Maybe there is a place where I could talk over this river in the present, to talk with you, to grieve for this poor damned river and speak triumphantly of its future, to tell you what I have found, maybe connive to fix some of its problems and have it solve yours and mine, to come close to this river for solace and exercise. Or maybe we could watch a coyote living and passing through this world without claiming it as our own, seeing this river as its home and ours for a time, simply a place with undoubted and evanescent value.
The Los Angeles 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 smack-dab through the city of L.A., beside anonymous industrial buildings and railroad tracks, under overpasses and over sacred land. It issues less than a hiss on most days beside the roaring traffic. On uncertain other days it howls, wrapping around bridge pylons and carrying houses on its back, muddy water rising like a demon from a forgotten nightmare.
The L.A. River was once an ephemeral stream, growing with spring rains, but otherwise mostly a dry gulch. Swamps and lakes that existed in the early years of the 20th century dried up on the river’s coastal plain because of groundwater pumping for agricultural and residential uses. 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 the modern incarnation of the L.A. River. The floods of 1933 and 1938 were downright criminal by many counts. In 1933, 400 homes washed away and in 1938, 115 people died and 5,600 homes were destroyed. Major storms occurred in 1815, 1825, 1861, 1914, 1969 and 2005 but the floods occurring after 1960 were less damaging because of flood control projects.
Missing Persons, “Walking in L.A.
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 lives, homes, possessions and fragile hopes. Naturally they angered and blamed the confounded river rather than themselves. The Army Corps of Engineers, with growing fame for its feats of controlling nature through flood control dams, answered the calls for help in 1934 and 1938 and throughout the ’40s.
The L.A. River became just an anonymous series of concrete ditches as the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and hundreds of volunteers proceeded. By their hands, the L.A. River was tamed and we lost the namesake river.
NOW IS THE TIME FOR THE L.A. RIVER
While in L.A. in late March this year, I talked with long time architect, Bill Coburn who remembered the L.A. floods of 1938, when he was 11. He is a sharp man and I could feel his joy and love of nature. “In the ’30s we went right down by the river here behind us and there were sand dabs, frogs and birds. It was a very nice place.” Coburn beamed with the memory. “In 1938 we got eight or 10 inches of rain and the water got behind the concrete that was put into the channel after the earlier flood and it ripped and tore the concrete to pieces.” Bill’s design firm had planned much of the repair work. “It was all very vulnerable and every little street had a bridge and every bridge was swept away by the water. There were even alligators loose in Lincoln Park Lake!”
Bill laughed at the thought of alligators in downtown Los Angeles and told a story about riding his bike through a raging river to deliver newspapers. He got caught on a cable in the current by some kind of good fortune and left his bike there as he finished the paper route. He said that was the last time he tried to fight the river. “Now, after the Corps controlled the river, it is coming back and has been restored. There are kayaks and canoes and ducks and geese in the Sepulveda flood basin. There are fish in the river and again it’s lovely!”
Today the L.A. 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. One foot-thick reinforced concrete, roughly 400 feet wide spanning 40 miles is a stunning engineering feat and the 3 million barrels of concrete used in its construction is roughly the linear equivalent of Hoover Dam; the consequences, however, of allowing the growth of Los Angeles, were even greater. Today, the river only appears to citizens in occasional glances from the freeway, tucked behind fences, as if it were a prisoner, shamed, criminalized and pitied, relegated to a trickle in an expansive ditch of sterile concrete. However, the river has always been there, working out a plan to escape and it is said that there is a time for everything. Now is the time for the L.A. River.
HEY, DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE L.A. RIVER IS?
I have lived much of my life beside wild rivers and untrampled landscapes in the Western outback of Idaho. The L.A. River has terrified me vastly more than Sacramento’s American River, far more than Idaho’s “River of No Return,” the Owyhee or the Selway, more even than the Colorado. The only thing to fear in those wild places is nature. This is not so along the L.A. River which has been wounded by men of science and re-made to protect human lives from the occasional Noachian floods. Herein lies the problem: We have not remade the L.A. River well. It is straightjacketed, the subject of laughter and pity. We’ve wiped out much of the original wildlife and 95 percent of the riparian areas, according to a recent environmental assessment.
Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Report
The floods were a problem well solved by the linear thinking of engineers in our multi-tasking world.
