Monday, December 24, 2007
Donald Strauss teaches a class about the LA River with Antioch University so we came to the river to learn.
“Nothing on earth is so weak and yielding as water, but for breaking down the firm and strong it has no equal.” — Lao-Tsze
There is hope for our river. Many local residents have organized clean-ups and as Los Angeles residents start to experience the nature, take a break from their busy lives amongst the green spaces, our city is renewing its vision of LA River.
What will become of our LA River? Presently 80% of the water from the river runs into the Pacific Ocean. Some outdoor enthusiasts think a canoe or a kayak is the way to go:
From Getting It comes a story of one such thrillseeker in the spirit of Thoreau who said:
"Wherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for the canoe." - Henry David Thoreau
Finding a small piece of solitude in a city of three million inhabitants is no easy task, but for Los Angeles resident Denis Schure, it's simply a matter of hoisting a canoe over his head, crossing the street, and dropping into the nearby Los Angeles River.
"Literally, in the heart of the city you can get on stretches of the river that are essentially unknown and invisible," says Schure. "We're talking green, attractive... teeming with wildlife. It's quite amazing and reassuring."
If, as Thoreau observed in Walden, "the life in us is like the water in the river," one hopes this doesn't apply to the Los Angeles River. An international symbol of a city that grew up too fast, the river has become a post-apocalyptic backdrop for graffiti artists and Hollywood chase scenes, all the while serving as a primary drainage channel for every toilet, factory, and storm drain east of the 405 Freeway.
The effluent-dominated waterway is clean, by EPA standards. Still, occasional traces of lead, hepatitis, and E. coli keep the faint hearted away. As scary as it may be from a recreational perspective, however, Schure doesn't hesitate to throw in a few Thoreau-like descriptions of afternoons spent floating past cottonwood trees and the occasional rusty shopping cart. "There's something about... being on moving water," Schure says. "With the surrounding vegetation, it's physically and spiritually possible to leave the city at times."
As a dedicated environmentalist, Schure has ulterior motives besides personal fulfillment. Most environmentalists have long viewed the Los Angeles River as a lost cause, but Schure is a leading member of an advocacy group, Friends of the Los Angeles River. He sees his solo kayaking efforts as a way to motivate other residents into looking at the river in a new light.
"I usually view the Los Angeles River as a worst-case scenario," Schure says. "Just think of what recreational opportunities would be available with just a little concerted effort."
Schure is sensitive to the risks of pioneering, however. Officially, the entire Los Angeles River is one giant no-trespassing zone according to both the city and the Army Corps of Engineers, the government agency currently charged with overseeing its 22-mile waterway. Schure has spent the last decade getting friendly with the various permitting agencies and avoiding run-ins with the law.
He has also become more cognizant of personal safety in recent years. News reports on surfing-related illnesses stemming from the elevated bacteria counts have prompted him to be more careful in navigating the more polluted lower stretches of the river near Long Beach. "I've been physically immersed in that water for 10 years and have not had any physical effects to show for it," he says. "At the same time, I'm less willing to get wet than I used to be."
Many films have been shot in this area. The famous drag race in GREASE and the chase scene in TERMINATOR 2 and many more. Mostly, though, this is a dank and littered part of the river, home to a few faithful bum that take shelter from the sun and wind in the tunnel. They patch their lives together with what washes up at their doorstop. There are food processors, lighters, shoes, stuffed animals, clothing, balls from every American sport and many dissected bicycles.
We are standing near the North Main Street Bridge. These Monumental Arch bridges were all built around 1909-1910. They were built as part of the "City Beautiful" project that began in 1910 as an effort to build structures that would maintain their structural integrity and that would uplift people.
This was a time in our country when Americans valued permanence. Things were built to last and very few items were disposed of without several cycles of re-use. We waited longer between baths, we wore clothes several days before laundering, we used glass dishes and cast iron pans and plastic was non-existent.
"Not a Cornfield" is an area just north of Chinatown that was once a dirt lot. It now belongs to the State Park system and contains a cornfield that is harvested several times a year and a beautiful field of marigolds.
Many of the flowers are taller than most people. If you walk amongst the flowers you may
get lost in their brilliance.
The earliest account of this area is from 1769 when Father Crespi first arrived at the Confluence. He wrote in his journal about the lush vegetation and the wild roses.
Here is an excerpt from Alan Brown's book The Various Journals of Juan Crespi.
Father Juan Crespi was the diarist on the expedition through Upper California to find sites for Franciscan missions. The trail established by this group between San Diego and San Francisco was to become El Camino Real, eventually connecting 21 missions.
Crespi and the leader, Captain Gaspar de Portola, along with a group of 67 men, entered what is now Los Angeles through Elysian Park. This is what Crespi wrote:
After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill, it went on afterward to the south.Some members of the expedition also noted the existence of bubbling tarpits a few miles from this point, now known as the La Brea Tarpits.
