L.A. River Advocate Swims Against the Current


Through a well-worn hole in a fence near Los Feliz Boulevard, Lewis MacAdams makes his way to the banks of the Los Angeles River and pads his way down the unnaturally sloped spillway toward a spot where his dream almost comes to life.

Below, for a brief span, the Los Angeles River seems like a real river instead of a concrete parody of one.

Ducks paddle among the tall blades of river grass and reeds. A grebe swoops out of the sky. A juvenile blue heron hops from boulder to boulder. Or could it be an egret? MacAdams may be a poet, a screenwriter and a self-taught student of environmental politics, but he makes no claim of knowing the classification of birds.

Talking excitedly and almost nonstop, the Silver Lake resident invokes the name of one long-gone species almost metaphorically, as part of his poetic vision of what the Los Angeles River could be.

"We call it a 40-year artwork," he said. "When the yellow-billed cuckoo is singing in the sycamores, our work will be done."

Where politicians see a new truck route and engineers a flood control channel, MacAdams sees a concrete-entombed river waiting for resurrection.

"They have to accept the fact that it is a river," insisted MacAdams, a 44-year-old writer and self-appointed river spokesman who leads a small band of river devotees called Friends of the Los Angeles River. "We've just begun hassling," he promised, vowing to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be as he crusades to get some respect for the much-abused waterway.

"I don't think we've accomplished very much yet," he conceded, "except raise the issue."

Raising it he is. Consider MacAdams' river crusading during recent weeks.

He talked to an assemblyman from Los Angeles, representatives of a couple of national environmental organizations, a Long Beach city councilman and an aide for a Los Angeles city councilman. He complained to Los Angeles County about herbicide spraying along the river channel, took a high school class for a walk along the river, gave a commentary on a radio talk show and worked on an article for a weekly Los Angeles newspaper.

A soft-spoken native of Texas, MacAdams has been preaching the resurrection gospel with particular zeal since Assemblyman Richard Katz recently raised anew a proposal to turn the concrete-lined riverbed into a freeway.

Katz (D-Panorama City) envisions a river-bottom expressway that would carry buses, vans and car-poolers between the west San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles, and would transport trucks between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor.

MacAdams, derisively referring to the "Katz Freeway," has a vastly different vision of the 51-mile-long river.

He wishes that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers would let the river channel's concrete bottom crumble along vast stretches, giving way to sand and silt that would support plants. He wants the concrete sides replaced with rocks, advocates a greenbelt from Sepulveda Basin to Long Beach, and says trees should be planted in the upper reaches of the river's watershed--in the San Gabriel Mountains--to reduce runoff and erosion.

He advocates storm-drain ordinances to clean up the street runoff that washes rafts of trash and debris into the river. He wants to see sycamore trees growing in the river bottom and steelhead trout swimming upstream.

"It's an aberration that people hate a river," MacAdams said.

A veteran of Marin County environmental skirmishes, with no scientific training, he moved to Los Angeles in 1980. A few years ago, with two friends, he walked to a spot on the river north of downtown Los Angeles, where the Arroyo Seco joins the Los Angeles River. "It was very easy to imagine it, at one time, one of the most beautiful spots along the river."

Workers were repaving the river bottom, using "all these jackhammers and paving machines" as if they were on a runway at the Los Angeles International Airport, MacAdams recalled.

"We asked the river if we could be its human spokesmen. We didn't hear a no," added MacAdams, who acknowledges that his river philosophy may sound "kind of mysterioso. "

Moved by the revelation that "here was a concrete ditch that was actually a river," MacAdams staged a performance piece about the river and started the Friends of the River organization, which has about 300 people on its mailing list, nonprofit status and a technical advisory board.

The Los Angeles River rises in the southwest San Fernando Valley, where Bell and Calabasas creeks come together. It flows eastward along the northern base of the Santa Monica Mountains, runs through the narrows at Glendale past downtown Los Angeles and through the gritty suburbs of Vernon, Bell, South Gate and Compton, finally entering San Pedro Bay in Long Beach.

It used to meander back and forth across the coastal plain, its mouth moving at the whim of a storm from Marina del Rey to the San Gabriel River. But such wanderings were annoyingly messy for the immigrants who also spread across the Southern California plains.

Shortly after World War I, the river's lower reaches were realigned and, beginning in the late 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers started paving the riverbed, embarking on a massive flood-control project that moved 20 million cubic yards of earth and used more than 3 million barrels of cement.

Now there are only a few miles of bottom that are not covered with concrete, between Willow Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, a bit in the Sepulveda Basin and a stretch north of downtown Los Angeles.

The expanses of open concrete, much of it often dry, have proved more inviting to film crews and practicing bus drivers than to fishermen.

Except in the rainy season, most of the river's water comes from hundreds of storm drains lining its banks and treated water from two sewage plants, Glendale and Tillman in the Sepulveda Basin.

Indeed, the river flow has greatly increased in recent years as the Tillman plant has taken sewage formerly pumped to the overworked Hyperion sewage plant, which discharges into Santa Monica Bay.

The two plants pump about 60 million gallons a day of treated sewage effluent into the river, making the Los Angeles River the largest source of fresh water emptying into the ocean along the Southern California coast, according to Henry A. Schafer, an environmental specialist with the Southern California Research Project, which conducts marine research.

The discharge from the two plants approaches drinking water standards, according to the state Water Quality Control Board, but there is no consistent testing of the river's overall water quality, Schafer said.

MacAdams considers the increased flow from the sewage plants a blessing that could help launch the river into a new, if not completely natural, life. "It's a typical Los Angeles situation, where you make a new reality. I'm just trying to deal with the new reality. It's never going to be like the Thames."

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