It is a river that for much of the year flows almost entirely with treated sewage, a river contained by concrete banks and laden with so much garbage that after it rains, crusts of trash form high-water marks.
But in the eyes of the law, the Los Angeles River should be fit for anglers, kayakers and swimmers. Federal law even requires it to be protected as potential drinking water.
Now, these conflicting realities have sparked a battle over the river's future. In one key dispute, for the first time in its history, the city of Los Angeles has challenged its federal permit to discharge into the Los Angeles River, arguing that it is too restrictive and unrealistic.
The conflict marks a turning point in the river's strange and troubled history. Once a free-flowing, willow-draped ribbon through the city, in the 1930s it became the concrete-manacled river we're familiar with--a kind of cement back alley, nearly dry for most of the year, with just a narrow trickle of water in the bottom.
Today, the river has a new incarnation: Its dry season flow has been boosted tenfold due to a huge influx of treated waste water. More than 90% of that flow--75 million gallons of waste water each day--comes from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Basin, completed in 1991, and a smaller plant in Glendale. The trickle has become a sheet of rippling green water that supports birds, fish, and in a few places, 40-foot-high trees.
At the same time, now that the early aims of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act have been accomplished, regulators have shifted their attention to new pollution problems that strain the outer limits of technology and economics, boosting pressure on polluters of the river.
Skirmishes have ranged from arcane regulatory tiffs over how much anti-lice shampoo to allow in treated sewage in the river, to whether the river should be classified as an "effluent-dominated waterway," for which pollution standards would be lower.
"The public has a decision to make," said Roger Baird, assistant laboratory manager for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. "They are allowing their waste-water treatment facilities to create streams. How much are they willing to pay for the water quality in those streams?"
City officials contend that the price of meeting drinking water standards in the L.A. River could exceed the yearly cost of running the sewer system.
"It starts getting to where you are putting distilled water in the L.A. River, which is lined with concrete, to go to the ocean, which is saltwater," said Chris Westoff, a deputy city attorney who represents the sewer department. "It drives me crazy."
Environmentalists bristle at that kind of talk.
"They say the river's not a river," said Terry Tamminen of Santa Monica Baykeeper, an environmental group. "This was a river that flowed year-round. . . . The fact that it's diminished doesn't mean we should write it off."
Should Different Standards Apply?
Under assault, environmentalists say, is not just the river's future, but the uncompromisingly utopian vision of federal antipollution laws. Those laws call for restoring the biological health of virtually all U.S. waterways--even the L.A. River. The question is: Should certain waterways be held to lower standards?
The city's logic "would result in throwing in the towel on every impaired water body in the country," said Alex Helperin, staff attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles.
To some, the argument is not as academic as it might appear. Take Denis Schure, a local kayaker who doesn't think it's ridiculous to consider using the river for paddling. He does it all the time.
On a recent afternoon, he slipped a red canoe into the L.A. River in the Sepulveda Basin. But for a rusty shopping cart, old tires and fast-food containers, Schure might have been somewhere in rural Wisconsin. Limpid green water slid by. Trees swayed above him. Waterfalls gurgled. Snowy egrets flapped in alarm.
Only about 10 miles of the river's 51-mile length are anything like this. But Schure can't help casting a hungry eye on the reaches farther down. He imagines a river cleaned of trash and made navigable with a few changes here and there: a river for both wildlife and recreation.
"People argue with me about the L.A. River," he said. "But if I can get them on the water and show them this, it's the end of the discussion," he said.
Stripped of the worst pollutants, the waste water flowing in the river is still far from drinkable. But fish find it hospitable, if a little heavy on ammonia, scum and trace metals. Birds go where the fish are.
"The whole system is totally artificial, but it still serves a natural function," said Cat Kuhlman, associate director of water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Sacramento.