When I was growing up in L.A. in the 1970s, I lost track of the L.A. River just like almost everyone else had; it lay so harmless, so emasculated and so mostly hidden from sight. Now, more than 40 years later, I returned to look at what the L.A. River had become and what I thought it might become. I was curious about this switchblade river that I’ve recognized since I was a child. I researched its past, walked for three days along its “banks,” traveling from Long Beach to the headwaters in the Santa Susana Mountains. I spoke with advocates for rehabilitating the L.A. River and tried to talk to the Army Corps of Engineers about the agency’s dreams and work in the basin.
I flew into L.A. in March and found a motel somewhere in the middle of the ancient river plain. Then I walked. I soon met a man in Inglewood, standing with his friend outside a quick-stop restaurant, conversing over a shopping cart. One of the men drank from a straw in a brown paper bag-covered can. We talked for a minute and as I headed back to my motel, I turned around on a whim to ask him a question: “Hey, do you know where the L.A. River is?” He had an opinion on everything else, why not on the city’s Grand River gone awry?
He thought for a slim moment. “Yeah. You get on the freeway and you go a few miles and then get off by a little park. There’s some water there. I think that’s the river.” He spoke smartly, a worried man, his territory well mapped.
“Is that where you sleep?”
“No I sleep under the freeway.”
“That must be nice,” I said. Irony slipped into my voice
“Yeah, kinda. It’s O.K. Don’t sleep much. Better than that place you’re staying.” He laughed with just a touch of bitterness in his words. “It’s less expensive, anyway.” He showed me a receipt from the Motel 6. It was $75.26 just like mine.
I laughed. “Where’d you get that?
He smiled a perfect mouth full of teeth in a face of kindness and kept his silence.
“Do you mind if I call you California?” I said, on a lark.
“No, that’s where I am.” We both laughed and parted in good spirits, neither richer nor poorer.
So that is where I would begin, in that park beside that wet place.
It turned out to be Elysian Park. Well sort of. By the time I got off the 405, the 105, the 110 and Interstate 5, it might have been anywhere. There was no river that I could see in this large and heavily used park. It held many paths, many palm trees, sycamore trees and cars running through. I parked my rented camping van in a safe place with other cars and began walking on an old road. There was beauty in this part of the park as I climbed down and up a mountainside across the road to find the river. (Where else would you look for a lost river but on the highest hill?) I stood on Angels Point, which overlooks the massive City of L.A. and Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers inside running, hitting, sliding and catching the ball in Chavez Ravine, the booming voice of the announcer revealing the score amidst a vast parking lot that, once upon a time, was only a rural village. I saw a piece of the L.A. River far, far away down below, and sweet, young hoodlums standing before me, talkin’ trash and drinkin’ Tuborg beer. The clean air shocked me and the beer refreshed. And there was the river. We talked about it and I heard wonder in their voices. They were my natural friends.
Forty years ago, L.A. was lousy with snaky, brown, ubiquitous smog; it stole my breath and held an acrid ozone-and-coal smell that made me lazy. I hated L.A. for the smog and was glad to leave this mess of a city for Sacramento. Standing on that hill, the air was as sweet and pure as the blooming jacaranda trees. Such was the consequence of passing time and the incremental, growing civic concern about human health. This place pleased me enormously and I was again surprised when an owl hooted in the eucalyptus trees amidst the thrum of traffic and police whistles.
In 1930, the famed architecture firms, Olmstead Brothers and Bartholomew Associates, proposed a visionary plan for the City of Los Angeles, with greenways connecting parks and running along the river. Half of Catalina and San Clemente Islands were special reserves. Real estate developers and the city council quickly buried it. The plan would have come at the price of managing and protecting the river, providing playgrounds in many places and preserving the valuable Southern California beaches as undeveloped parks. It was more brilliant than real estate developers could stand and they held the checkbook. Today, however, the Olmstead plan is still held up as the plan for what L.A. might have been and could be once again. The ensuing 80 years make the Olmstead Plan appear quaint — the city has grown and its possibilities have radically changed — but the plan remains an iconic blueprint for the City of Los Angeles to this day.
A GOOSE IN THE RAILYARD
The next morning I parked my car at the L.A. River Garden Park, took a hectic metro train through Watts and Compton and L.A.. to Long Beach, and began hiking the first 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the train yards, just below downtown L.A.
