Walking in LA: The Restoration of a Once Dead River

The Restoration of the LA River Words and Photos by Mike Medberry

LA River lost in the cloudsNo one ever suggested that I should walk the Los Angeles River to determine if it had a grand future. A friend from Boise laughed and offered that it’s too damned late for that dried up trickle. My response? “Take a hike before you speak!” And that’s exactly what I did—I walked from the mountains to the ocean, along the path of the much derided, much degraded LA River. I took photographs of it while on the way and what I learned was astounding.

The LA River begins in the Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles County and flows into the San Fernando Valley, through Los Angeles and Pasadena, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at the port of Long Beach. It runs through the city of LA, beside anonymous industrial buildings, railroad tracks, under overpasses, and over sacred land. On certain days, it has even raged, wrapping around the pylons of bridges and carrying houses on its back like a demon gone wild. The LA River was once upon a time an ephemeral stream, coming and going with the ardent rains, but otherwise it was mostly a dry gulch. Swamps and lakes existed in the early years of the twentieth century on its plains above the ocean where houses now lay.

Ephemeral streams, however, are notoriously sneaky, they flash-flood or sleep, flowing in a torrent or a trickle, and it was just these conditions that led to incarceration of the LA River. People who had valuable buildings along this slow meandering river were surprised in the 1930s to see the water rising above their eyeballs and raging down the watercourse, ripping along with it their lives, homes, possessions, and fragile hopes. Naturally they angered and blamed the confounded river rather than themselves for building in the dry floodplain.

In 1933, 400 homes washed away and in 1938, 115 people died and 5,600 homes were destroyed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with growing fame for it feats of controlling nature and building a few flood control dams, answered the calls for help in 1934 and 1938 and throughout the 40’s. The LA River became nothing but an anonymous series of concrete ditches as the work of the Corps and hundreds of volunteers proceeded. By their hands, the LA River was tamed and the river lost.

Today the LA River is the most thoroughly urbanized and channelized large stream in the nation. This distinction is epitomized by its being jailed in an engineered-to-perfection concrete ditch for 40 miles of its 51-mile length. Today the river is displayed to the eyes of citizens in mere glances from the freeway and behind fences, as if it were a prisoner, shamed, criminalized, and pitied, relegated to a trickle in an expansive ditch of sterile concrete.

I’ve been curious about this switchblade river that I’ve seen since I was a child living in Hancock Park in LA. The river has always been there, diligently, patiently, painstakingly working out a plan to escape. It is said in Ecclesiastes that there is a time for everything. If that’s true, now is the time for the LA River. The Corps of Engineers has prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) entitled “The Los Angeles River Ecosystem Integrated Report” which weighs several alternatives and has made a tentative choice that would cost $804 million. The citizens, Mayor Garcetti, and city council in the City of LA heavily supported an alternative would cost $1.08 billion to implement. The City has ponied up an additional $44 million to do the more complete work, connecting the many pocket parks, daylighting Verdugo Wash, and forming a marsh in Piggyback Yard. This engineering outfit, the Corps of Engineers, has had a “Come-To-Jesus” revelation with the people of LA and the people, it appears, are winning. The final decision is expected by the end of this year.

