscape. And how can they not be when colorful renderings materialize after a few taps on a Google search. Dreams of walking out their doors into flourishing repurposed parkland. Or launching canoes and paddle boats onto aqua blue waters.

But, “It takes time,” Bar-Zemmer says. “The city only has so many millions of dollars a year they can put into a project like that. It may not even happen in my lifetime.”

At the very least, approval of a bike path meandering the full 51 miles of river is official, and it is hoped that by 2020 today’s limited riverside bike routes will be connected and a Los Angeles dream can come to fruition–a bike ride from Canoga Park to Long Beach–Go Grease Lightening.

FoLAR actively lobbies for an increased “greening” of the river. And has done since the

1980’s. The Glendale Narrows is a natural zone to focus on due to a high water table, which prevented cementing its sandy floor. According to The Department of Water and Power, “The soft-bottom portions of the river provide valuable resting and feeding zones for migratory birds, yet these areas are seasonally inundated with high flows, which often preclude nesting.”

It goes on to list dozens of bird and animal species found in the area as well as eight different species of fish (none of which are native to the river as it was prior to cementing) including cod, carp, tilapia and large mouthed bass.

Said “greening” has encouraged recreation along the river. From the late 1930’s until May 2013 it was illegal to recreate in or on the LA River. These days, however, fishing, bike riding, horse riding and bird watching are permitted year round. In addition, on any given summer day, one can paddle a kayak via one of the few privately owned kayak trip companies.

The Glendale Narrows and the Sepulveda Basin (further up river, also earthen bottomed) are officially open for these activities.

“Of course I’ve been on the kayaking trip,” Bar-Zemer laughs. But when asked if he’d eat a fish from the river, he responds, “No, I’m afraid the fish probably wouldn’t meet my wife’s standards.” But after a shared chuckle, the tone of his voice changes with a type of urgency.

“What’s important to look at with the river though, is what other functionalities it does other than added recreational value. There are plans on how to manage water in the river.”

Bar-Zemer explains that the water in the river right now is mostly from three large reclamation plants in the San Fernando Valley. “The water from the plants is almost of drinking quality,” he says.

But the real problem is the city storm drains connecting to the river, which bring pollutants from the surface streets. “Like people dumping oil in the catch basins,” says Bar-Zemer. “It’s how to maintain the quality of the water that exists in the river and not allow it to deteriorate as it gets down to Long Beach.”

He explains there are a number of programs being considered that will pump a lot of the water out of the river, bring it to a piping system to south central LA industrial areas, and utilize it as gray water.

The US Army Corps of Engineers are one of the world’s largest public engineering, design, and construction management agencies. These are the guys who originally poured all that concrete some 80 years ago. They have teamed up with city engineers on a $10 million study of the potential for restoring the river’s ecosystem. Their primary goal is flood risk management.

Despite their restoration efforts the Corps has been criticized. Susie Cagle from Grist Magazine writes the following, “The Corps razed dozens of acres of the river’s wildlife habitat along the Sepulveda Basin, seriously pissed off the local water agency, violated the Clean Water Act, and potentially also violated endangered species protections.” This was back in December, 2012.

Meanwhile, an article in the Environmental News in 2009 stated this: “In a lawsuit initiated in 2008 by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper (now Los Angeles Waterkeeper), the groups sought to hold the county responsible for the mix of mercury, arsenic, cyanide, lead and fecal bacteria found in billions of gallons of storm water.”

FoLAR holds another annual event called “Off Tha’ Hook” where LA enthusiasts ascend upon the concrete banks of their river to apply sun screen, use novelty bait like tortillas or matzo balls and cast a fishing line. Mostly it’s catch and release. “People are enjoying the sheer goofiness of it,” says MacAdams. But the truth is, and has been for years, that there are plenty of Angeleno anglers and their families who eat the fish they catch in their local river.

In 2009 FoLAR commissioned a fish study (ironically, about the same time the

Environmental News published their article on the contaminants in the river as mentioned above). FoLAR found that the fish “were healthier and lower in mercury and toxic Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) compared to those found in the ocean.” FoLAR doesn’t necessarily advocate eating the fish, but claim it is safe to consume. In its report, the non-profit writes, “The Glendale Narrows is one of the cleanest sections of the river.” This is mostly because the natural river bottom cleans itself, and the high quality cleaned water that comes out of the treatment plants upstream.

Remember the pair of Army Corps engineers in the yellow vests on that sunny Saturday morning at Glendale Narrows Cleanup? Let’s revisit them for a bit.

The tall guy, who found the dead bodies, walks off towards their white utility truck. His arms are loaded with gritty trash bags, a bent metal pole pokes from the plastic. The shorter Latino guy, his work buddy, is bagging a wad of fishing line attached to a circular rubber disk about the size of a tire. A navy Gilligan’s Island-esque bucket-hat sits above his eyebrows, his eyes are bright. He stands on the cement river edge.

The river rolls through the vegetation, lush from spring storms. Pointing out where the homeless set up their encampments, in the middle of the river on sandy clearings, he explains how when the rains come hard and quickly it can be lethal for the displaced.

“They can get washed down river,” he says.

Migrating mallards quack overhead. Traffic from the 5 Freeway barrels past. The worker scratches the side of his cheek with the back of his grimy gloved hand. He ponders an answer to whether or not he’d eat a fish from the Los Angeles River, “Yeah, I’d eat it,” he eventually says. He’s a hopeful guy. He nods his head a handful of times. “But I’d double cook it.”


Sidebar: 10 fun facts about the LA River:

1.  The river provided a source of water and food for the Tongva Tribe who settled by on its banks prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700’s.

2. The river is the reason the City of Los Angeles was founded where it is.

3. The river was the City’s principal source of water supply until 1914.

4. Grizzly bears once lived along the banks of the Los Angeles River.

5. Water quality in the earthen bottom/flora rich sections of the river, is significantly better than in its concrete stretches.

6. It took 30 years and 3.5 million barrels of concrete to channelize the river.

7. During peak flow, the river carries as much H2O as 80 million garden hoses going full ball per second out to the Pacific Ocean – 14 times the gush of NY’s Hudson River.

8. The river is habitat to more than 250 species of birds.

9. At lease 80 types of fish live within the river. Included in the count are largemouth bass, green sunfish, tilapia, black bullhead, Amazon sailfish catfish, carp, fathead minnow and mosquitofish.

10. The amphibious creatures that once wandered the Elysian Valley—giving the Frogtown neighborhood its name—were probably Western Toads and not frogs at all. The toads were tiny, often measuring less than an inch.

About Vicky Deger
Vicky left her home in Australia at seventeen. She traveled and worked her way around the world until settling in to a life in New York’s, East Village where she dyed her hair pink, rode a bicycle, wrote short stories, and assisted directors for a hundred bucks a day. These days, not much has changed–except her day rate. Vicky has accomplished most things she’s dreamed of, bar living in a tree house and getting a college degree (which she is working on). Her short stories have appeared in The Coachella Review, Ducts, The Grove Review, Golf Stream magazine, and RA mag.

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