Environment & Science

Activists seek to open up recreation opportunities on LA River

L.A. River
L.A. River
Olga Khazan

Paddle beneath an overpass and, for a moment, the concrete flood-control channel lining the Los Angeles River for much of its length gives way. Willows bend in the breeze, snowy egrets rest under the cottonwoods and blue dragonflies skim the surface. But getting here legally is the hard part. Kayakers, naturalists and recreation buffs want to change that.

Nearly four decades after capricious flood waters were tamed by concrete, the 51-mile river has largely existed as a no-man's land. It's a fenced-off, garbage-strewn scar running through the city that serves as an occasional set for Hollywood car chases and a frequent canvas for graffiti artists. Trespassers risk getting fined for damaging county property.

After decades of work, activists are closer than ever to getting "people to see the river as a river," says Melanie Winter, who heads the River Project. The challenge now is getting more bureaucrats to recognize that a river truly runs through L.A., and not just a flood control channel that must be protected.

"The objective is to have open access in these areas to fish, kayak and go bird-watching but hanging over them is that it's technically not legal to do that," said Charles Eddy, a board member of Friends of the Los Angeles River, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the river.

Nearly 300 people will have a chance to experience one of the few stretches of the waterway that actually looks like a river during a six-week pilot program sponsored by the L.A. Conservation Corps. A decade in the making, the program required the approval of at least a half dozen local, state and federal agencies.

When the corps announced the pilot program they expected some attention, but the $50 trips sold out in just minutes. Officials later discovered their website got 16,000 hits.

The two-mile kayak tour in the Sepulveda basin offers a water's-level glimpse at what could be. Here, the banks and river-bottom are soft brown dirt instead of concrete. Yellow butterflies flit across the water and alight on branches as herons, egrets and other birds pick through the grassy shallows that are shaded by soft green trees and bushes.

There are of course periodic reminders of city life such as an overturned grocery cart on the river bank, an occasional plane flying overhead or shredded plastic grocery bags that resembles Spanish moss hanging from trees and bushes.

Despite the short distance organizers are taking little chance of a slip up during the tryout program, which they hope to make permanent. In addition to signing legal waivers and requiring participants to strap on life jackets and yellow helmets, guides accompany them with medical equipment including a defibrillator.

No doubt such safety precautions enable participants to relax during the more adventurous moments of the paddle that include getting pushed through tall grass and down mini rapids or walking down-river while corps volunteers carry kayaks over obstacles.

The program is part of a broader effort to get legal recognition for the river as a river and eventually have more of it returned to a natural state. Last year proponents scored a major victory when the federal government designated the river a full-fledged navigable waterway. Environmental groups and legal experts are also looking at drafting state legislation or pushing the county to change its view of the waterway from infrastructure to a river so residents can use it.

Sean Hecht, who heads the Environmental Law Center at the University of California, Los Angeles said the goal is to allow residents to legally use the river.

"It's clear the LA River is a living river despite the fact that portions of it have been channelized," said Hecht who with his students have been advising groups about access issues.

The river wanders through 14 cities from the San Fernando Valley through downtown Los Angeles and south to Long Beach, where it empties into the ocean. It was the region's primary source of water before the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built but was known for its unpredictable flooding.

Beginning in the 1930s the Army Corps of Engineers began encasing 80 percent of the river bottom and its banks in concrete as a flood control project, gradually turning the free flowing river into a cavernous concrete ditch fed by storm drains. In doing so river enthusiasts say the river disappeared from public consciousness and no longer existed.

During dry months treated sewage flows past empty bottles and other litter. In winter, water levels rise periodically trapping animals and people whose dramatic rescues regularly appear in local television news reports.

Hollywood has used its concrete gullies for car chase scenes and drag races in movies such as "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Grease."

Now, only three stretches, totaling about 15 miles, still have a soft bottom. River enthusiasts would like to see more of the concrete removed to allow the river to return to nature.

"The 20th century was all about controlling nature and now the best minds of the 21st century are trying to undo all that," Winter said.

Those who have taken the rare journey paddling down the river call it magical and something they'd like to see more of in a city like Los Angeles.

Native Angelino Sylvia Gribbell, said kayaking down the LA River had been on her list of things to do before she died.

"For a moment there I could really have imagined what it would've been like to be an early Californian traveling down the Los Angeles River," said Gribbell, a social worker. "There's actually a river that runs through the heart of our city."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.