I began walking in Long Beach at the mouth of the river where it mixes with the ocean and from there I walked on the concrete canal of the river for twenty miles through a dozen hidden impoverished towns, up toward Boyle Heights and through Hollywood, then another 15 miles to Burbank, and yet another 15 or so to Studio City, Canoga Park, and the headwaters in the Santa Susana Mountains. The following set of photographs tell the story of my hike, what I saw, and the people I met—the life of a river that could be on the brink of restoration. Man fishing1] A man fishing in the estuary of the confluence of the LA River and the Pacific Ocean, with a posted warning that one shouldn’t eat the fish caught here. He had several fish, which, he said, helped him live. Fortunately, he shared his sunscreen with me.   Along the lower river The lower few miles of the LA River were broad and bleak, with people riding bicycles every-which-way on the concrete trails and roads. The river crosses, like a movie-shoot, through the landscape. It’s colorblind, ignoring all economic classes, religions, and skin color on its way downstream. For many miles of the river, the bank is made of concrete to control major floods that flow down it almost annually in the spring. The river is lined with flood protection banks and levees for most of its length and these were designed in the 1930’s to protect all of the land around them from inundation. But developers built around the river, which made the few floods a growing danger and the banks were built higher and higher. Soon people forgot that there was a living river in LA.   shopping cart in channel Shopping carts are postcard photos of the LA River. You see them on the concrete of the river bed, in the brushes beside the river, in vacant lots nearby, and by the bike paths where they are useful for tribal people to move their belongings. Each shopping cart tells a story. Here one lies belly up in the bed of the river beside Laurel Canyon Blvd.   Dead Mallard For most of my hike there was not a dead thing on the river. Most of the flying, creeping, or swimming things were alive and well. This one however, lay dead upon the concrete of the river’s bottom, desiccated, bent, and pecked-at by seagulls. Life in todays LA River drainage is always a struggle. Concrete river and Mtns When I close my eyes, this stream rages beside palm trees and the San Gabriel Mountains as it floods. That was yesterday before the concrete, freeways, factories, and a few million people had moved in on it. Now it is a docile, broad sheet of water occasionally trying to climb out of its banks, but I still get the feeling that the river’s soul longs to rise and flow in sinuous, graceful curves.   friends Before I got to hiking along the LA I had to find its course (freeway maps were not so good…) so I climbed up the highest hill in Elysian Park. As I looked over the city and the river, I met a group of people drinking beer and looking like trouble. They were no trouble after all. They were kind and shared their beer with me. We talked about the river and the joys of living in LA. They flashed their love to me. I told them: “Come visit me in Idaho.”   Graffitti2 It got a little dicey here along the railroad tracks in Piggyback Yard with graffiti, fences, machinery, locomotives, and people making their way away from the human world. I did not linger to ask their reasons. My mistake was that a couple of men saw me carrying an expensive camera which might’ve been valuable to them. It was only visible when I used it to take pictures and I couldn’t resist taking a couple of shots. I ran. I ran and ran a mile and more down the tracks in the coming darkness and jumped the fence where someone had cut a survival hole. Then I was free of worry on the river where I could see that no one was coming for me or my fancy-schmancy camera.   The frog in frogtown This frog was painted on a wall at “Frog Town,” a place full of graffiti art on the otherwise bleak blanks of the LA River. Two ducks on the river The next day was full of the wonder in nature. Clearly this middle part of the river would gain value with the restoration that is proposed by the Corps of Engineers. For ten or so miles, the river was a river for real. The river bottom was natural because the water table was high, forcing the water to the surface. Ducks swam in it, many people recreated in it, flowers and trees grew near it, grasses grew verdantly, and water was clearer here in the middle reach. The LA River felt cool. My mind felt at ease. The reason that the river was running at a regular rate was the consequence of the Donald Tillman Water Reclamation Plant which turns raw sewage from the San Fernando Valley into clear, mostly clean water. The river was no longer an ephemeral river but a perennial river that supported many kinds of wildlife in the City of Los Angeles for four seasons. It could flood and not kill, as it had in the 30s, because of the high river banks and levees that did not intrude on the river most of the time.   Shopping cart 4 Upstream from the Tillman Reclamation Plant the river looks leprous, contagious, and bleak; it seems uncared for and feeble. It is fed primarily by overflow water from residential lawns and gardens. Here there is no dilution of the clean sewage from the Plant for poisonous sewage. Concrete has regained primacy over the river and it is tame, extinguished, dying. It seems to be a dream of one who wants to control and straighten out all of the world. It is the death of the creative mind, this upstream river.   Headwater of LA River I had to drive upstream 5 miles to the top of the drainage in the Santa Susana Mountains and came to the former site of the Santa Susana Field Station. I looked upstream, and took this picture. It is a Zen rock garden on a magnificent scale! There was no one there in sight. I wondered why. Unknown-2 The Santa Susana Field Station in 1990. Now it is gone but not forgotten. I inquired with the station guard if I could see where the Field Station was. He told me “no.” “Why?” “It’s private property.” “I thought it was owned by NASA. NASA is a public organization. It should be open to the public.” “It is also owned by Boeing and, in any case, you can’t go inside without an escort.” “Oh, I see,” I said, and my cousin, my driver, turned the car around. I got out of the car to take a last look at the highest drainage of the LA River. Later I made a few calls and found out that the Santa Susana Field Station was the site of a rocket test facility and held 10 nuclear reactors on the site. One of the nuclear reactors melted-down and sent radiation out to the world in 1959, the sort of meltdown that dwarfs Three-Mile Island’s 1979 disaster. None of those 10 reactors was shielded to block the radiation from escaping, so anyone nearby was irradiated. That is unthinkable in today’s world. In 1997, a UCLA report showed that lab employees at the Santa Susana Field Station had three times the rate of cancer than the general population. In 2012 the dismantled field station was tested by the EPA and found to retain radiation left by the reactors and TCE (trichloroethane, in this case it was a coolant) from the rocket engine testing. So that is why I was not allowed to go inside this 2,668 acre field station. Within 10 miles of the former reactor, half a million people are living near LA. All of them are probably safe, but I thought of all the floods that have washed the soil from the top portion of the mountains and into the Los Angeles River. I can’t imagine where that radiation is today, but I suppose it is diluted. I hope that dilution will be the solution to pollution. But apparently it isn’t yet detoxified.   Coyote crosswalk As I was looking over the gorgeous landscape, a coyote ran across the road beside the field station guard post and a water tank. Where had it come from? The coyote was only there for a blink. I wondered how it had survived in this harsh landscape, but there it was surviving and fine—at home in this astonishing landscape. It walked on casually and simply disappeared from sight.   Mike Medberry is the author of On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey to Recovery.