...As soon as we arrived, about eight heathen from a good village came to visit us; they live in this delightful place among the trees on the river.
The party left "this delightful place" the following morning. Although there were three earthquakes during their brief stay, Crespi noted that the location had "all the requisites for a large settlement."
The fourth stop on our LA River Tour was "The Confluence." This is where the LA River and the Arroyo Seco Rivers meet. It is a concrete chamber with just a thimble of water skimming the surface and deep concrete channel that fills and recedes depending on our rain and snowfall.
Before proceeding to the Confluence we drove to a little mexican joint that Joe Linton loves. The food at Lupita's is hot and tasty and priced for the working man or woman. Lupita's is located at 2634 Idell Street, Los Angeles 90065
There once was a prominent frog bloom near here which is why this area of town is sometimes called "Frogtown."
I see a seagull travelling with great intention in the westward direction.
A Great Blue Heron with his eye peeled for crawfish.
There are pigeons, ducks, geese and one gander.
Here at the Glendale Narrows the rush of the river is louder than the jet planes and the traffic.
And the duck calls are louder than the river.
It is so quiet, I can hear the dry fall leaves scuttling across the concrete enbankment.
Until the Amtrak rolls by, louder than us all.
According to Joe Linton's book, "Down by the LA River," “At least seven species of fish once lived in the river and its tributary streams, not including the many salt-tolerant species found where fesh and salt water mixed near the river’s mouth. Two marine fish, the southern steelhead and the eel-like Pacific lamprey, spawned in the river, and their young spent one or two years in the stream before returning to the sea. They were probably the largest fish to live in the river, both reaching two feet in length. Three smaller freshwater species–Pacific brook lamprey, arroyo chub, and unarmored threespine stickleback–were widely distributed in the river and in the marshes formed by its overflow. The Pacific brook lamprety grew to about eight inches in length. The arroyo chub, a member of the minnow family, and the threespine stickleback rarely grow longer than three inches. Two other species, the Santa Ana sucker and the Santa Ana speckled dace, occurred primarily in the river’s mountainous tributaries but were also found in the main river channel.”
Near the Colorado Street Bridge we stop at the Glendale Narrows. There is beautiful vegetation coming back, some native, some not so native. There are also many ducks, young couples of the winged variety, an abandoned Radio Flyer, several dogs and their owners, and two fishermen.
After the flood of 1938 the city was determined to stop the flow of water. "The US Army Corps of Engineers program of flood control in LA County remains the biggest public works project that the agency has ever undertakent west of the Mississippi River. " (The Los Angeles River")
They laid down 53 miles of concrete, creating a narrow rivet for the water to navigate. Unfortunately much of the wildlife habitat was destroyed due to the construction.
The fish, birds and lush willow cotton-wood forests vanished and only a concrete pipelined remained.
But the people harnessed the water.
Not water to use or drink. Just water that drains into the Pacific Ocean.
*Did you know that 1/4 of the energy used in LA is used to pump water into our city?*
Most of the water we use on a daily basis actually comes from Colorado and Northern California.
The Sepulveda Dam and Basin were created after the Flood Control Act of 1941. Monies were allocated to control and harness the water flowing into our city. In the flood of 1938 city officials finally addressed the LA River head one after losing 45 people and incurring $78 million in damages.
In "The Los Angeles River: It's Life, Death and Possible Rebirth" by Blake Gumprecht he quotes an LA Times reporter who describes the aftermath: "From 3,000 feet, a scene unfolds that groundlings can never grasp. Disaster, gutted farmlands, ruined roads, shattered communications, wrecked railroad lines- all leap into sharp-etched reality from that altitude." And Rupert Hughes, who set the climactic scenes of his novel, "City of Angels," in the midst of the flood, wrote, "It was as if the Pacific had moved in to take back its ancient bed."
Along the Sepulveda Basin I discover many things:
- 1 wild parrot
- several herons
- Joe Linton (the author of "Down by the LA River")
- the private jet is louder than the traffic
- and the traffic is louder than the water
- a bird with long black legs, a white leotard and an orange mouth
- LA River buttercups
Our First Stop along the LA River is the Sepulveda Basin, just off the 405 North at the Burbank Exit. To the west, park near the recreation area and walk across the street heading South towards the river. If you look from the overpass you will see a river flowing beneath you.
Not many know there is a river running right through LA. In most films, when our city is presented, we see the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard and Beverly Hills mansions. Rarely do we stop to think, what is under the bridge and the overpass. We are in a hurry here. There's not much time for river stops and still it moves on, through our city, a trickle here and an tiny rapid there, the LA River is Alive.