I began at the outlet of the river to the sea, an odd-seeming place where the WWII-era Queen Mary is permanently docked in the harbor as a symbol of something like hope. People wandered in the park beside the river’s mouth. The place where the river mixed with the ocean formed a rich estuary for many kinds of wildlife.
The long and hot bike path was easy to follow as I walked upriver through impoverished neighborhoods. There is little to tell for several miles except that I endured it and saw many small efforts at improving the river environment along the way. Mike Medberry
Man fishing the estuary where the L.A. River meets the Pacific.Several sub-watershed and recreation plans on this lower stretch of the river aim to restore the badly damaged ecosystems in L.A. Beside the river, bicycle riders are surprisingly numerous, which made me feel a growing appreciation for this place. Pelicans, cormorants, gulls, vultures, coots and mallard ducks flew along the river and kept miserable company with me in the heat of day. Occasionally, men camped on the riverbank, surviving on next to nothing, along with the ubiquitous shopping carts and souped-up bicycles that lay around. Occasionally I stopped to eat or explore under one of the more than a hundred bridges along the route.
Many miles upriver, when I thought my day’s hiking was near its end, I found myself locked out of the river corridor by vertical concrete river walls built by the Corps of Engineers. It reminded me of the Parunuweap fork of the Virgin River, a canyon in Southern Utah where vertical rock forces you to swim or climb above the creek. Mike Medberry
Dead mallard near the mouth of the L.A. River I really didn’t want to walk in the green ooze of the L.A. River because I had already slipped on the incredibly slick river-on-concrete and had slimed my knees. So I left the river and reenergized myself with a coke and some nice greasy GMO yam fries.
I called Chauncey, my cousin who lives in L.A., to tell him where I was. I was in Vernon, amidst the industrial buildings. He told me not to go walking in that dangerous area and not to go down to the river. He suggested taking a cab. Oh well, I said, it was only a little ways back to my car. I didn’t tell him that none of the maps that I carried would be helpful for navigating or that my magical phone was on the blink and soon would be out of power. I’ll be careful, I told him and re-entered the land of this unknown river.
I scoured several blocks for access to the artificial canyon and finally found a side-canyon. I passed several tents and the gathered utensils and implements of their residents, people I came to think of as being much like the indigenous Tongva and Gabrieleno. I climbed through a cut fence to the river path. I had read that the Gabrieleno and Tongva people were killed off or held as laborers by the Spanish, Mexican Missionaries and later, the Yankees. They were the native Californians when the Spanish arrived in 1769 and before that they had lived in peace in the sun, in this land of milk-and-honey, drinking from the river, eating steelhead, lamprey, acorns, deer, squirrels and other game that no longer exist in L.A. They lived close to the land and they learned to respect the rhythms of the storms in this near desert climate.
These riverside campers seemed to be living a tribal life in 2014, living on the banks of the river, hiding out under the protection of bridges, foraging on city streets and bringing salvaged food to their camps. Today these erstwhile native Americans had bicycles, skateboards and other valuable modes of transportation. (After all this is L.A.) They were living in the solitude of a canyon, surrounded by millions and millions of upside people. I tiptoed beside these camps and hoped that the inhabitants were not at home because I did not feel safe here. No one came out to greet me and I assumed that they were out for a long day seeking contributions from the public. They were making a living, but not one that I would want. I moved on quickly, feeing rich and conspicuous.
When twilight came I had an uncertain number of miles before I would get back to my car.
Bureau of Reclamation planners had designed the bridges that spanned the river above me between 1910 and the 1930s. Their design was intricate and artful and at least one of them, the Sixth Street Bridge, has been redesigned to glorify L.A. and its river. Better late than never.
Upon one wall above the river I found many intricate murals in a graffiti code that I didn’t understand. I photographed some of the illustrations. Beside the wall, brush grew profusely and, as it turned out, provided homes for the wandering people. Two of them popped up and one walked along the wall with a spray can. I hid my camera and waved to them. The camera is worth a fortune to me and it would provide a fortune to those who have nothing, so I stuffed it in my pack and walked on into the coming darkness.
