Kayaking the Los Angeles River
Who knew you could paddle from the Burbank Airport to the Long Beach port?
Tue, Dec 22, 2009 at 01:52 PM
A great blue heron spooks the same way on every river. When confronted by kayakers, the stork-like, gray-blue bird takes a few mechanical steps, wings akimbo, then lofts 50 yards downstream to the next bend, never reasoning that if it just landed upstream of the paddlers, it could be rid of them. But these awkward birds behave the same no matter where you find them. What’s more surprising than their escape plan is that the herons, the fish on which they feed, and various other parts of this functioning ecosystem, exist here at all, 15 miles into the concrete channel that is the Los Angeles River.
For nearly 40 years, the river — the reason the Spanish chose the site that became L.A. — has been almost completely paved over and mercilessly straightened into an artificial canyon. A fence runs along both sides of the riverbanks, and five yards beyond that, a wall separates the river from twelve lanes of highway and the four million people that make L.A. proper the country’s second largest city. The river runs 51 miles through the metropolis, from its start behind a high school football field in the San Fernando Valley past Paramount Studios, downtown, and Compton, and ends in Long Beach. But many L.A. residents can’t even identify it. That’s just fine to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who straight-jacketed the river more than 60 years ago for flood control and restricted access to it. Which means the group of twelve boaters I’m with is breaking the law.
We are paddling near the border of Studio City in the July heat, early into a planned three-day trip. Only a few inches of water—almost all of it reclaimed from the wastewater treatment plant upstream — lap the river’s concrete banks, barely floating our fleet of yellow plastic boats. We figure the police will stop us at some point, since two members of our group were escorted from the channel twelve months ago, and because the Corps denied us a permit to float the L.A. River this year. When the Corps announced in the spring of 2007 that the river wasn’t a navigable waterway and therefore not eligible for full Clean Water Act protections, the trip we’d been planning mostly for sheer adventure suddenly became a cause. Now we hoped to create a grassroots uproar that would force the EPA to supersede the Corps and secure those protections. Not only was clean water at stake but so was the recently adopted $2 billion river-revitalization plan — the efforts of a city notorious for ignoring nature to reconnect with its natural history.
Farther into Studio City, the water slots into a fast-moving, 8-foot-wide trench in the center of the canyon as it passes behind the Paramount and Warner Brothers lots. I run my kayak over the foot-high waterfall at the head of the trench, dodge a shopping cart, and I’m whisked downstream with surprising speed.
There have probably been more movies filmed within the L.A. River’s reaches than actual descents of its waterway. In Grease, rival high school gangs stage a drag race down its dry bed. Punks in Repo Man do the same. And in Terminator 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger flees up the river on a motorcycle while being chased by an 18-wheeler that menacingly smashes stray shopping carts. If you believe Hollywood, the neglected concrete channel is more like a road than a river. But the Los Angeles River could have been to the City of Angels what Central Park is to New York City if the plan envisioned by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, son of that famed park’s landscape architect, had been adopted. In 1930, Olmsted and his partner, Harlan Bartholomew, submitted a plan to the city that recommended buffering the flood-prone river and its tributaries with parks. Unfortunately, Bartholomew and Olmsted released their expensive proposal shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, and no one wanted to forgo the potential profits of private-sector development along the river. The parks department filed their copy of the plan to green the L.A. River without ever reading it.
Then in 1938, a massive flood killed 85 people and caused millions of dollars in damage, sealing the river’s fate. Three years later, workers began laying 3.5 million barrels of cement and 7 million tons of reinforced steel onto the river’s banks, converting it into a sluiceway meant to move floodwater as rapidly as possible to the sea. It was indicative of Los Angeles’ convoluted water practice: The river — the city’s sole water source for 100 years — became nothing more than a storm drain, while at the same time, L.A. entered into controversial pacts to suck dry several rivers situated hundreds of miles away. Today, the city gets only 15 percent of its water from local wells.
Los Angeles has less green space and fewer public parks than any other city in the country, particularly in the poorer communities through which the river runs. When the city council established the Ad Hoc Committee on the Los Angeles River in 2002, there was plenty of evidence that river revitalization could transform any urban center.
Beginning in 1975, Denver turned the area where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek meet into a series of parks, sparking redevelopment of a largely industrial area that had been the site of the city’s founding. An estimated $75 million in accumulated river-restoration funding in Denver has led to $5 billion in private investment in the surrounding, newly hip LoDo (Lower Downtown) district. In the 1990s, San Jose, California, followed suit with a reclamation of the Guadalupe River; and in 2001, Reno, Nevada’s downtown experienced a renaissance when the city created an island park in the neglected Truckee River.
