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When They Look at the L.A. River, They See Green

August 20, 2000|JAMES RICCI

The eyes of the river people work differently. You often have to strain to see what they see when they're envisioning the future of the repressed, denatured, humiliated Los Angeles River.

On a late Sunday morning, with the sun squatting like a fat man on the San Fernando Valley, Melanie Winter stands atop one of the concrete slopes that pass for the river's banks and spreads her arms. She sees "a bike path on this side of the river--a Class 1 bikeway all the way to Long Beach. Rows of native sycamores, willows and cottonwoods on both sides, and a pedestrian path on the other side. You can't imagine how much you can change when you have this much acreage, just with some planting. This can be a whole greenway."

What I see at this site a few hundred feet downstream from where the river begins in Canoga Park is a wide half-hexagon of barren concrete channel, a man-made no-man's-land that throws back the sun's heat with something like vengeance. A narrow low-flow channel cut into the concrete floor runs with perhaps a foot of sluggish water. Sticking out of the concrete on the northern bank are iron rings for attaching rescue gear when the wider channel races with storm water, an eventuality as hard to imagine on a dry summer day as Melanie Winter's greenscape.

Unbeknownst to a surprising number of Angelenos, the Los Angeles River is a naturally occurring phenomenon--not the world's largest storm sewer. Its year-round flow gave Native Americans, and then Spanish colonizers, reason to settle here. But the river was wild and steep, losing about the same amount of elevation over its 51-plus miles as the Mississippi does over its 2,350. It regularly flooded the coastal plain and carved out new courses for itself. As settlement of the region proliferated, the floods took greater and greater tolls. After devastating inundations early this century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined to take the river in hand.

From the late 1930s until 1960, the Corps entombed the river alive. Its aim was to channel storm water as swiftly and safely as possible to the sea (no matter the semiarid region's recurring water shortages and dependence on imported supplies).

Winter, the 42-year-old board president of Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR), is full of ardor for the river. Six feet tall, a former dancer and actress, she is among the tribe of river people--members of such organizations as FoLAR, North East Trees, the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and residents of riverside neighborhoods--who can claim much of the credit for turning certain stretches of the forlorn river into recreation areas in recent years.

They've accomplished this despite public ignorance and official flood-control doctrine that often proved as unyielding as the river's concrete walls. Their long-term agenda is a vast one. It envisions not only accessible parks along the river and a bikeway running the stream's entire length, but a new emphasis on controlling floods and recharging ground water via inflatable upstream dams and spreading grounds, which also will create new wet wildlife habitats and water-centered recreation areas.

The vision likely will be a long time in the realizing. Meanwhile, the concrete walls are here to stay. They are what give flood-prone cities downriver of Los Angeles the confidence to exist.

Momentum, however, has shifted toward the river people. Los Angeles County, the city of Los Angeles and even the Corps of Engineers lately have undertaken efforts to re-naturalize the river and fit it for human use. The state of California will spend more than $88 million on projects along the Los Angeles River and the confluent Rio Hondo in the coming year. Of that amount, $45 million will finance the start-up of a new 61-acre state park at the Union Pacific Railroad's largely abandoned Taylor Yard on the river's east bank, south of the Glendale Freeway. It will be the first state park built in Southern California in almost two decades, and it is coming to the river.

i recently traveled the length of the river on foot and via bike and canoe, from its beginning just west of Owensmouth in Canoga Park to its mouth at Long Beach. The journey was challenging because of fences and locked gates along many portions of the stream, paved bikeways that abruptly end, the industrial/commercial tangle of downtown Los Angeles and ongoing construction to heighten the channel walls in the downstream cities.

It was easy to see what the river people have in mind at those places where the river still seems more river than storm sewer.

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