A bit further upstream, I stopped and took pictures of one of the most striking bridges I had seen. When I looked back at the men they were looking my way, holding steady at a distance. They began to nonchalantly follow me. What I had done was clear enough to me. I stuffed the camera back into my pack and took off running. I looked back as one of my apparent pursuers ducked down. Looked again and another ducked. I took off again and didn’t stop running until I glided into the train-yard above, scanning a long series of coupled trains on three or four sets of rails, considering my next move. I didn’t know what was inside the open boxcars so I continued jogging quietly beside them and felt certain, almost certain, that no one had seen me. Then I heard the rumbling sound of a freight train and saw its brilliant single headlight coming toward me. I ran faster, fearing — I don’t know what. Was it the infamous “bulls” who worked for the company or the men who might be chasing me? Regardless, I didn’t plan to find out if there was trouble lurking and ran further along the train tracks.
The trains rested above the lower canyon of the concrete river and were now isolated from it by a tall fence. I realized that I was trapped between the train tracks and the river fence, and my heart, pounded like a timpani. This seemed the kind of moment where one should turn, look up to the sky, and pray. Instead I looked down the tracks for a break in the fence and ran. I eventually found a hole in the fence. Clearly someone had run this path before me and found the way out. Perhaps this was the route of escape of the Tongva, once upon a time, long, long, long ago. I looked over the wall, found the descent moderately safe despite the severely sloping canyon wall, and leapt over before the lights of the train lit my path. I felt safe again in the hardened, barren river drainage below the railyard, which I later found out was the Piggyback Yard. I felt safer when I found a goose, or she found me, viciously squawking in defense of the five eggs the size of pool balls safe in her nest on the ground.
Safety, I realized, was momentary, fleeting, a contingency dependent upon immediate circumstances. Those eggs would hardly last forever and the goose might learn a tough lesson. I continued searching, now for a way out and found another cut fence in a dark place under a bridge beside a road. And then I was out and free, walking in the city once again. Soon I found my car and fell into a weary sleep in my damned-fine-van with the curtains drawn and doors hard-locked.
THE RIVER IS AN IDEA
The L.A. River is now to be partially restored to some of its former glory with help from the most unexpected ally: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has identified 11 miles of river to restore, from Griffith Park, just south of Burbank, to Downtown L.A., according to a federal and City of L.A. plan. The reason that the Corps defined those 11 miles out of the 51-mile long river is that this portion of the river has the greatest potential for recovery. The Corps cites the following rationale for restoring this section: 1) the bottom of the river is natural rather than concrete; 2) these 11 miles are surrounded by parkland, including the 4,210 acre Griffith Park and 575 acre Elysian Park; 3) it is connected to promising tributaries, primarily Arroyo Seco, Verdugo Wash and Tujunga Wash that will be critical to increasing the biological diversity of the region, and; 4) this stretch has strong support for restoration from the City of Los Angeles, the State of California, Governor Jerry Brown and many environmental and local citizen advocacy organizations.
In fact, the City of Los Angeles supported the broadest alternative (Alt 20) among the Army Corps’ proposals for rehabilitating the L.A. River [pdf] which would cost $1.08 billion as opposed to the Corps’ tentatively selected plan (Alt 13) with a projected cost of $804 million. In mid-April of this year, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti told the L.A. Times that the city would give an additional $44 million to the Corps’ smaller alternative to support restoring the Verdugo Wash, a critical tributary to the L.A. River, and Piggyback Yard, where I had just run to and then from. Verdugo Wash is currently fully clad in concrete and would be opened-up while Piggyback Yard would be turned into a marshy riparian area within the city.
One of the main drivers of this major restoration plan is the the long-time work of a cranky but decisive poet named Lewis MacAdams, who in 1986 formed FoLAR, the Friends of the Los Angeles River. FoLAR grew like wildfire, as MacAdams wasn’t alone in his longing for a return to a riverine Los Angeles; many other organizations have grown up alongside FoLAR, some with divergent agendas. FoLAR’s current goal is to provide a swimmable, fishable and boatable river. The 5,000-member organization advocates for people using the river and for the birds, fish and mammals and other life that depend on the river for sustenance.
MacAdams and I talked a few times while I was in L.A. and I interviewed him by phone after my walking trip in the L.A. River basin. “The L.A. River is raw, not refined in any sense,” he said. It’s raw and bruised and black-and-blue, yet the L.A. River retains its persona.
