The cleanup is organized by the Friends of the Los Angeles River, whose dogged advocacy on behalf of the river over the last 30 years helped bring about its recent reclassification as a navigable waterway and the opening of the river to recreational use, which gave the river the concurrent Clean Water Act protections that the EPA extends to recreational waterways. That means that the river will get healthier every year, as long as we continue to use it recreationally.
|The Glendale Narrows, looking south from the 134 Freeway. (Photo by Mark Boster courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)|
This Saturday, April 23rd, we'll be cleaning up the Glendale Narrows, the fascinating natural-bottom section of the river that runs for 11 miles from Glendale through Atwater Village and Elysian Valley to the Arroyo Seco confluence. When the wild river was constrained into a concrete channel in 1938 to control flash flooding, the engineers left the bottom open on this section because they believed the water table was too high to support concrete.
|The wild Los Angeles River from Hyperion Bridge, circa 1937.|
As a result, this segment of the river and the natural springs bubbling up beneath it nourish willows, sycamores and cottonwoods, as well as shrubs, grasses and aquatic plants that provide food and shelter for wild creatures.
A natural spring bubbling up through the concrete riverbed.
For the past few months, I've been exploring the east bank of the Glendale Narrows nearly every weekend, and I've fallen in love with its weird beauty and the unlikely sense of stillness it engenders, despite running through the heart of a city of millions. The bright notes of running water build over the bass drone of the freeway that parallels the river, somehow orchestrating a soothing isolation that allows one to pleasure in the surreal landscape and the crazy energy it encompasses. Though almost universally derided as a polluted concrete drainage trench, the river secretly harbors a rogue wilderness that is finding its own way to thrive in the face of daunting challenges, and there is adventure and wonder aplenty waiting for those bold enough to venture into its bed.
|A latter-day cool cat makes for a possibly coincidental tribute to Leo Limón.|
Living just a mile or so from the Glendale Narrows, I've believed in the vision of a more natural Los Angeles River for a long time. In 2001, when President Bush sent everyone a $300 bribe, I immediately donated the tainted money to a Los Angeles River restoration project. I've also been intrigued by the strange underground cultures our captive rivers cultivate, from my first years in the city glimpsing Leo Limón's legendary cat faces adorning the storm drain covers facing the 5 Freeway, to later discovering the work that graffiti artists like Chaz Bojórquez and Saber had risked life and liberty to execute on the beckoning canvas offered by those endless concrete expanses.
|Canada Geese unruffled by my presence.|
Today the Glendale Narrows is nearly graffiti-free, courtesy of a concerted cleanup effort by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2009, but it is far from sterile. In the past month I have encountered Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, Canada Geese, American Coots and Black-necked Stilts, as well a wide array of ducks. As dusk falls, flocks of swallows swoop overhead, scooping up the gnats that hover over the water's surface, and Black-Crowned Night Herons soar down from the trees to begin their evening hunt.
|A Great Blue Heron decides to put a little more space between us.|
Two weeks ago, I watched hundreds of carp engaged in an epic struggle to mount the shallow ramp to the concrete-bottom section of the river and head upstream to spawn, and also witnessed a man catching a 30-pound carp with his bare hands and wrestling it to submission. Some days I've walked for miles along the riverbed without seeing another human being, and on others I've shared it with a colorful assortment of runners, bikers, dog walkers, horse riders, lovebirds, duck feeders and fishermen, not to mention the intrepid hobos who pitch their tents on the river's more hospitable islands.
Carp squirm up the ramp onto the concrete -bottom section.
The vibrant energy of the Glendale Narrows is incontrovertible proof that life will find a way, even in a concrete drainage channel largely filled with treated waste water. Though the river has lost all of its native riparian species, such as the steelhead trout and red-legged frogs that once thrived here, an abundance of hardy creatures has taken their place. Protecting and improving the river will expand their habitat, and enrich the lives of us Angelenos, as well. Our city is notoriously park-poor — less than a third of us live within walking distance of a public park — but that may soon change. In the coming years, the public land that borders the river will slowly be connected into a continuous 51-mile-long greenspace and bike trail that runs all the way from Canoga Park to Long Beach. River advocates hope that the concrete bottom of the river will one day be removed entirely so we can reintroduce the endangered trout and frogs that were once native to the river, but require a natural bottom for spawning and hibernation.
|Cheerful flotsam at the high water mark on a rainy day.|
But right now, the winter rain has carried the debris of the city down into the river channel, and plastic bags, tarps and clothing have gotten tangled in the trees; bottles, broken toys and dead balloons have become mired in the mud; and half-sunken shopping carts are making sad perches for egrets. So come down this Saturday and have an adventure with us as we remove tons of trash from our very own urban wilderness and prepare it to present its best face to this summer's lovers, kayakers, and maybe even some devil-may-care swimmers. They may have paved paradise, but they can't take away our dreams.