Seriously? You still don't know there's a river in L.A.? That there wouldn't even be a Los Angeles without the Los Angeles River? You haven't been paying attention. And you especially haven't been paying attention to the writer and poet Lewis MacAdams, or to FoLAR, Friends of the Los Angeles River, which he co-founded nearly 25 years ago when the river was pretty much a joke, a nullity, a 50-mile-long paved toilet of a drainage ditch. Decades ago, Los Angeles, just about the chintziest big city in the country when it comes to parks, sold out what could have been an "emerald necklace" of the river and its byways. MacAdams and FoLAR leveraged the river back into our imaginations. Public officials speak about it; MacAdams speaks to it, a poet's whisper and a lover's roar. If the Colorado can sculpt the Grand Canyon, what might the L.A. River, newly incarnated, make of itself, and this place?
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came to L.A. to declare the Los Angeles River to be "traditional navigable waters." What does it all mean?
It changed everything. [Federal] resources that've been [available] for any other river in the United States could be applied to the Los Angeles River and its tributaries. The Army Corps of Engineers basically [contended] that it's not a river, it's a flood control channel. That argument has been won; the EPA has taken control over the river from the Corps. There's a real presence in Washington of people who know what the river can be. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the new director of the L.A. region of the Corps, Mark Toy, [was] an environmental engineering major at UCLA.
FoLAR turns 25 next year. As the '70s phrase goes, is it still all about consciousness-raising?
When we started, I thought all I'd have to do is convince people the river can be a better place. I quickly began to understand that first I had to convince people there actually is a Los Angeles River. That took a long time.
Before the river was channelized, it moved across the floodplain. So that channel we see has nothing to do with what the river looked like before. Now the river has kind of reached people's consciousness, and that makes it much easier to do what we do. So now we can go into specific issues.
I called it a 40-year artwork. I vastly underestimated how long it was going to take. My theory was, it took 40 years to screw it up; it'll take 40 years to fix it. Somebody said no good idea is ever accomplished in one lifetime. Ultimately the river's going to be there. My attitude is, if it's not impossible, I'm not interested.
But people are breaking the law now just by being in the river. What kind of river access do you want?
Within limits, like not after 10 o'clock and not during the rainy season. We want the river open for everybody to fish, swim, boat, ride horses, take photographs. The city has so little public space; the river carries a huge presence.
Who, or what, is there now?
You see cinnamon teal, which are marsh ducks, in the L.A. River because there are no more marshes, and I feel like, it's like the same [as] with people: Only the tough survive in Los Angeles. Last year we did about 25 samples of fish in the river — there's a lot more fish than most people would have imagined, carp a foot and a half long, all through the Glendale narrows. How they got there, nobody knows, but they're there in large numbers. We tested them for PCBs and mercury, and much to our surprise, the fish came back almost clean. Why, we don't know.
The Anglo anglers tend to be the catch-and-release guys. Other people are catching and eating. I've seen guys with big sticks knocking carp out and tossing 'em in their coolers. Definitely old school. You see families fishing a lot. There's this image in my mind: a dad and his daughter beside the bank with a bamboo rod.
What do volunteers find when they clean up the river every year?
Most of the charismatic mega-fauna — the phone booths and hot tubs — is gone. Most of what is in the river now is plastic, and the single largest contributor is Frito-Lay products, all the bright shiny wrappers. It's not as glamorous as picking up a Santeria sword, with blood on the handcuffs tied to it with red and green ribbons. We found a human skull once too. That was a long time ago.
Does all the water in the river come from water treatment plants?
Except during the rainy season. There's 60 millions of gallons going down the river every day. If you look at all the plans for reclaimed water, eventually there wouldn't be any water left for the river. We say, what does the river need for its own ecology to survive? One of FoLAR's jobs is speaking for the river.
Who even owns the river? In writing my book about the river, I found that decades ago, pieces of the riverbed were sold off as private lots.