MacAdams once stood in the way of the bulldozers in the L.A. River channel. “Desperation is what I felt at the beginning and I was just working from the seat of my pants,” he said. “The river is an idea, an impression confronting what people have done to it. It’s like a rape victim.”
The Corps, which created the modern-day L.A. River, may have viewed its baby a little differently over the years. Things change however, and in the environmental review, which the agency prepared, the terms “biodiversity,” “connectivity” and “habitat corridors” are used lovingly and have come to have real meaning. I called and visited the Corps office and tried to talk with the spokesman for the Corps in L.A., a nice guy (despite being an agency flak) named Jay Field, who wrote that I should try back later when the final decision is made. The Corps of Engineers couldn’t tell me how its views have changed to support the restoration of the river; it’s not exactly in their mandate to be open.
A COUGAR RUNS THROUGH IT
My feet held 50-cent sized blisters from the first day of walking up the river from Long Beach to the Los Angeles River Center where my van was parked. Mostly I had walked on the asphalt bike trail in oppressive sunshine. The second day was decidedly different as I walked upstream from the confluence of Arroyo Seco, beside the Golden State Freeway, and across the river from Elysian Park. I began by crossing the river on the Figueroa/Riverside Bridge, which was in the midst reconstruction. It was a Sunday and there were no workers on the bridge, so I trespassed and made my way across the bridge without any traffic on it. Then I walked along the L.A. River Greenbelt, which was very pretty with all of the trees. But it still was an awfully damned long walk. If you go there, I suggest taking a bicycle.
For the first time, much of the river actually looked like a river. The flow moved between vegetated islands and along the river’s banks — it wasn’t the classic sinuous path of a free flowing, meandering river that I know in Idaho, but it was a river of some kind. It moved within its hardened walls, rubbing on each side, grumbling and wanting out, it seemed, with ribbons of garbage hanging from tree branches, screaming. It was unlike the river downstream, which ran quickly and submissively down the concrete channel of the canal. Herons, egrets, a red-tailed hawk, hummingbirds and other animals were plentiful in this second stretch of river. People enjoyed the parks as they fished in the river and fooled around beside the living portion of the L.A. River. That is the phenomenal quality of a desert river — give a stretch of gravel a little water and life will arise!
The river ran clear in this segment and the flow seemed adequate to sustain life. Smells were pleasant (well, most of them), and the vegetation lush. I noticed that the temperature of the water in this more natural stream was far cooler than the water running in the concrete channel below. There were plenty of dead trees in the flood path to assure that there would be holding water for wildlife and that the river would dilly-dally rather than race to the ocean. There were more butterflies and birds, turtles and squirrels in this section, a gentleness to the parks beside the river.
The river retains its natural bottom here, including rocks, gravel and sediment, which are the most honest and fundamental possessions of a living river. People recreated and the breeze cooled as the water laughed by.
One man and I pulled up an big, awkward gate that had come down the river in a flood. He grinned at this catch, his wife shook her head and I high-fived him and walked on. I thought, “one fewer gate to keep people out.” This stretch includes the 11 miles of the natural river bottom that 75 years ago, the Corps claimed had too shallow a water table to risk holding concrete.
That calculation led directly to this almost familiar river experience along the Glendale Narrows, the very section of river slated for restoration, complete with side drainages and new “pocket parks.” Most of the homes that back the river here are open, free of bars and barbed wire. A few of them boast decks with tables and chairs looking conversationally toward the river. The place appears nicely groomed, safe and alive.
The rest of the route ran along the near-wilderness of Griffith Park, the place where a famously-photographed cougar lives, endangered by the park’s smallness and roads surrounding it. The cougar’s mere presence is testimony to the power of reclaiming lost land. There is no better example of growing wildness in North America than the presence of a cougar here, in the middle of L.A. They are wily, untamed, usually compassionate to man, though occasionally deadly. This one is in trouble, however, having been exposed on film to the world by National Geographic Magazine. Griffith Park looked like an undevelopable place, which could work on the cougar’s behalf, but it was surrounded by a punishing city. Could the people of L.A. endure this cougar in their midst? Would they even endure this worthless river?
