Restoring a river requires rehabilitating the land through which is runs — and that is the focus of Miguel Luna, who is in the thick of the latest of his many efforts to bring the Los Angeles River back to life.

A river? In L.A.? The place of movie stars and the Lakers? That Los Angeles?

Yes. A river runs through L.A. The river begins in Canoga Park and flows for 51 miles through the San Fernando Valley, through Burbank — home of “The Tonight Show” — and Glendale. It flows through downtown L.A. before dumping into the sea in Long Beach. But a series of devastating floods in the 1930s that killed more than 125 people prompted a massive channelization project by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, turning the river into a concrete channel.

Miguel Luna in 2010Five years ago, efforts began to restore the river and Luna, through his nonprofit educational and advocacy organization Urban Semillas, has been there since the beginning. And like the Piped Piper, he’s bringing L.A. youth along with him.

First, there was Agua University, a three-month program in watershed ecology for high school students. Now it is Rio Vista, a project that aims to transform cul-de-sacs that dead end at the river.

More than 300 streets stop at the river, says Luna, a native of Colombia. Most of the cul-de-sacs are ugly hardscapes that funnel polluted urban runoff into the river channel. Rio Vista looks to transform a handful of those cul-de-sacs into tiny pocket parks that improve access to the river for recreation and public enjoyment and improve water quality by filtering runoff through vegetation. The parks will improve the quality of life in the neighborhoods, as well, Luna says.

Three teams of high school students at Los Angles River School are now designing projects, part of a five-month curriculum and competition. The top-rated design will win the team members small scholarships and — most importantly — will get built.

“We’re actually putting a project in the ground,” he says.

The design process — heavy on maps and measurements — sneaks in lessons on math and hydrology. Part of the design process involves getting the input of the community.

“The students are looking at the science of people,” Luna says.

His goal is to teach students about the importance of water quality and to improve the local water system in the process. Along the way, he's reaching into sometimes tough neighborhoods of urban Los Angeles County, establishing community footholds along the way.

If he manages to create a lifetime water advocate in the process, that's just a bonus.

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