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A gamble on the river pays off

Kayaking down the L.A. River cost Heather Wylie her job but helped save the waterway.

July 16, 2010|Hector Tobar

Heather Wylie was a key instigator of what must be the biggest, most important boating expedition ever undertaken on the Los Angeles River.

With two dozen others in kayaks and canoes, she braved the river's shallow waters, paddling past garbage trucks at the water's edge, homeless bathers and other unexpected riparian obstacles.

"I've never had so much fun on a boating trip," Wylie told me. "It was a new kind of adventure."

That adventure cost Wylie, then a 29-year-old government biologist, her job — and $60,000 salary — with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But it helped save the L.A. River.

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled the Los Angeles River "traditional navigable waters," entitled to the protections of the Clean Water Act. It was a huge victory for the legions of activists who have worked for decades to protect the river from developers and polluters.

Without Wylie and that law-defying boat trip, it might not have happened.

As proof that the river is indeed navigable, the EPA cited in its official report the July 2008 Los Angeles River expedition organized by Wylie, George Wolfe and others.

"The federal government is saying this is a real river," said Joe Linton, a writer and activist who was also on the expedition. "I say that every day. But it's good to be backed up by officialdom. It gives the river a certain legitimacy."

The Los Angeles River has always been a real river. The city was founded on its banks and today — in spite of its concrete walls — it's still the natural object at the center of L.A.'s existence.

Unfortunately, for much of our history, we haven't treated our mother river with much respect. We've funneled most of its 51 miles into a big concrete channel and used it as a sewer.

Thankfully, L.A. also has many stubborn people willing to fight for it — from influential groups such as the Friends of the Los Angeles River to lone scientists like Heather Wylie.

Wylie arrived at the Corps of Engineers as a civilian employee in 2004. She was then a very young and idealistic environmental scientist.

Raised in Michigan, she had fallen in love with nature on visits to her grandmother Doris in Grosse Ile, south of Detroit. Doris helped rehabilitate wounded wildlife, including eagles and deer.

"I grew up in the creeks and wetlands," she told me. "I'd catch frogs and snakes. But I always had a three-day rule. After three days, I had to put them back."

At the Corps of Engineers' Ventura field office, Wylie was one of the many civilian employees charged with determining whether development projects would harm protected waterways.

Her first big clash with her bosses, she said, was over a planned 10-acre development in San Luis Obispo, part of which would have filled a vernal pool, a body of water that disappears in summer. After she recommended the developers alter their plans, her bosses took her off the project, she said.

"They would have eventually pushed me out of the corps," Wylie told me. "But I wanted to stay until I did something really good."

So when she learned the corps was preparing to adopt new regulations that would have stripped much of the L.A. River watershed of Clean Water Act protections, she leaked those plans to some of the nation's top environmental law firms.

When she figured out the importance of "navigability" to the L.A. River's future, she scoured the Internet until she found a video of George Wolfe and she tracked him down.

"Is that a real video?" she asked him. "Can you boat in the river?"

A big expedition down the river, she suggested, might help save it.

At first, Wolfe and his river-rafting friends were suspicious of Wylie. "We thought she was a spy," said Wolfe, who later founded Los Angeles River Expeditions. And since her last name sounds just like the Road Runner's famous nemesis, they nicknamed her "the Coyote."

After a while, the Coyote earned their trust.

As luck would have it, Wolfe and other activists had been talking about organizing a river regatta. But it was Wylie's call that spurred them into action, he said.

Wolfe, an experience kayaker, led a three-day journey from the headwaters of the river all the way to Long Beach. Even though it was summer and drier, this wasn't so hard to do.

Only on a couple of stretches was it necessary to carry their kayaks. On some stretches, they zipped through the narrow, two-foot-deep low-flow channel, which felt a bit like a ride at Disneyland.

Linton carried a film permit that allowed the boaters to enter the river basin — but not the water. Still, it was good enough to get them past the LAPD patrol that stopped them near Los Feliz.

Later, corps officials found two Internet images of Wylie on the river. They threatened to suspend her for 30 days, saying the expedition "undermined the corps' authority."

"I got treated as some kind of disloyal traitor," she said.

At the same time, Wylie's leaked documents reached Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and other leaders. Eventually, the EPA invoked its authority to supplant the corps as the agency that would determine whether the L.A. River was protected under the Clean Water Act.

After several months of negotiations, Wylie and the corps reached a settlement and she left the agency. Neither side admitted doing anything wrong.

The EPA's finding last week also applies to all the streams and channels that flow into the L.A. River, helping preserve a vast watershed for future generations, though much work remains to be done.

"I lost my job," said Wylie, now a stay-at-home mom with a newborn. "But I was happy to sacrifice if it was going to save the river."

Sometimes, to change things, you have be willing to get your feet wet. And sometimes you have to break the rules.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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