I walked on the east side of the river now, having crossed to maintain a navigable route. I left the corridor just shy of Toluca Lake, where the horse path leads through the elegant L.A. equestrian center near the Warner Brothers’ studio and Forest Lawn Cemetery. The vertical walls of the river soon made the route uninteresting and difficult to negotiate as property lines ran right to the edge of the river wall. There I left the river for a time, grateful for the excuse, but painfully aware that the movie studio and the golf course were on private property, property held by a class of people who often choose to ignore the river. What have they done to return a portion of their immense profits to restore the river? Not a lot so far. Some have used it as the steely background for noir films or as a drag strip for racing cars. Most have never seen the ditch as a river. But can you blame them?
TO THE HEADWATERS
I drove to the Sepulveda Basin on Monday morning to begin my third and last day of hiking up the L.A. River. The Sepulveda Dam was built in 1941 to catch floodwaters that would otherwise inundate parts of L.A. during flash floods. Sepulveda Basin is a 2,000 acre piece of open land that stands behind this dam and can be opened to release flood waters when deemed safe. It is a refuge for wildlife and recreationists as well as the mechanism for flood control, and the L.A. River runs through it. It is an anomaly in Los Angeles, a truly multiple-use landscape, managed by the Corps and the City of Los Angeles for the use and protection of the city’s residents and wildlife. Birds were everywhere and I thought of Bill Coburn as I walked here. He was right to be so positive about this flood catching basin that his firm had designed.
Then I came to the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, a facility that takes about 70 percent of the sewage from homes and businesses in the San Fernando Valley, runs it through the notoriously pure, but uncertain tertiary water treatment process and releases 60 million gallons of it into the L.A. River each day. Voila, the L.A. River is reborn!
I asked a couple of environmentalists in L.A. whether my water purifier would make the water drinkable. They said no because there are a variety of chemicals and elements (like copper, arsenic, maybe radioactive compounds, mercury, pesticides, trichloroethylene, etc.) that would get though my filter. FoLAR has done substantial water testing of the river’s water and the EIS reports the findings of the Corps’ testing. Hence, notoriously pure BUT… The upshot was that I never drank the water.
No longer is it a natural ephemeral stream. The river flows all day and night, every day of the year, every year of the century, from here to the ocean. The L.A. River is now a perennial river, which is to say that the L.A. River, along with a continual flow of residential wastewater, is mostly an artificial river, with the exception of seasonal floods. This river is wholly a handmade, hand-watered concoction, with many impurities in its blood. It contains significant quantities of copper, cyanide, bacteria, lead, selenium, nutrients, arsenic, oil, chromium, trash and unspecified radioactive elements. Remediation of the river is expected to extend for 50 years at some areas and there are a few existing superfund sites, thanks to the long-held claims of big business to the watershed.
As MacAdams said: “It was originally a seasonal river and now it’s a year-round river. Like most post-modern rivers, the L.A. River is a sculpture.” He explained that having water in the river helps the richness of the ecosystem and acts to change the extreme loss of riparian areas that California has experienced over the past hundred years. “It’s alive with all of the creatures in it,” he said, “and with all of the human population increases, we should be thinking about what to do if the City reduces the amount of water in the river. What kind of river do we want? In the end,” he added, “I hope it’s a gathering place for people.”
Here is the tough question: should the L.A. River be what it once was — mostly dry with occasional massive floods? Or should it be more useful to the people of Los Angeles: a seemingly real river in concrete ditches of varying quality that supports wildlife and recreation? One answer, practically prewritten, is that the Corps is planning to transform some of the river to a thing more natural. Another answer: You will still be able to kayak the river, fish in it and enjoy the diversity of nature there. A third try: The river is exactly what you see and what you expect it to be and in the future, will be what you want it to be. Dream it into being and then make it as you dreamed it. Fourth: Go look at the river and decide for yourself what to make of it. The government cannot forever ignore the power of a large group of people motivated by a desire to change a thing.
Someday the L.A. River will be its own force again, but that time may be many thousands of years from now when the spirits of the river rise up, erode the banks with floods, and elude the waning human race. Neglect always favors the river.