And so the City of Angels’ waterway got a reprieve of sorts in 2007: The city council adopted the $2 billion, 20-year Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, an incredibly ambitious blueprint of 238 potential projects, from creating parks and bike paths to reducing flooding and removing concrete banks to restoring wildlife habitats, wetlands sites, and recreational boating opportunities. The plan would establish, in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s words, an “emerald necklace” through Los Angeles. It would also be one of the most significant revitalizations ever, larger in scope than Denver’s 140 acres of parks along a 10.5-mile corridor or the $360 million restoration of the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, South Korea.
But months after the council’s decision, the Army Corps of Engineers jeopardized the plan by ruling that the waterway isn’t traditionally navigable and is, therefore, exempted from the Clean Water Act. The federal law establishes water-quality standards and provides an instrument for prosecuting polluters, but a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened up a loophole that eliminates intermittent streams, like many of the tributaries found in the river, from those protections. When the Corps’ internal ruling was leaked to river advocates by a concerned employee, the decision made newspapers across the country. State lawmakers appealed directly to the EPA to overrule the Corps, while grassroots efforts continued to focus attention on the river’s livelihood. Three weeks after our own trip, which aimed to prove that the river truly is navigable, the EPA decided to consider it and the Verde River in Arizona for special protections. National Resource Defense Council attorney David Beckman told me later that the Corps had “kicked a hornet’s nest.”
By our third and final day on the river, we’ve only encountered the police once, and they didn’t stop us — one of them said he was a kayaker, too. At Taylor Yard, the largest proposed project on the River Revitalization Master Plan, the water table is too high for concrete to adhere to the river bottom, so it’s alive with activity. The waterway almost resembles a natural stream with shallow rapids, and a jungle of 20-foot-high vegetation crowds sandy islands. A family harvests the green-ery on one of the islands to use in a soup, and there are a few homeless camps staked out in clearings in the dense brush. On the banks, Latino fishermen cast for carp. (One of our expedition members tells me he once saw a man trap a 10-pound carp in the shallows with his T-shirt.)
Plan renderings show Taylor Yard as an area where the river can spread out during flooding while providing a green-way during dry spells. The architects’ drawings show gracefully engineered, overlapping terraces of vegetation and swales traversed by walking paths. But not everyone agrees on this vision for the space. Melanie Winter, director of the River Project, one of several L.A. River advocacy groups, calls the master plans for Taylor Yard “Disneyland.” Winter believes the plan doesn’t go far enough in creating open space for habitats and flooding zones (which replenish the aquifer). She says these would best be accomplished through buffer areas similar to those proposed in Olmsted’s 1930 plan. “The only thing the city is interested in is drawing development to the river,” she says. A third viewpoint comes from Latino community representatives who say the master plan is elitist, favoring upscale development rather than providing playing fields for local children. Still others say that the plan doesn’t do enough to reduce gang violence.
The idea that the master plan can curb gang activity is not so far-fetched. The night before, we’d taken our boats out at Marsh Park, an acre-sized pocket green space that is the most recently completed project on the master list. As we hauled our kayaks up the slope and across the bike path, we stumbled on a marshmallow roast being held by two young women in ranger uniforms and attended by a handful of 13-year old boys recruited from the adjacent, newly completed skateboard park. Joel Jiminez, the young man in charge of monitoring the skatepark, couldn’t believe we were heading all the way to Long Beach via the waterway. “People are afraid of the river,” he says, noting that gang members prowl up and down the riverside bike path. “But parks like this help a lot. It’s killing them with kindness.”
With five miles until the river’s end, the straightaways are so long that the kayaks I can see a half-mile ahead look like dark spots shimmering in the heat waves rising from the concrete. I’m ready to get to Long Beach, where the river tumbles down a final slope into the soft-bottomed estuary at the head of San Pedro Bay. The birds — great blue herons included — are still here. As we near the ocean in the reddening afternoon light, we see ducks swimming in the channel, gaggles of Canada geese standing in the shallows, and hundreds of black-necked stilts mincing around the shallow rills on long, backward-bending orange legs. When we pass, the flocks rise in ragged waves, turn in the air, and settle again behind us upriver, in no apparent hurry to get to the ocean.
Story by Frederick Reimers. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.