A lot is expected of a river. Its symbolic power exceeds any mountain or valley. A river suggests the journey of life and the flow of time, and has down through centuries of literature. A river bounds the threshold of the underworld. It conjures images of lovers in the moonlight, adventure on a raft, the wilds of cedar forests and rocky canyons.
Which is why the puny, desolate Los Angeles River so often invites disdain, if it is noticed at all. For 51 miles it drains north to south through the core of the city, skirting blue-collar towns and treeless industrial zones. Most of the river bottom is concrete, framed by high, graffiti-scarred levees. Block walls and chain-link fences make it difficult even to see the turbid waters.
And while there are some--poets, photographers--who are drawn to the stark urban landscape, they generally enjoy it alone.
"The problem with the river," says urban scholar D.J. Waldie, summing up half a century of history, "[has been] its placelessness." In other words, the thing is one long stretch of nowhere. For most of the millions who cross it only by freeway, the river scarcely even exists.
Dan Cooper knows the river well. He is out this morning in his bush hat, doing what he can to bring change. The 28-year-old birder, a biologist for the Audubon Society, is conducting bird counts in the channel in Long Beach to try to document the river's importance as a habitat.
Those who assume that a largely concrete river cannot support a thriving bird population have not walked the places that Cooper walks. One is the lush Glendale Narrows area, wedged between Atwater Village and Griffith Park north of downtown, where the high water table has made it impossible to pave over the river bottom. Another is this spot, near the ocean, where Cooper has come to look for shorebirds.
Here the river overflows the center channel and covers the concrete flat from levee to levee--an expanse the length of a football field. Hundreds of birds dot the wetland as Cooper pans his binoculars.
Water moves sluggishly. Where silt has gathered on the uneven bottom there are long, finger-like sandbars, some hairy with weeds.
Dozens of species pick at insects and foliage. Among them are stilts and avocets that are here year round, and sandpipers and lesser yellowlegs passing through on long migrations. Western sandpipers summer in the Arctic and winter as far south as Chile. Their numbers in the river--already a few thousand--will continue to climb through the summer and early fall.
"We've counted as many as 10,000 western sandpipers in late August," says Cooper, who began the tabulations with the aid of volunteers two years ago. Lowering his binoculars, he can't resist a one-liner. "Despite our best efforts, we can't keep nature out of our cities."
It might have seemed, years ago, that Los Angeles wanted no part of birds or fish or any other wildlife in the river. Catastrophic floods in 1938 caused civic leaders to establish one priority: creating a flood-control channel to protect the burgeoning flatlands. The entire river bottom was cemented over, except at a few spots where the water table was too high.
The impact on wildlife was monumental, as Times staff writer Patt Morrison describes in her newly published book, "Rio L.A.: Tales From the Los Angeles River."
"In the leisurely centuries when its waters rippled like muscles across the broad flat belly of the yet-unbuilt city, it sustained millions of creatures that went on wing and fin and foot. Forests of willows and sycamores and ash and cottonwoods suckled at it," Morrison writes. And in the decades since, "It has been befouled by oil and DDT and cyanide and human sewage. It has had more market value as a movie set, more usefulness as a punch line, more potential as a freeway, than regard as a waterway."
Cooper hopes his bird charts will help reinforce the understanding that it remains a waterway. What he's finding out may show it is more important than anyone previously thought. In sheer numbers of birds, the river may rival other noted estuaries, such as the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach.
"For a [migrating] shorebird to survive, it needs a number of stopover sites throughout its journey to rest and refuel," Cooper says. "It wasn't really known prior to our counts how important the L.A. River was. We've documented that it's an important place along the Pacific flyway."
Some ducks and black-necked stilts find the concrete channel--with water only inches deep--a surprisingly agreeable home. "The less vegetation the better for the stilts," Cooper says. They breed on patches of mud and take to the river bottom as readily as they do to salty alkali flats.
Trekking north along the top of the levee, Cooper abruptly stops and raises his binoculars.
"Oh, my God," he says. "There's a white-faced ibis."
The bird he has spotted on a distant sandbar is a species similar to the heron. It nests in freshwater marshes and is seldom seen along the river.