By the time I got to the confluence of Calabasas and Bell Creeks I was tired of walking along the concrete drainage, cut off at every turn of the creek, so I called my cousin to beg a ride to the top of the drainage. I walked up beside Bell Creek, the add-on portion of the L.A. River that isn’t much talked about, and I kept walking down Sherman Way, trying without success, to keep the creek in sight until Chauncey found me. The drive was spectacular as we wound our way up through the thin, growing developments and open rock drainages into the headwater canyons of Bell Creek.
The Santa Susana Mountains are a knobby range of sedimentary rock formed mostly of shale and sandstone that attain an elevation of 3,700 feet. Several housing developments lie on the lower slopes of this range but near the summit is the ultimate surprise, or maybe the ultimate insult in all of Los Angeles: The Santa Susana Field Laboratory. This privately owned field station gained fame as the testing site for rocket engines that sent the first U.S. rockets into outer space, NASA’s later and wildly successful Apollo space program. It was also the site of a significant nuclear reactor failure in 1959.
Yes, the head of the much-maligned L.A. River drainage was also once the site of a partial nuclear meltdown. In 1959 the main reactor, which was one of 10 reactors at the 2,850-acre site, experienced a partial meltdown that has been compared in danger to the famed Three-Mile Island meltdown. Actually, I learned that the radiation released at the Santa Susana mishap was estimated at 15 to 260 times that from the Three-Mile Island disaster, according to an April 2006 article in California Lawyer. Fourteen out of 43 fuel rods were badly damaged in this experimental sodium cooled reactor. The reactor provided 75 megawatts of electricity to the local town of Morepark, California, which is near the base of the mountain range.
More than 150,000 people live within five miles of the Santa Susana facility and half a million people live within 10 miles, according to the California Lawyer. In addition, the reactor had no containment, and much of the nuclear effluvium was sent off as gas or solid into the local landscape. Today little proof of what actually happened remains. Nonetheless, residents of the region were never told about the danger of the laboratory above them as the meltdown occurred and some individuals were undoubtedly harmed and eventually killed by it. In addition, in the 325 confirmed rocket engine tests (30,000 tests were estimated but unconfirmed) the engines were cooled with TCE (trichloroethylene). The TCE is still being cleaned up in the soil, streambeds, and potentially in the aquifers [see map]. A $42 million EPA study reported in 2012 that 10 percent of the Field Station still contained radioactive concentrations that exceeded background standards. NASA and Boeing are tasked with the cleanup that is scheduled for completion by 2017. See EPA site for more information and links to reports. Studies have found 423 out of 500 samples with concentrations of two or more radionuclides exceeded background levels. The man-made radionuclides were cesium-137 and strontium-90.
I didn’t hear about many of these withheld secrets of the L.A. River’s headwater canyon until after I returned to Idaho. I researched the Field Station and talked with Bill Bowling at FoLAR, who knows the issue well. I felt anger at what had been done in the Santa Susana Mountains and sorry for the people who suffered from radiation-related diseases. But the top of the drainage still shined with a curious and magnetic, platinum vibrancy, somehow brighter for its history and my own lurid memories of the L.A.
The L.A. River is never going to be what it was in the 1800s. It will never be a wild river in the legal sense. It will never be the Colorado running through the Grand Canyon, although you can taste the alkaline hints of the Colorado River running through L.A. kitchen taps. It will never be the Mississippi, that big river that gains respect not from rapidity but from sheer volume, rolling down the countryside to New Orleans. It will never be the Snake River either, carrying big runs of spawning fish and a few badass sturgeon to market. Nor the Selway. But it has survived in a place that wanted to make it go away. It remains the L.A.
If you’re standing riverside when torrential rains fall one spring day, when rattlesnakes are swept from the Gabriel Mountains down to Long Beach and your precious belongings become splinters of fond memories on the banks of this suddenly reborn ephemeral stream, when this canal is no longer the sweet, floatable, walkable stream of recent memory, recall that the river is as unpredictable and as angry as a nuclear melt-down — it insists on being remembered and always will. Remember that the containing walls that engineers hope to make higher are only thin, foolish, temporary diversions. You will recognize, perhaps you will, that this river is not going away. Appease it if you will. Pet it with compliments. Swear at it. Restore it. Walk on it. Piss in it. Respect it. Play in it. Do what you will with it. But you gotta love it for what it is, the river that created the most beautiful and wicked City of Los Angeles.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.